Volume 33 Number 1
Crisis of Confidence
By Krishnan Rangachari | January 2018
I’m often asked by engineers how they can overcome their “lack of confidence” in taking their next big professional leap. In this column, I’ll answer this in two parts: First, by examining confidence itself, and second, by discussing what to do if, after you take the leap, things start to fall apart.
Part I. The Reframe
Feeling lack of confidence is very common, and it can stunt professional growth. Here’s how you can overcome it.
Doubt it. Sometimes, when engineers say “lack of confidence,” what they really mean is that they feel stuck. They have believed certain thoughts, acted certain ways, and associated with certain people for so long that their identity has become the sum of their opinions, actions, and friendships.
To break out of the pattern, think opposite thoughts, act in opposite ways and associate with people you wouldn’t normally associate with. The unfamiliarity can jolt the system so much that you temporarily shed your conditioning, and in that space, a new self-identity can emerge.
Catch it. The fastest way to grow confidence is to be around positive, optimistic, self-assured people. You may be running low on confidence because of coworkers, friends, TV personalities, or online acquaintances who are self-flagellating or unkind to themselves, because that’s their conditioning.
Until you build up your own emotional reserves, such interactions can drain you. Fortunately, the cure is simple: you seek out the company of those with a higher self-image. If you don’t know any, read the books and watch the videos of those who do. Carefully self-monitor your exposure to draining people; it’s not your job to fix or teach them, directly or indirectly.
Play it. You can ask yourself, “If I were supremely confident in this moment, what tiny step would I take right now?” Then, go do it! When you do this in small ways here and there, you begin to realize something: Confidence is the natural outcome of hundreds of small acts of courage.
Part II. The Post-Confidence Funk
Once you take the leap, you may make sudden, dramatic strides in your productivity and your outlook toward people. You may taste success that had seemed a struggle, but now seems easy.
Yet, not long after, you may find yourself in a funk—it’s as if the growth you experienced never even happened. In fact, your original problems may suddenly get a lot worse. Was that growth spurt a fluke? Why is it all falling apart now, just when you were finally getting your bearings?
As an example, an engineer who’s wasting all his time at work on the Internet may finally admit that he has a problem, and seek help from a friend. That’s excellent growth! Yet, he may notice that he now starts binging on the Internet like he’s never binged before. His old problem is back, bigger than ever. The engineer then connects his latest binge to the act of him seeking help. He panics, and stops seeking help! He reasons that at least his old problem wasn’t this bad before.
You may see this in your own careers. You’ve just uncovered a big insight, and taken a positive next step. But right at this crucial moment, you may feel suddenly overwhelmed, even out-of-control. So, you stop, and go back to the old ways.
Behind the Scenes
This process is more common among those who are sensitive and introverted, so it’s something software engineers often encounter. Basically, anytime you take on a new identity or set of behaviors, you set up an internal battle between who you’re trying to be—Version 2 (V2)—and who you no longer want to be—Version 1 (V1).
The process of unlearning your V1 habits creates a struggle with older parts of yourself that are used to seeing only V1. These older parts don’t yet understand what’s happening. They may even feel that they’re being attacked. These older parts have your best interests at heart, but they lack perspective. So, they try to bring back the only friend they’ve ever known—V1—by any means necessary.
They’ll bring back older desires and compulsions with greater force, with greater urgency, because those were hallmarks of V1. They don’t yet know that V2 is just a healthier upgrade to V1. They haven’t gotten to know V2 yet.
The solution is deceptively simple. No matter how many times you fall down in your quest to become V2, you just get back up, and keep trying again. Every time you do this, a little more of you—your will, your desires, your personality, different parts of you—shifts loyalties from V1 to V2.
Over a period of years, you may reach a point where a little more of you lives in V2 than in V1. And when that happens, you’re no longer running away from V1; you’re striding toward V2.
Krishnan Rangachari helps engineering managers have more impact. Visit RadicalShifts.com for his newsletter and coaching.