Humility Vulnerability

Self-Confidence: The Misplaced Key That Unlocks the Door to Many Workplace Solutions

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It’s been a while since I have written a new long-form piece. My day job has been keeping me busy; I hope you can forgive me. I’ve had this piece in my mind for a long time, and I hope you get as much out of reading it as I did thinking about it. Cheers!

When an employee acts brashly, insensitively, selfishly, or in other emotionally-unintelligent ways, there is an opportunity for the people responsible for their care to take a step back and ask: Where is this person along their journey toward true self-confidence?

Aging has brought me many gifts, and one of those is the discovery that self-confidence issues are the heart of nearly all our thorniest problems. This is particularly true in the workplace, where we are paid for our skill and knowledge, and where exposing our weaknesses seems to be in direct conflict with our employers’ expectations of us. Part of my life’s journey has involved confronting this paradox, which, as a recovering low-self-confidence sufferer, I find fulfilling.

I am always fascinated listening to people’s answers when I ask:

How would you describe a person who is self-confident?

If you are smart, you have, will have, or have had, an issue with self-confidence at some point in your life (if not your entire life). This has been a barrier to your sense of forward movement and attitude about the world around you. It has affected the number and quality of your relationships. It has stunted your emotional growth. It has caused you anxiety and, perhaps, depression. It has caused horrible arguments. It has left you feeling lonely and confused. It might have amplified addictive behaviors and underpinned many others.

Smart people share many issues, and the most ironic is an ability to see how ignorant they are about many things, which is a common cause of constantly-unsettling private distress. Those who are ignorant of their own ignorance are truly blissful. But as we effortlessly declare ourselves the apotheosis of intelligence, we cite our self-ascribed superiority as fact to our children the moment they begin to inquire about our companion creatures on this planet, setting them on a confusing inner journey of self-doubt that is embarrassing for them to confront aloud.

We’re gentle to our children during their earliest learning years, but with the arrival of kindergarten, each child sees the commencement of years of punitive, competitive schooling. If knowledge failure is shamed, why would a child want to admit mental shortcoming? The inward spiral of self-humiliation knows no bounds, and we craft façades to shield intruders from our ignorance.

As adults, if we aim to strengthen — rather than raze — the know-it-all façades we have been programmed to build, they become barriers to the success we are paid to achieve. This is a shame, yet the pattern is rampant. Unraveling this fact requires us to take the time to examine what true self-confidence really looks like.

So: How would you describe a person who is self-confident?

Take a breath and ponder for a minute before moving on.

Which of the following is true about people with true self-confidence?

  1. They consistently speak with remarkable authority about any topic imaginable.
  2. They are seemingly-impenetrable to criticism.
  3. They have a way of ensuring that they are always “put together,” exerting great effort into appearing polished in every way, from their jewelry to their body to their vehicle.
  4. They work hard to exemplify the superiority of the human race.
  5. They work hard to make sure people like them.
  6. They are consistently assertive and decisive, never showing chinks in their armor.
  7. They readily and eagerly admit when they are wrong.
  8. They try to speak sparingly and carefully.
  9. They understand their limitations and are open to criticism.
  10. They earnestly apologize for wrongdoing and make amends.
  11. They appreciate their weaknesses, and enjoy an opportunity to share and discuss them with others.
  12. They balance assertiveness and decisiveness with vulnerability and humility.
  13. They care more about doing right by others than being liked.

How did you answer?

  • If 1–6 were among your answers, you have grand opportunity ahead to experience the relief and power of true self-confidence.
  • If your answers included elements of 7–13, you are on the road already.
  • If all of your answers were from 7–13, you fully understand what true self-confidence is.
  • If you live 7–13, you are a truly self-confident individual.

Those Who Are Self-Confident…

Let’s take a close look at the hallmarks of people who are truly self-confident:

They readily and eagerly admit when they are wrong.

Truly self-confident people are not afraid to share and explore their misunderstandings. They know that a lack of knowledge and understanding is a universal experience, and they don’t fear the possibility that others will think less of them because of it, however real that possibility may be.

They try to speak sparingly and carefully.

Truly self-confident people recognize that they generally stand to learn more from listening than from speaking, and they choose their words carefully to stimulate, rather than control, conversation. When they open their mouths, they try to do so without attempting to raise their status.

They understand their limitations and are open to criticism.

Self-confident people are curious to learn more about their weaknesses. They find comfort and opportunity for companionship with humans from all backgrounds and statuses. They welcome criticism that is delivered with good intention, because they know that it is a gift that is difficult for many to give.

They earnestly apologize for wrongdoing and make amends.

Self-confident people are not afraid of admitting when they are wrong, and they are not afraid of an apology’s amplification of that admission. They also understand that an apology offered without amends might be merely self-serving. An apology without amends is a Where’s the Beef? moment.

They appreciate their weaknesses, and enjoy an opportunity to share and discuss them with others.

Self-confident people enjoy the comfort that comes from connecting with others about their shortcomings. They laugh together, and feel less alone. You’ve seen old people do this when they talk about forgetting things, sharing gaffes, and comparing age spots.

They balance assertiveness and decisiveness with vulnerability and humility.

Truly self-confident people may have strong egos in certain areas where they have developed experience, but they are also likely to demonstrate their vulnerabilities and shared humanity when confronting their weaknesses, and they do not hesitate to ask for help in these circumstances.

They care more about doing right by others than being liked.

Self-confident people will act in the best interest of others whenever possible, even if their actions might diminish their superficial likability. Interestingly, Roman Catholics consider doing otherwise a sin. In a country whose politic skews Christian, why does this seem like a lost value?

Those Who Lack Self-Confidence…

How do we know if an individual lacks self-confidence? Back to numbers 1–6:

They consistently speak with remarkable authority about any topic imaginable.

People who lack self-confidence tend to have a significantly diminished ability to demonstrate vulnerability. They like to “show off” how much they know in every situation imaginable, hoping that it compensates for the doubt that they feel inside. They believe that imparting knowledge — not lack of it — boosts their status in the eyes of others.

They are seemingly-impenetrable to criticism.

People who lack self-confidence tend to make excuses when criticized, not wanting to show the chinks in their armor.

They have a way of ensuring that they are always “put together,” exerting great effort into appearing polished in every way, from their jewelry to their body to their vehicle.

It is natural to care about looking nice and having nice things. But with the possible exception of people who are in a courting mode of life — or stars and models who are paid to look a certain way — people who exert unusual energy on perfect looks and outward signals of success in a showy sort of way are more likely ashamed of something resembling the lack of those things. Think of the person who posts a photo of the Rolex on her wrist in front of the steering wheel of her Mercedes on Instagram. Conversely, think of the old man down the street who is not afraid to pick up his mail or newspaper in his underwear. Who is demonstrating true self-confidence?

They work hard to exemplify the superiority of the human race.

What do humans gain from assuming that our self-ascribed intelligence makes us superior to other creatures on this planet? Does intelligence have intrinsic value? Does our worldview get in the way of looking more objectively at the capabilities of our non-human companions? Is it OK to feel as insignificant as an ant or a cockroach? The more we are able to embrace our microscopic significance in the universe, the more we will appreciate that our need for others is not a weakness, but an opportunity.

They work hard to make sure people like them.

When we are too focused on being liked, we miss opportunities to do the right things by others, which might have an impact on our popularity. See “They care more about doing right by others than being liked,” above, for the rest of the story.

They are consistently assertive and decisive, never showing chinks in their armor.

Many people mistake this characteristic for self-confidence. But while many self-confident people will justifiably have an ego for things that are underpinned by significant, hard-won experience, truly self-confident people leave room for uncertainty, allowing others to come in to refine even their deepest areas of expertise.

How Can We Help One Another on Our Self-Confidence Journeys?

Given all the above, you may say to me, “Drew! It sounds an awful lot like you are saying that an ability to show weakness is a sign of true self-confidence!” To that, I would say, you are correct. Our current public standards seem to indicate that we are on a helter skelter ride in regard to true self-confidence, so there isn’t a better time to amplify these conversations than the present.

My experience has taught me that there are typically a small handful of early life events at the root of all self-confidence issues. When working with a person on their self-confidence journey, it’s helpful to begin by talking about the concepts we’ve been pondering here together.

Start with the question at the top. I can assure you, the answer will be fascinating. Listen actively; allow more than a few moments for details, and consider where they fit into the spectrum outlined above.

If the answers paint the common picture of misunderstanding, gently ask: what might have happened in your life that makes each or any of these things difficult for you? Sussing out the answers to this question will take more time, because they are likely to be deeply buried or involve significant embarrassment or trauma.

If you are in a position to lead an individual through these discussions, your ability to share stories about your own journey will be invaluable. Nothing is as powerful as a personal demonstration of vulnerability in helping open the dialogue about self-confidence. With sensitivity, time, and multiple rounds of shared storytelling, we all stand a chance to appreciate — and laugh about — our shared weaknesses so that we can build genuine strength.

True or False?

People with genuineself-confidenceare consistently assertiveand decisive.

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Current Events: 2023 Willingness

ChatGPT Challenges Us to Focus on Better Things. Are We Up for It?

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Is a written piece inherently valuable?

Does the world need more writing?

Does it need more writers?

Or would it benefit from more original thought?

While I am not exactly mesmerized by ChatGPT, I do enjoy it as much as any new toy I’ve had in my hands throughout my life. There is no doubt that it can — and, likely, will — have a significant and positive role in the development of our civilization. I am aware that this is at odds with much of what is being written of late, so if you choose to proceed reading, I appreciate your willingness.

I am thankful for the public discourse that all manner of generative AI has spurred in the last five months, but as with all major shifts, it is amusing to watch people struggling to keep things in historic perspective. As with Clever Hans or many other magic tricks, it’s wise for onlookers to get a grip on the reality behind the illusion. Generative AI is merely the world’s most advanced parrot, underpinned by an ingenious application of statistics. If you haven’t read that last link (courtesy of Stephen Wolfram), you owe it to yourself, because it is simply the most lucid explanation of ChatGPT that has ever been written for people unschooled in the art.

TL;DR? Generative AI uses a corpus of previously-written material to generate new-ish content that is statistically derived from that corpus. In other words, the likes of ChatGPT are superb at repeating phrases that have already been uttered across all of written history, at lightning speed. And that is about it.

People are worried, as they always seem to be when it appears that the need for certain skills might disappear. Once you’ve taken it all in, however, you might feel relieved about the potential for large language models and generative AI to refine the menial work that we do so that we can focus on better things.

In the world of software engineering education, where I spend some of my most interesting off-hours, some are concerned about the ability for generative AI to interfere with learning the art of programming. Nonetheless, the best educators already have experience with the manual means to the same end: things like Stack Overflow, SourceForge, GitHub, and other similar repositories that amplify the adage that discourages us all from reinventing the wheel: “The best programmers are lazy programmers.” Because of this, these leading instructors are in the process of inverting their curricula with an emphasis on expository exercises that have students explain what their generated and third-party code is doing.

Education asks us to learn, and learning involves a balance of creation and understanding. Is one more essential than the other? Does one have to be able to create in order to understand? Or is one better off developing understanding to foster creation?

You may recall grade school science projects that involve electricity…wiring up a battery with a light bulb to make a quiz circuit; generating electricity from a potato; electromagnets; crystal radios; and so forth. My father and two of my older brothers were in the electronics industry. When I came home one afternoon in the late 1970s with my sixth grade project assignment, my family’s expectations took me by surprise. They felt I needed to present a project that plugged into a wall outlet, involving electronic components. They proceeded to conceive of a flashing neon tube project that involved a diode, a resistor, and a capacitor, similar to what you see in this video, but finished cleanly with professional soldering and clear heat-shrink tubing, installed on an attractive piece of 70s-era plywood paneling with labels on the back.

I was puzzled. Was my family encouraging me to cheat? They assured me that I wouldn’t be getting away with anything. They demanded that I learn the principles of the diode, the resistor, the capacitor, the physics behind the neon tube, and had me explain those back to them, countless times, in my own words, before I set foot in school with my assembled project.

I sat alongside them as parts were selected and as the project was assembled.

The day I walked into class with my paneling-mounted electronics, I watched a few presentations that employed D-cells and lantern batteries. When I was called, I nervously walked to the front of the room and plugged my little project into the outlet in the black-top lab desk. While I got a small thrill from being different from everyone else, I was still nervous, and I am sure I remember the teacher looking a little worried himself.

It went well. My fellow students were as astonished as I was about the bright, blinking light. We all learned something in the process. My classmates learned about things that weren’t in the curriculum, and I learned this: It’s one thing to make something; it’s a whole other thing to be able to explain how and why it works.

My teacher surprised me with an “A” grade, and I learned not only something about electronics…I learned a lesson in education that I still can’t forget.

At some point in the next 10 years, our workforce will see the demotion of scores of software engineers who eschew generative AI programming. If you don’t believe this, then ask yourself: would you, today, tolerate a software engineer or IT professional who refused to use a search engine to find solutions to a technical problem? Of course not; you’d fire them as soon as you could.

I’ve heard some software engineering instructors wonder how bad generative AI will make things for liberal arts educators. But the answers are strikingly similar on that side of campus.

In this blog, where we discuss matters relating to the nexus of liberal arts and technology, it’s worth referencing a simple but commonly-overlooked fact: writing itself is a technology. Predating the written word was the oral tradition, where people composed stories of easy-to-remember “epithets” to create stories like Homer’s Odyssey. The invention of writing liberated people from epithets, allowing people to string together create fanciful combinations of words that — to people’s horror! — could not be remembered without referring to the medium to which they were committed. If you are curious about the details of this consequential and antique technological transformation, I could not recommend a work more highly than Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy.

Since writing is a technology — and not at all natural – we would do well to remember that enhancements to any technology are normal, and not to be considered at odds with what is natural. Much writing that we do today is what one might call “perfunctory.” Think of the vast number of forgettable emails and text messages that we hurtle back and forth each day, whose purpose is merely to drive a larger conversation about a single concept. It’s perfectly fine to have help typing those thoughts out in a way that relieves our fingers and saves us time.

We have names for certain classes of communication. Linguists have a term for the most routine communication that we employ every day: phatic. The world of generative AI presents us with an opportunity to expand our palette. Consider the following:

  • Phatic communication (greetings and other similar pleasantries)
  • Perfunctory communication (emails; simple essays about basic concepts; text messages; common persuasive communication; and other forgettable acts of discourse)
  • High-value communication (first-person journalism; original documentary writing; poetry; creative writing; lyricism; cognitive dissonance; and other forms of inventive discourse that are designed to be memorable and durable)

Generative AI is likely to find its greatest application helping us deliver perfunctory communication with breathtaking ease and speed, in the very same way that calculators help us all with a wide variety of perfunctory mathematical tasks, allowing educators to focus on teaching skills that support high-value communication, where we ask the human mind to be entirely engaged.

Consider works such as:

Want to be the first person to put “Expert texpert” in front of “choking smokers?” Generative AI isn’t going to get you there. Inventive combinations of words like these are at complete odds with the statistical models behind generative AI. They are high-value in that they are landmark works that have inspired millions if not billions of people through their originality of construction. Imagine a world of liberal arts education that focuses on the ability to craft these sorts of works? The degree in “letters” might be transformed, for the better.

What does all of this portend for education in any discipline that is affected by generative AI? We would do best to ensure that we engage students to explain the reasoning behind their work in real time. This is not a new concept, but it’s an unfortunately rarified one, reserved for pivotal moments like the defense of a thesis. Education would be transformed, but teachers would have to work much harder. Of course, things that are hard are things worth doing.

Consider what it might be like to re-focus on the talents that have been neglected since the days of the oral tradition: speaking that inspires and creates movement.

Imagine a day when we frown upon PowerPoint presentations, and look forward to our fellow humans speaking extemporaneously and creatively, from their hearts, providing insight and inspiration at the times we need it most.

Imagine a day when our programmers are freed from writing login screens, and where they can focus on creating user experiences that not only save us time, but touch our hearts and souls with software that provides insight and inspiration.

Many are concerned about how “correct” generative AI is; they are alarmed by the potential effect of “hallucinations.” But these notions are not new; every book on every shelf of every library is written and edited by fallible human beings, a great deal of whom acted out of not only ignorance, but out of self-interest or with ill intent. Consumers of information have always had a duty to think critically before acting on that information. They still do.

Technology changes how we live. Writing’s initial gift was a reduction in our need to remember details. Writing’s second gift was its ability to be mass-produced, bringing us more-or-less perfect one-to-many communication. Writing’s third gift was its ability to show us how repetitive and perfunctory so much of our communication is. Generative AI gives us a chance to make perfunctory communication — and programming — even more perfunctory, liberating us for better things…if only we allow ourselves the opportunity.

Once more:

Is a written piece inherently valuable?

Does the world need more writing?

Does it need more writers?

Or would it benefit from more original thought?

Since writing is a technology — and not at all natural – we would do well to remember that enhancements to any technology are normal, and not to be considered at odds with what is natural.

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.