The confidence roller coaster

On confidence and the dangers of comparing ourselves to others. Exploring why being open about our failures won’t only help ourselves, but everyone.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the voices in our head that tell us that we’re not good enough. How at some points in our lives, or in some situations, we are brimming with confidence and at others we’re cowering in a corner. It happens to all of us and it’s like being on a roller coaster. The feeling is compounded when we compare ourselves to others.

Beyond the highlights reel

Comparing ourselves to others can deal a huge blow to our confidence. Why? Because we don’t actually know what’s going on behind the scenes. We put people on pedestals as a result of their best work or attributes because usually that’s all we see. By focusing only on their successes we make them superhuman. A trait we then judge ourselves against.

When I started working for myself I had a conversation with someone I admire. Someone I held up as a person who had life and work sorted, who I believed was invincible. During the course of the conversation they talked about their doubts about their position and ability to do the work they’d chosen. I realised they are just like the rest of us learning as we go and making mistakes along the way.

We don’t often get to see beyond the highlights reel, so if there’s one lesson we can take from this perhaps it’s to be more open about the challenges we face. Who knows if we lead by example, others may do the same.

Talking about failure

Confidence is a theme that comes up again and again in my coaching sessions. And I often have reason to point people to Johannes Haushofer’s CV of failures.

In the Nature article that introduced the concept, Melanie Stefan writes:

As scientists, we construct a narrative of success that renders our setbacks invisible both to ourselves and to others. Often, other scientists’ careers seem to be a constant, streamlined series of triumphs. Therefore, whenever we experience an individual failure, we feel alone and dejected.

There are those dangers of comparison again.

So how does a CV of failures work?

Log every unsuccessful application, refused grant proposal and rejected paper. Don’t dwell on it for hours, just keep a running, up-to-date tally. If you dare — and can afford to — make it public. It will be six times as long as your normal CV. It will probably be utterly depressing at first sight. But it will remind you of the missing truths, some of the essential parts of what it means to be a scientist — and it might inspire a colleague to shake off a rejection and start again.

Although aimed at an academic audience, I think this is applicable to us all; simply replace ‘scientist’ with your chosen descriptor. And perhaps we need not limit it solely to our careers, but think about adding the failures from other aspects of our lives too.

What would your CV of failures look like? And would you be bold enough to share it with others?


Featured image by Stephen Hateley on Unsplash

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