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  • August 1, 2013

Getting Real About Self-Confidence

When I was a rookie designer, self-doubt ruled my life.

On a typical day, harsh criticisms like: “You’re a terrible designer! So and so asks way better questions than you do. Decorative Illustration You’re using four button styles, and your subnav looks like a pack of hot dogs.” consumed my thoughts.

Many people don’t like to admit their lack of confidence because it is perceived as weak. I’m four years into my career now, and I’m still working on taming that nagging voice inside my head. Luckily, I’ve learned that confidence is a skill, just like typography and CSS. It requires practice, time, and discipline.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about gaining confidence. I’ve asked some web professionals I admire to share their advice as well, since everyone deals with self-doubt differently.

1. Train Your Inner Critic

“Upon openly expressing self-doubt, I often hear ‘you’re your own worst enemy,’ from peers. Admitting weakness is often perceived as, well, a weakness. But really, it’s a strength. I’m not sitting on top of Maslow’s pyramid feeling entirely self-actualized or anything like that. However, I do think that identifying your positives and negatives and holding them close is good for professional development. Complacency is your enemy in the web industry. We move too fast. We have to stay hungry, we have to want to get better, we have to be critical.” — Allison Wagner @alliwagner

Being confident means acting with conviction. The problem with self-doubt is that it prevents you from making any concrete decisions. However, being aware of your strengths and weakness is mandatory for self-improvement. The trick is getting those nagging thoughts out of your head and into a productive place.

What worked for me was scheduling time to give myself constructive criticism. At the end of a project, I’d make a list of what I thought I could improve for next time. Instead of writing “You suck!! You had four button styles!” I’d say “Create more consistent button styles.” Sometimes I’d include a hypothesis about what would help me solve my problems. For instance, when I realized that my design systems weren’t as cohesive as they could be, I started creating working styles documents while I worked.

Along with getting negativity out of my head, this documented exactly where I wanted to improve. The ability to see progress through time helped me gain more confidence. Even if my skills weren’t where I wanted them to be, I could still see improvement.

2. Share Your Work

“It’s my opinion that we’re all nervous designers, we just get better at hiding it. I think for me, it was a matter of finding out that if you don’t present your work, and allow yourself to be vulnerable, you can never get better. I’ve become comfortable with saying I don’t know things, and it’s opened the door for learning, and therefore made me more confident with every project that finishes.” — Tim Smith @ttimsmith

Asking for feedback earlier in your process will save you time in the long run. I used to not share my work until I felt it was “polished enough.” I’d spend a lot of time making bad ideas look pretty because I was too scared to share rough work. This resulted in lots of hours spent redoing work. Receiving feedback can be nerve-wracking if you feel like you’re being judged. The best thing I learned was not to take feedback personally. Constructive feedback is meant to push you to improve, not to cut you down.

Share your works in progress. The worst that could happen is that someone will tell you that all of your ideas are terrible and you’ll have to push yourself to come up with better ones. That’s not a bad thing.

3. Seek Scary Situations

Growing up I always thought fear — that voice inside my head telling me to be worried — was my wisdom working overtime to protect me from danger. But in recent years, I’ve come to realize that fear is my saboteur; its warnings are just a concoction to keep me from pursuing the unknowns I’m secretly attracted to. So now when I notice fear, I run towards it. There’s always something awesome waiting for me on the other side. —Whitney Hess @whitneyhess

Instead of letting fear block you from taking risks, let fear guide you towards new opportunities. I held myself back from public speaking because I felt I wasn’t ready and didn’t have anything valuable to offer. I was actually just scared of being judged on social networks. One day I told myself to get over it and started speaking. While getting on stage in front of hundreds of people is terrifying, it’s also taught me a ton about thinking on my feet, interacting with a crowd, and performing under pressure.

4. Embrace Being a Blank Slate and Give it Time

Louis C.K. has a hilarious routine about kids starting out where he says, “You’re twenty! That’s a mathematical guarantee that you have no skills and nothing to offer anybody in the world!” With the rare exception, Louis’ words apply to most folks entering the workforce. If you’re just starting out, accepting that you don’t know anything is frightening. But that’s precisely the mindset you need to embrace to hit the ground running in the real world. Accepting that you’re a blank slate clears the way for you to follow Dr. Suess’ recipe for success, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” — Nishant Kothary @rainypixels

I wish there was a magic confidence pill I could take, but unfortunately the only things that actually work for building confidence are time and experience. As time passes, I gain the confidence to present my work with conviction, and to know when it is done or when I should press on. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll live long enough to feel 100% confident in my work, but I take solace in the fact that my lack of confidence will always push me to try harder and learn new things. — Sophie Shepherd @sophshepherd

If you’re struggling with self-doubt, know that it’s natural. Getting nervous and being critical about your work is a good thing. It means you’re passionate and that you care. A little fear can even be helpful if it keeps you striving to get better. Don’t be scared of all the things you don’t know. Be excited of all there is to learn.

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