Self-confidence tricks

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question:

How do you keep up your inner reserves of self-confidence?

It seems like a certain amount of “irrational” self-confidence is necessary for success in geeky fields. STEM work usually involves a lot of failure before you figure something out. While you’re failing repeatedly, you have to keep believing you can do it and you’re smart enough to figure it out. But the repeated failures, to me, always seem like evidence that I’m not smart enough. From a scientific perspective, I demand proof: what evidence is there I can do this? And there seems like a lot of evidence that I can’t.

It seems like guys are less likely to have this problem. They don’t attribute the failures to their own lack of ability so much — they attribute the failures to the difficulty of the problem, the equipment they’re using, the information they were given. (Or maybe I’m wrong and guys also feel this way. But they don’t show it as much.)

Anyway, my questions are: Have you experienced this? What do you do about it?

While I’m actually a bit of a poster child for high self confidence (you sort of have to be in my field), I’ve been teaching tutorials at the university for 5 years so I talk to a lot of students who aren’t feeling so hot about their own abilities: the first year of an undergraduate program is especially hard for a lot of folk.

So here’s some of the things I tell my students about how to survive in an environment that takes a lot of self confidence. Other suggestions are welcome in the comments!

Remember that you’re not alone

Lots and lots of very smart people have trouble with self-confidence. In fact, there are so many people who have this problem, that they have a couple of terms regarding the phenomenon:

  • Imposter syndrome refers to the fact that many people feel like they’re not good enough to be doing what they’re doing. They feel like they’re impostors who don’t belong and eventually someone will notice and kick them out of the field.
  • Dunning-Kruger effect refers to a very strange cognitive bias: People who are vaguely incompetent will over-rate their abilities, and those who are highly competent will under-rate theirs.

So remember that your insecurity may actually be a sign of intellectual maturity: you’ve learned enough to understand what you don’t know. And remember that some of those people who say they’re awesome may not be. Especially in first year computer science, where I teach, there’s a lot of blow-hard teenaged boys, and I remind people of that regularly.

Cultivate your shield of arrogance

I joke about it a lot, but I’m not entirely kidding when I suggest that the best way to get through certain things is to have a thick shield of arrogance. I’m not the only one who says this. The perl folk tell us that The Three Virtues of a Programmer are Laziness, Impatience, and Hubris. Think of it as a tongue-in-cheek recommendation: I don’t really think you should all become arrogant jerks, but it’s really handy if you can grin, wink, and say “of course I can do that, because I’m awesome” and then follow through.

The amount of arrogance shielding you need is a bit of a personal decision. You don’t want it so thick that you can’t take constructive criticism, but you want it thick enough that pointless insults roll off you. I publish academic papers in computer security, a field known for harsh practitioners, so I need enough arrogance to look at a terrible review and say, “Does this person even know what they’re talking about?” before I think, “OMG, they hated my work.” But then I need enough humility to admit that their mistaken impression might be fixable if I explained something more clearly.

Also, note how I’m not saying you need a thick skin. That’s maybe true, but it won’t help your confidence nearly as much as the ability to say, “screw you; I’m awesome.” Shield of arrogance it is.

Find your cheerleading squad

Some days, things are going to get you down, and it’s really helpful to have someone who can cheer you up. People who believe in you and what you’re doing can help you through a lot of rough patches, including crises of self confidence in geeky fields. Constructive criticism can be great, but you also need the odd pep talk and some people who are willing to be really positive. And just like cheerleaders are often very talented athletes, you’re going to need some very talented people on your cheerleading team: people who can fairly judge your abilities and whose opinions you’ll actually believe when they say that you’re awesome. They don’t have to know everything about your geeky field, but they have to know enough about you to make some good judgments.

You may already have your cheerleaders among your existing friends, but one additional problem for geeky women is that they’re often surrounded by companions who think you’re hot and who have… other motives behind the compliments. This means cheerleading can quickly become icky. Not cool.

If this is a concern for you, consider looking for some extra cheerleading help from other communities. Women’s groups, especially, tend consider being supportive part of their charter (and often have rules against hitting on their members!) Some examples: Systers for women in technology, Linuxchix for women in linux and open source development… if you don’t know where to find such a community, ask on Geek Feminism and we’ll try to help you out, or maybe hook you up with other people who want to start such a community. Even if you don’t think you need access to such a community, you may be surprised by how much fun it is to have more people to interact with. And don’t think of it as a write-only relationship: hearing other people’s stories and getting to cheer them on is actually quite fun and rewarding.

Celebrate your accomplishments

Research has shown that women don’t promote themselves as much as they should. (If you want to learn about this, I highly recommend you read Women Don’t Ask!) This leaves us (and other shy folk) at a disadvantage because people around us may not realize and recognize how awesome we are. Even if you’re too shy to tell anyone but your cheerleading squad, give it a shot. And remember that some communities even explicitly encourage this, so you aren’t necessarily going to be out of place: Linuxchix, for example, encourages people to do “horn tootin'” posts where they celebrate neat things they’ve accomplished: a new job, a working system, a neat solution, achieving inbox zero, or even the first day your daughter sleeps through the night. Don’t feel you should only celebrate “big” milestones: if you do something that matters to you at all, allow yourself some time to brag.

You’ve got to remember to balance here: bad things happen, but if your cheerleading squad only hears from you when things are rough, it’s going to be harder for them to bring up examples later. So make sure they hear the good as well as the bad. I don’t know about you, but I find when I sit down and think about it there’s usually more good than bad.

Talking and writing about your accomplishments not only makes them more widely known, but also gives you practice expressing yourself… so not only are you advertising your awesomeness, you’re actually becoming more awesome in the process. How’s that for an extra ego-boost?

Don’t forget to be awesome

Just before I went in to do my proposal defence last week, my little sister sent me a text message that told me I had permission to be awesome. And when I asked her for advice on writing this post, she said I should give you all permission to be awesome too. It’s really hard to be down about yourself or your accomplishments when you’re too busy being awesome: that is, actually learning and doing the things that you want to do. It’s a bit circular: But if you can let go of self-confidence issues long enough to do cool stuff, then doing cool stuff will help you let go of self-confidence issues because you’ll have more examples of your awesomeness right there.

So go forth and be awesome!

34 thoughts on “Self-confidence tricks

  1. Chris

    > (Or maybe I’m wrong and guys also feel this way. But they don’t show it as much.)

    I think that many guys do — which would mean that any work we do on making brash self-confidence less of a prerequisite for these fields will help all those non-alpha-male guys too. So, it’s not that we’re optimizing against women, it’s even worse; we’re optimizing against *everyone* other than a (fairly small, in my experience) set of irrationally-confident people who are mostly men.

  2. takingitoutside

    These are great suggestions. I’ve got one to add: when you’re feeling down, recall things that you did well even in a different field. The jobs I’ve taken between bouts of schooling are different from what I study, but whenever finals got me down remembering that I had helped organize events at which foreign heads of state spoke gave me confidence in myself. Not in my abilities at x, y or z, necessarily, but confidence that, overall, even if I do fail at whatever I’m working on right now, I still rock. Once you know that you are, in Terri’s words, awesome, you’ve got the confidence to go out and fail spectacularly, if need be.

    I’m thinking specifically of language learning. The best way to learn a language is to get out there and speak it – horribly, if need be. I’ve studied four languages in depth (not including computer languages) and I need to pick up another one soon; it’s always daunting to know that you are looking at years of mediocrity before you will be even halfway decent at it. Reminding myself that I’m great at other stuff gives me the confidence to go off and screw up the new language (in public, with native speakers) until I get it right. I think that that approach should carry over to learning pretty much any new skill.

    People doing STEM stuff, too, may benefit by reminding themselves of accomplishments in other areas. After all, if you know that you can garden/do aikido/run marathons/analyze 19th century British literature with the best of them, then your repeated failures at finding a cure for cancer must be a result of the task at hand, not you, yourself.

  3. Jemimah

    Nothing builds confidence like success. Don’t set your personal standards so high that you are always pursuing unattainable goals. For maximum happiness, you need to be working on projects that you find challenging, but not too frustrating.

    You’ll never believe you’re smart enough to succeed in the face of failure and criticism unless you have proven it to yourself over and over to the point where it’s absolutely undeniable.

    If you’re not working in a field where you get to win and succeed frequently, consider changing careers, or finding a hobby where you can successfully overcome obstacles on a regular basis. The competence you gain will carry over into every aspect of your life.

  4. gwyn_bywyd

    Thank you so much for this post.

    Just recently I tentatively put my name forward for a different job within my field. I had to go back through the email before sending it and take out all the language that implied that I didn’t deserve even considering for the job. Yes, I’m young, female and disabled. I also need to believe my cheerleading squad when they are telling me I’d be awesome at it.

    This one of those posts I may well need to carry around in my diary, thank you!

    1. Terri

      Congratulations on applying for the job! The biggest crisis in self-confidence I’ve ever had was actually probably in doing applications for scholarship money when I started grad school. I couldn’t get myself to be certain that I was going to do great research, and forcing myself to sit down, write the application, and make it sound like I really did believe was… well, it was horrible. I wanted to toss the whole thing and just get a part time job instead. But I made myself submit the applications anyhow. Sometimes applying is the worst part — it’s much easier to celebrate when you’ve got it, but you need the celebration more after the application!

      Incidentally, I didn’t get that first big scholarship. But I got a smaller one that year, and that gave me enough hope to write awesome applications and get the big scholarship the next year.

      So good luck with your job hunt — I hope you get this one, and even if you don’t, you’ll be better ready for the next application. :)

      1. Oli

        This one’s somewhat inspiring. After my first round of applications, despite all I thought I had going for me, I got nothing, and wrote the scholarships off as a fat chance reserved for an elite few. Maybe it’s worth another shot.

  5. Jon Niehof

    Under “Celebrate your accomplishments” I’d add: write it down! Whenever you do something awesome–or even something not-so-awesome where you crawled through a mile of filth on the project from hell but it’s DONE! and it WORKS!–document it, all in the same place. It’s something you can look back on when you need cheerleading, and also when writing resumes/applications/self-assessments.

  6. Jake

    What did you miss? Be your own best-friend. Treat yourself as you would you treat your most cherished friend. When you become your own ally, you’ll find you’ll develop another voice to combat negative self-talk and self-doubt.

  7. Sarah

    A woman with many years more experience than I had told me to start a Praise Box, and keep every bit of praise I ever earned in it. I thought she was joking at first, but she wasn’t. I started collecting, it’s moved jobs with me, and when my cheerleaders aren’t around I go back through it. It was such simple advice and it has proved so useful.

    1. Ricky Buchanan

      Hey, I keep an email folder I have (half jokingly) marked “Fanmail” which is pretty much for the same thing, except I just collect praise-ful email in it. I thought it was just me who did it! Every so often I read through and go “Wow, I really do make a difference…” and am amazed.

      1. Nicole

        I’ve called my folder of awesomeness a couple things over the years: Achievements & Accolades. The “Good Girl” folder. Sunshiney! et al

        Not only is that folder good for self confidence, it’s helpful in advocating for raises and additional responsibilities.

        1. Oli

          A good way to get double-duty out of the folders idea is to structure your list of achievements as a set of webpages which document it (and then put it online). Just the act of building the pages is reaffirming, and it’s a great way to provide supplemental material to a resume (printed or online). Quite often I’ve heard of these sorts of pages being a key differentiator between job applicants.

  8. Bruce Byfield

    I’m not sure that maintaining self-confidence is such a good idea. That’s quite different from maintaining a facade of confidence, of course.

    The best geeks — the best in any field, in my experience — seem to be anything but confident. They worry constantly about what can go wrong. Worried about making mistakes, they think more deeply, think before they act, and act more carefully and thoroughly.

    By contrast, those who pump themselves up with affirmations and who are constantly seeking encouragement from others are far more like to be superficial, to plunge into a task rashly, and not follow through. After all, why should they behave otherwise? They know that they’re awesome, so they don’t need any results to prove that they are.

    In fact, I would go so far as to say that compensating for a lack of self-confidence is frequently a necessary (if not sufficient) condition for excellence.

    As Robert Graves wrote:

    “He is quick, thinking in clear images;
    I am slow, thinking in broken images.

    He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
    I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images,

    Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
    Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.

    Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact,
    Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.

    When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
    When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.

    He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
    I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

    He in a new confusion of his understanding;
    I in a new understanding of my confusion.”

    Oh, and BTW — Perhaps I’m not the best person to say, since although I’m a straight male, I’m an eccentric one, but I’d say that guys struggle with this problem just as much as women do. They’re just better at hiding it. In fact, socially, guys are *trained* to hide self-doubts, and have tons of practice doing so.

    1. Mary

      The kind of self-confidence we are talking about here is the kind required to say “I am a sufficiently good person to do this task” (as opposed to “I suck at this, I shouldn’t even try, I should let the smart people around me do this, if I do it I will be exposed as a fraud.”) I’m not convinced that continually questioning whether you are a fit person to be doing anything interesting at all is a good baseline to aim for.

      It’s certainly good to question your analysis all the time: “what assumptions am I making? what could be wrong here? have I missed anything?” but “I should let smart people ask those questions, I’m not worthy” gets in the way of that questioning too.

      1. Bruce Byfield

        Yes, I am aware of the sort of confidence that is being discussed. But personally I find that confidence is something that only comes with long experience, and that affirmations are no subsitute.

        Instead, channelling doubt — trying to find a way to make me feel less uncertain by doing something — is more likely to be helpful. That way, I may still feel doubt, but at least I can gain some sense of control by knowing that I am doing what can.

        I know this is not very upbeat advice. But it’s what seems to work for me, so I suggest it in case it works for anyone else.

        1. Terri

          Someone else pointed out to me that the amount of self-confidence you show is very much a cultural thing. Some people find showing too much is inappropriate, and others if you don’t show enough then it’s very difficult to get by. Academic science, for example, tends to require a high self-confidence because if you aren’t confident in your conclusions you won’t get published, or you may be asked to overstate conclusions in final versions. Seriously! And yes, academic science is a culture.

          Anyhow, I think you constructed a straw-man here of ra ra rah pointless self-affirmation, and we’re really arguing the same point. :) I totally understand why you would make that mistake — I’ve seen that advice given too. But I don’t give it myself.

          Being self-confident does NOT mean you don’t worry about conclusions, results, ideas, etc. I worry about that stuff all the time — you can’t do science without fussing over the variables and experiments. That’s why I pointed out the Dunning-Kruger effect.

          And I wasn’t suggesting affirmations at all. As you’ll note, I suggested people find cheerleaders who could actually assess their abilities and were still willing to cheer them on. I’m suggesting people celebrate real accomplishments. The shield of arrogance isn’t about over-confidence, it’s about letting the unjustified comments roll off you rather than eat at your ability to do good stuff. I guess permission to be awesome is a bit like an affirmation, but it’s mostly a reminder that you gain confidence by doing, so the most important thing is to go out and do things.

          Note also that the question wasn’t “How do I do good STEM work?” but “How can I feel confident while I do good STEM work?” — you’re answering the first much more than the second.

          PS – I most definitely agree that this hits men as well as women (as I said, I teach first year students so I hear it from all sides), but this is geek feminism — if you want to read fully gender neutral advice, you’re barking up the wrong tree. :)

    2. Oli


      Good confidence: Believing enough in your abilities to help you at least try to accomplish something.
      Bad confidence: Believing in yourself such that it makes you blind or arrogant.

      Must apologize in advance for sidetracking like this, but it’s a sentiment that seems to never get said.. anywhere. I’m inclined to agree with Bruce on something else:
      “In fact, socially, guys are *trained* to hide self-doubts, and have tons of practice doing so.”
      Culture imposes a lot of stereotyped bias on people (men and women) from day 1. It takes some work to get past it, and it’s important to recognize how culture does this so that we can compensate for it and achieve true balance. Maybe Bruce is barking up the wrong tree, but I think it’s better than not barking at all. Maybe I’m wrong, and while I think gender neutrality would be nice, I recognize that it doesn’t account for people coming from different places with cultural bias. That accounting is necessary, but I feel there’s a flaw in how it’s addressed. Consider a statement like “tall people suffer heart attacks”. The typical response is to address the heart attacks suffered by tall people. In reality, it’s only partly true. Some do, some don’t. Maybe there’s a statistical significance to those who do, but the way in which the statement comes off to people is largely that “short people don’t”.

      To quote MLKJ:
      “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”
      Bruce may not be preaching to the choir, but at least he’s speaking up.

      1. Terri

        You’re doing the equivalent of writing to Tall Person Magazine and complaining that their article about prevention of heart attacks in tall people didn’t contain tips geared to short people.

        Given the number of times I’ve heard it pointed out that men also suffer from $thing and that why isn’t anyone talking about that… I really think there’s a market for a Sensitive Guy Blog or an Insecure Male Blog or… Let’s call it the Gentle Men Blog because that one actually sounds pleasant and potentially still in keeping with some traditional views of masculinity, and I like the Gentlemen/Gentle Men thing. Point being that these are genuine and interesting issues and I highly encourage you to write for Gentle Men Blog about $thing because I think a lot of people would be interested. You should start that!

        But this is not the Gentle Men Blog. Of course we’re not talking about how this problem affects men! That doesn’t mean we’re trying to hide it or deny its existence.

        Basically, if you want to know that everyone suffers heart attacks, you probably should read stuff that isn’t Tall Person Magazine. :)

        1. Terri

          Oh, and I should say that I HAVE heard this before. It’s actually brought up considerably in education-related contexts, so it’s come up in my attempts to learn to be a better teacher. So if you haven’t heard it, you really might just not be reading in the right places. Try reading up on learning or maybe teenagers.

  9. Ricky Buchanan

    This was a great article which I totally loved and agreed with and which rocks – I only have a +1 Shield of Arrogance so it’s not very strong but it has special strength in certain areas (mostly the ones I’m confident in)! But this quote from the original question bugs me:

    STEM work usually involves a lot of failure before you figure something out. While you’re failing repeatedly, you have to keep believing you can do it and you’re smart enough to figure it out. But the repeated failures, to me, always seem like evidence that I’m not smart enough. From a scientific perspective, I demand proof: what evidence is there I can do this? And there seems like a lot of evidence that I can’t.

    In the kind of STEM work I assume you mean, every attempt except the final one (assuming you eventually succeed) will always fail – you’ll stop trying to solve the problem once it’s solved (at least, generally). So your “evidence” is rigged against you, if you take that as evidence. I believe that a more correct – and certainly more useful – comparison is actually to other problems you’ve tried to solve in the past. With those problems, have you eventually ended up solving any/some/most of them?

    In other words, I believe that the amount of failure involved in the solution process is not relevant, the end result is relevant. So you need to compare with past end results to get a meaningful comparison.

    This is a completely different tack on the thought that the article took, but it’s one that I find helpful in my own thinking: that it isn’t really relevant that the 100 things I’ve tried to solve this problem have failed, it’s more relevant that I generally solve problems if I keep on trying hard enough. And I do.

  10. Yvonne

    Thank you so much for this articel, Terri!
    After reading this I guess I am one with the “imposter syndrom”. It’s good to know, that there are people out there who feel the same.

  11. Cessen

    This post just makes me happy. Thank you for it. :-)

    As for myself, I find I typically have to battle the other way. I have to work to not be too cocky. (And exploring feminism et al. has probably been the most effective kick in the pants for that lately.)

    But I’ve known quite a few talented guys that do have substantially lower self-confidence than their abilities warrant. So I think this is a cross-gender issue.

    I’ve met even more women that fit that description though, so yeah, I’m quite sure it does plague women even more, especially in geeky fields.

  12. Oli

    My own resolution against low self-confidence: rally.
    If things seem bad, or your plate is just too full, or you’re always distracted. Dump everything, pickup some provisions, and lock yourself in a room with your work and stick to it until something happens. Maybe the effort is misdirected, maybe it’s for nothing, but at least the effort is there.
    It’s like a lottery. If you play, you have a chance at winning, but if you don’t play, there’s no chance.

  13. abby, the hacker chick blog

    Great post! Thank you so much. I love the horn tootin’ idea, it makes me want to build a site just to let women toot their own horns, it’s so inspiring for the rest of us to hear about your accomplishments too!

    And thank you, I’ll try my best not to forget to be awesome – hah!

    I was just reading this quote today from Aristotle… if I could just s/excellence/being awesome then….

    “We are what we repeatedly do. Being awesome, therefore, is not an act but a habit” *grin*

  14. Jacinta Reid

    I see a few comments which seem to suggest that the issue of maintaining self-confidence is a problem (or not) for men and women, with little to say about the specific issue of women in IT maintaining their self confidence.

    I believe that the matter of self-confidence is a specifically feminist issue in the field of IT because women are so often overlooked, and swim in an ocean of perception: the real hard core IT work is done by males, so the only woman in an IT workplace or related space must be in an administrative role or someone’s girlfriend.

    For every time a woman gets a startled look when she tells someone that she works in IT; for every time a customer asks the female hardware tech/salesperson if they can speak to a “real” expert; for every time a man is promoted over her, gets to go to the conference instead of her, is valued above her… for each instance of subtle, nearly invisible discrimination that it would be “unreasonable” for her to react to strongly… for each one of those demeaning, dispiriting instances that male staff do not have to cope with, there has to be a counterbalance.

    Which is where the suggestions in the above article come in. Confidence is a feminist issue because pervasive, sometimes overt, sometimes near subliminal sex discrimination erodes confidence in a unique way that men cannot experience.

      1. Terri

        Jacinta: This comment is great. Would you be interested in writing a short guest post along the same lines? I think a lot of people get sidetracked by the fact that women aren’t the only ones who have such issues and forget that even if others have them, sometimes the reasons behind them and helpful solutions can be quite gender specific.

        1. Jacinta Reid

          Uh, gee. I don’t think I’m good enough, really. I couldn’t possibly. I don’t have enough confidence!

          Seriously though, I am flattered at your suggestion and will tidy up the presentation of the thoughts I’ve expressed in the above comment and submit them to you soon. Thank you for the opportunity.

  15. Lis

    Just an aside; are you accepting more Ask-a-Geek-Feminist questions? Comments have been locked on the original entry.

    1. Terri

      We will be doing another round of Ask-a-Geek-Feminist questions, but I believe the plan is to take a break before round two starts.

    2. Mary

      Terri is correct, it’s going to be an occasional feature rather than being run constantly, so that the work of anonymising them and turning them into posts doesn’t overwhelm me.

      If you are willing to suggest questions non-anonymously, you could raise them in an Open Thread but I may not promote it to the front page.

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