You’d think that 13 years into my career I’d have the self belief to know that I’m a capable person and good at what I do. The truth is I have feelings of self doubt almost every single day.
From the outside, people likely see someone who’s very confident and self assured. On the inside, it takes a huge amount of effort for me to put that face on. Sometimes it feels all consuming, and my anxiety levels shoot through the roof.
I get this feeling almost every time I go on a conference call with a client or prospective customer. Every time I’m being interviewed about my company or on a panel at a conference. I even feel this way in scenarios where you’d expect the other person to be the one on the back foot - like when I’m interviewing candidates for jobs.
To display a high level of confidence in these scenarios, I need to spend a lot of time in advance preparing myself. I try to imagine all possible scenarios - what questions they might ask, how I might answer them, what if something comes up that I don’t know or understand, what if there’s a negative outcome.
Sometimes I’ll even talk out loud when I’m on my own to ensure that I have a lot to say on a particular subject without having to can responses in advance. This makes me feel weird, but it’s hugely helpful in knowing what sounds good and what doesn’t.
When I hear back a recording of myself, I’m usually surprised when I do well. I’ve been on podcasts recently where it feels like I’ve left dead air answering a question, stumbled over responses and not spoken clearly enough. But then I listen back and found I was actually reasonably eloquent.
It’s the same when I get positive feedback from others on presentations or meetings where I need to do a lot of the talking. I finish up thinking I’ve done ok, and am then surprised when people give a lot of praise and tell me it was a lot better than just ok.
The thing is, I shouldn’t be surprised. When it comes to the things I’m usually asked to talk about, I know what I’m talking about. It’s usually things I live and breathe everyday. As a founding engineer of Workvivo, I’m in the relatively unique position where I know and understand virtually every aspect of our platform - every nook and cranny, line of code, element of the architecture and infrastructure.
The funny thing is, once I start giving a presentation or talk, or a panel session or meeting starts, I almost universally find that not only does my anxiety pass, but I usually also really enjoy it. The stress I feel about these situations is always in advance - never during or afterwards.
I recently did a session of media training with Jonathan Healy and I explained a little bit of this to him. He gave me a really simple but great technique that has been hugely helpful recently.
Essentially it boiled down to 10 minutes before, spend a few minutes thinking about the 3 key things you want to make sure you say. Write them down and check them off when you say them.
I’d be lying if I said it was a silver bullet and it’s cured me of my imposter syndrome. I still stress and overanalyse a lot of these situations. But I have used this approach on a few podcast interviews recently and it’s worked very well, and allowed me to get a good days work done and only start thinking about the interview 10 minutes before it starts.
I’m writing this because I suspect a lot of people feel exactly the same way. In the past I used to doubt my capability as a software developer because I’d see others doing incredible things and feel like I should be doing the same. I’d constantly try to start some ambitious new side project to try and somehow prove my worth. When those didn’t get past the starting block, the sense of failure would only add to the anxiety.
Probably the worst part is that those who don’t suffer this can’t understand it. They see the front you work your ass off to put up and wonder what the hell you’re talking about. It’s not just a switch you can flick to start feeling confident. Even being hugely over prepared doesn’t make it magically go away.
The good news is that I have found it can get a little easier to manage. I’ve been doing a lot more presentations, meetings, talks, podcasts and interviews recently and the more I do the more confident I’m starting to feel. I take mental notes of things that sound good, and reuse them next time.
I’m not sure I’ll ever totally overcome this feeling, but I really hope that I do. I enjoy the euphoria and high you get from delivering a good presentation to a client or conference or having a good chat on a podcast or a panel session. Getting positive feedback from people is a great feeling, and I want to feel it more. I’ll keep you posted...