Overcoming uncertainty: Why we need to redefine confidence for the workplace

Main illustration: Violeta Noy

We have never been more aware of how crucial healthy self-perception is to our well-being and success, with countless books, articles and podcasts dedicated to the importance of maintaining a healthy sense of confidence in ourselves.

Our relationship with confidence affects multiple aspects of life, but many of us feel it most acutely in the workplace. Part of every job is dealing with new challenges and very often we can be uncertain of our ability to carry out those challenges. Confidence is the means by which we overcome that uncertainty.

But what, ultimately, is confidence, and how are we supposed to cultivate it in life and in work?

Defining the concept

A typical definition of confidence can be found in the Cambridge Dictionary: “The quality of being certain of your abilities or of having trust in people, plans, or the future.”

I understand where this definition is coming from, and somewhat relate to it – people are confident when they believe in themselves and trust that things will go as planned.

However, there is something about this definition that doesn’t sit well with me in practice.

“How can I be certain about my abilities in a specific area I have no experience of?”

For instance, I can be certain of my abilities in an area I have previous experience of because I have proven to myself that my skills are sufficient to carry it out. For example, I’m pretty confident working in API changes, but that’s because I’ve acquired the necessary context in the past and have done this successfully before.

But let’s say I was asked to drive the development of a feature in a completely new area for me, like Elasticsearch – how can I be certain about my abilities in a specific area I have no experience of?

And furthermore, if I have to experience prior success at something in order to have that certainty, does that really count as having “confidence in myself”, or is it just an awareness that I have previously not failed at something?

In this scenario, my confidence becomes more specific, as I might be confident in my ability to do some things but not others. And if confidence is necessary in order to succeed in new areas and fields, as a lot of the books and articles would have you believe, how can I build it when I start from a position of not knowing how to do those new things?

Finally, the phrase “have trust in people and the future” sounds quite vague. Speaking as a very realistic person, I’m conscious that “people and the future” are things that don’t feel under my control – can I really have confidence in things outside my control, or is it more accurate to call that “hope”?

Confidence in work

The fact that self-confidence plays a big part in our career success is true in any industry, of course. Every job requires rising to new challenges, but many roles involve an initial period of learning before a long period of confident mastery. In my experience, however, working as an engineer, especially in a rapidly growing startup, poses fresh challenges almost every day.

That unpredictability is invigorating, for sure, but also leads to lots of scenarios where our confidence will be tested. We might worry about coming across as incompetent to our colleagues and therefore hesitate to take on more challenging tasks, or we can be reluctant to admit that we don’t know something. Will a lack of confidence in our own abilities prevent others from taking us seriously?

“We cannot wait until we feel ready to do things – the world won’t give us so much time”

Those nerves are natural, especially in the early stages of one’s career or when undertaking a significant change in the workplace. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that everyone needs to start somewhere, and “somewhere” is exactly where we all are right now.

It’s by undertaking all the uncertain tasks that we can expand our capabilities, so avoiding them hinders our growth. We cannot wait until we feel ready to do things – the world won’t give us so much time. This does not mean that we should not be realistic about where we are at, or underestimate the importance of making the effort to grow before chasing new challenges. It rather means that we should possess the awareness of which areas we need to grow in, and not be afraid to ask for opportunities that will help us get there. By taking one step at a time, we can achieve steady and calculated growth and therefore build up the confidence that will set us up for success.

Confidence leads to amazing things

A healthy dose of self-esteem is indispensable for success in the workplace. As the American football player Joe Namath said, “When you have confidence, you can have a lot of fun. And when you have fun, you can do amazing things.”

Inspired by this, I’ve been toying with the idea of finding a new definition for confidence. I observed and analyzed people who exhibit a real sense of confidence – I have been lucky enough throughout my career to work with passionate and smart people whose ways of working I admired a lot.

“People who appeared really confident were not concerned about the prospect of failing”

I noticed how they would fearlessly jump into a new project, excited rather than daunted by all the unknowns they were about to encounter. They approached challenges as opportunities, not as obstacles in their way.

Eventually, I had a powerful realization: those people who appeared really confident were not concerned about the prospect of failing. They didn’t seem to worry about their ability to do something; for them, not succeeding the first time was an opportunity to learn and do better, a great life experience in its own right.

Crucially, I noticed that in their own minds, the outcome of any challenge was not used to add or remove points to their sense of personal value, but rather added to their bucket of life stories – both in work and in life, it was their experiences that made them interesting human beings with a high self-worth, not merely their successes.

This echoed some of my readings. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in The Confidence Code write that: “Having confidence is taking action. We all want to do or try certain things but fear they are just beyond our reach and yet we worry about failing. Those nerves are normal – everyone has them. The difference between a confident person and an unconfident person is simply that the confident person acts on their ambitions and desires and who doesn’t let that fear of failure stop them.”

A personal definition

I like definitions; I think they are essential in shaping our perspective about the world around us. Our brain uses them subconsciously to optimize when processing all the external stimuli.

And so that is why I have my own, personal definition of “confidence”, which goes like this: “The ability to try without worrying about failure, knowing that your abilities are extensible and irrelevant to your personal value.”

Ultimately, being confident requires realizing that success or failure is just a temporary state, while the mentality of taking things in my own hands and “going for it” stays for a lifetime.

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