Last year, I watched Running Girls, a Korean TV series where five K-pop stars go on a retreat to run, eat good food and share laughter and tears together. It is one of the most wholesome series I’ve watched and some scenes resonated well with me. For instance, let’s have a look at the time when Chuu talked about her confidence:
*Paraphrasing, starting from 1:30*
Chuu: I have something I wanna talk to you about. The more I perform on stage, the more my confidence keeps dropping. And the more I go on TV, the more my confidence keeps dropping.
Yooa: Why? What is bothering you?
Chuu: I don’t really know either… How should I put it… It feels like I’m not good at anything…?
Yooa: Why would think there’s nothing you’re good at? Just looking at you now, there are so many good things I see in you.
*Cutscene to Sunmi*
Sunmi: Chuu reminds me of myself when I first debuted. I created my own limits. ”I’m not good at anything”. ”Does my team really need me?”
Even though my life is very different from that of a K-pop idol, I saw similarities to my own life in Sunmi’s words. The thoughts of feeling like a liability to the team and not being good enough could definitely emerge in my mind when I was starting out in my career. As I reflected upon my own feelings of confidence, however, it struck me that I’m currently feeling quite confident in my role as a software engineer. I wondered where my confidence came from and which experiences had taken me to the place I am now. As such, I decided to dig deeper into it.
Confidence according to the literature
I started out searching for resources about what confidence is and where it comes from. One of the difficulties with trying to learn more about confidence is that an abundance of doctors and charlatans alike seem to have written a book about it. So with limited time, which book should I read? Well, based on some good reviews and a doctor’s title, I went for The Gifts of Imperfection written by Brené Brown.
While the book is well written with an optimistic message, I did not get so much value out of it, possibly because I’m not an American, a mother or a woman. I noticed that among the books I decided not to read, many of them seemed to be targeted directly towards women. While the Gifts of Imperfection did not target women specifically, I made the mistake to read it translated into Swedish (under the title Våga vara operfekt). It wasn’t so much that the translation was bad, but the fact that another of Brown’s books, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power, was given the Swedish title Kvinnor och skam (Women and Shame) and I felt a bit excluded reading those passages where that book was referred to, in part because I’m not a woman and in part because I don’t think it is shame that limits my self-confidence.
To manage this supposed shame that people feel, Brown makes various suggestions: Let go of what other people think and your own thoughts of perfectionism. Play and relax. Cultivate work that is meaningful to you, even though it might not be valued by society. Cultivate your creativity. Laugh, dance and sing, and more. As for me, I think this blog has been a tool to manage many of those issues and virtues throughout the years I’ve written it, even though it takes continuous effort not to worry too much about other people’s opinions and not limiting myself in striving for perfection. I’ve also taken my fair share of dancing lessons so I’ve got that covered too. I should possibly laugh more, but sometimes what seems the easiest is the most difficult.
Two of the biggest takeaways I got from Brown’s book was a couple of reading tips. The first one was for Marci Alboher’s book One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success, which I think is about indulging in not just one line of work but multiple. While I’ve yet to read the book, it intrigued me since I sometimes consider myself a software engineer/influencer hybrid. Surely, few people would put me in the influencer category and my career as a software engineer is certainly more successful, at least financially speaking, than my influencer side gig. Yet here I am, reaching you, the reader, by words on a screen as a result of purely intrinsic motivation for me to write them.
The second reading tip was for Carol S. Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success which delves into the differences between having a ”fixed mindset” and a ”growth mindset”. The two mindsets differentiate in terms of beliefs that intelligence and talents are something that we’re born with (fixed mindset) or something that can be developed (growth mindset). The book makes a strong case for the benefits of adapting the growth mindset, which see challenges and setbacks as opportunities for learning and eventually reaching your full potential.
My journey from fixed to growth mindset
When I was a student in what we in Sweden call ”Gymnasiet” (upper secondary school) I was taking Physics B, where the grade for the course was based on seven exams. I was thinking ”there’s no way I’m getting MVG (the highest grade) in four of the seven exams, so I can just chill and aim at getting four VGs (the middle grade) and three Gs (the lowest passable grade)”. Looking back, it seems like I had quite the fixed (or unmotivated) mindset back then, but I was able to follow through on my plan. Halfway through the course when I had achieved a 50-50 ratio of VG and G my teacher told me ”giving you a G would be a waste” and I fully agreed so eventually I got the four VGs to put me just above the threshold. So I graduated from Gymnasiet with my good but not great grades, convinced that I was good at languages, math and programming, and not so good at history, chemistry and physics.
I then enrolled at a two-year program in computer networks at Mälardalen University because it was ”short and close to home”, not the most ambitious reasons for choosing your education. Things went by smoothly and I never failed an exam because I was doing things I was good at.
After completing my studies in computer networks, I was able to land a job at Westermo as a software test engineer which in practice made me a full time python programmer, despite not having a proper education in software engineering. My colleagues (all with a MSc degree or similar) would patiently teach me computer science concepts like object-oriented programming and recursion and helped me figure out how git works. They became my heroes and role models, and during my time at Westermo I think I started to develop my growth mindset by seeing that I was able to learn these concepts that my colleagues had already mastered. I think I developed a little bit of imposter syndrome too, so I decided it was time for me to get that proper computer science education.
Going for a second take on university studies, the desire to study something ”short and close to home” had vanished and instead I fell in love with the idea of being a student at a prestigious university in Scotland. Long story short, the admission officials did not see my lax attitude during Gymnasiet as very meritorious:
So, while my grades were not good enough to get me into computer science studies in Scotland, I was confident that I was up to the task since I had done a lot of python programming back then. Thankfully, Linköping University was happy to have me and thus I began walking the path on getting my MSc in computer science and software engineering.
During my first two years at LiU, I think I still employed a fixed mindset, thinking that there were certain things I was good at and things I was bad at. I had some kind of confidence that ”no matter how bad things are, I’ll never fail an exam” and even took pride in that fact, but looking through an old chat log I described my feelings during my second year at uni as ”Har känt mig lite otillräcklig, okunnig, dålig.” (I’ve felt insufficient, unskilled and inferior). I feel a little anger and disappointment seeing that I had those thoughts and how they probably limited me from reaching my full potential. Anyway, my slump would reach its climax as I began my third year at LiU.
In my fifth semester at LiU, I had courses in statistics, physics and AI—subjects I weren’t ”innately good at”. As the semester progressed, I failed my first exam ever (in statistics), got zero points at the physics exam, and had a mental lockdown when writing a paper on the AI technique Monte Carlo tree search hybrids. As for the AI paper, I actually had to use one of my get out of jail free cards by consulting two of the greatest problem solvers I know; I called dad and explained the situation (”I have no idea what to write, so I’m going to fail this”) who told me that he knew nothing about that but that I should call my friend Mikael. I called and, like a Sherpa in the Himalayas, Mikael helped me break down the insurmountable problem into manageable tasks and somehow I ended up with a top grade in that course, quite ironic. So, sometimes you don’t necessarily need the growth mindset to get out of a sticky situation as long as you have family and friends to help you out. However, my failures in statistics and physics made me realize that I had to go back to basics and really learn those subjects not to earn a specific grade but to get a proper understanding of what it was all about. It took a good portion of the summer of 2016 to figure things out, but I was eventually able to pass the exams with satisfactory results.
The setbacks I experienced during my third year at LiU put me closer than ever to give up on my studies, and instead pursue something else that ”I was good at”. Thankfully, I decided to persist and realized that I could succeed in subjects that weren’t my forte if I only put in some additional effort. That became the starting point of my growth mindset. A little over a year after having failed my first university exam, I wrote my list of Life Pro Tips which had ”Don’t give up until you’ve failed” and ”When you fail, improve and retry” placed at #4 and #5, respectively. I think that demonstrates at least the desire to have more of a growth mindset.
Nowadays, I strongly believe that I do have a growth mindset. The way it manifests itself is often through excitement and embracement of new challenges. As new opportunities arise, I ask myself things like ”do I have what it takes to work on this new project, hold a presentation to a large audience or learn Korean?” and the answer is usually ”Let’s find out”. Things typically don’t go perfectly but there are always lessons learned and some kind of improvement, and that’s a win in my book.
Other people’s impact on your confidence
Having read a couple of books and reflected on my own feelings of self-confidence, I’m thinking that while a lot of focus is put on you as an individual, the people around you have a significant impact on your confidence as well. Being at Sectra, where ”We hire for attitude & ability, train for skill” (which I think is a sign of the organization’s growth mindset) creates a culture of building each other’s self-confidence. Exactly how that happens is hard to explain, but I think there are some key ingredients.
- Don’t penalize mistakes
Mistakes happen at all levels of work, some are not that big of a deal while some cost millions. Having an attitude of accepting that mistakes happen and, when they do, making sure to put a lot of effort into making sure they don’t reoccur, is a forgiving and inspiring way to handle setbacks.
- Be generous and honest when giving praise and constructive criticism
My colleagues are great at cheering and rooting for one another, and making sure people know when they’re doing a great job. As for myself, I sometimes have a tendency of brushing off praise as ”they just want to make me feel better” which might be more of a self-esteem issue than a confidence issue. Either way, I think constructive criticism is just as important as praise, but it is a little trickier in doing it right. Honesty is super important here, as well as having the courage to request constructive criticism to show that you are open for change. I have some room for improvement in this area, but I think I’m moving in the right direction.
- Value mentoring and knowledge sharing
During my time with Sectra, I’ve had to dive into code bases that are old and vast and where I often find myself unable to see the forest for the all the trees. Luckily, I have mentors and colleagues with a lot of experience that are always happy to share their knowledge with me. While they probably could be doing things more efficiently on their own in the short run, having them show me their ways is both a long term insurance to the system’s longevity and a very fulfilling way of working. Jessitron wrote a nice piece on hyperproductive development regarding the pros and cons of ”10x development vs team development” which I think is worth a read.
As I get more experience under my belt, I hope I will not only be able to keep my own confidence at healthy levels, but also be a contributor to good self-confidence among my team members and colleagues throughout the company.
Has your level of confidence suffered or improved throughout your career? What events made it stifle or cherish? If you have thoughts on this, I’m eager to hear about them.