I recently moderated round-table discussions at RGD’s DesignReThinkers 2021 Conference. I was given a choice of a few different topics, but the one that my heart and soul gravitated towards was called ‘Gaining confidence when you don’t *feel* confident’. While other roundtable groups hosted four, five or six participants, we maxed out at 9 and 12, respectfully.
Clearly, this topic resonated.
I was amazed at the levels of trust and authenticity both groups established in such a short 1-hour time frame. The discussion was lively, productive and heartfelt. Some mentioned that they’d been in the industry for many years, but still weren’t confident in their work. Some were self-taught designers who felt that their work could never match that created by their formally-educated colleagues. One was a new studio owner who felt confident with her team, but whose confidence faded in front of seasoned clients. Another felt that their modest personality clashed with societal expectations required to constantly sell themselves in the world of freelance. Others were recent graduates or recently laid off, having trouble with their confidence during interviews. One that deeply resonated with me was feeling like a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’.
All 21 participants were women.
Below you’ll find session highlights about how to gain confidence when you don’t feel confident, co-created by the 21 participants and myself. The most encouraging truth is this: these ideas are less about changing oneself and more about changing one’s perspective.
You’re allowed to not have all the answers
One of the most impactful lessons learned from sales training early in my career is that you don’t have to have all the answers. This simple, yet revolutionary, nugget of wisdom eased my fears when I entered a room with clients. I could let my customer know that I didn’t have the answer but I’d be happy to find it for them. Instead of a barrier to business, I quickly learned that this was an opportunity for an additional positive interaction and an additional chance to prove that I could provide awesome customer service.
Time and practice have afforded me more knowledge than I possessed 13 years ago when I signed my first full-time contract, but I still don’t have the answers to many questions asked of me. I consistently and confidently admit that I don’t have an answer when I don’t have one. Furthermore, as I’ve become more seasoned in my line of work, a paradigm shift has occurred; I now have more questions than answers. I am more inquisitive, curious and authentically searching for answers below surface level. And that’s where the good stuff happens; the really interesting and transformative stuff. The stuff that ultimately makes me more confident in what I do.
Radiate confident energy
‘Fake it ‘til you make it’ is a controversial idea. I’ve leaned on it a lot as a young, female lecturer but it’s often in direct contradiction to the openness and authenticity I hope to foster in my classroom. Instead, I’ll suggest ‘brave it ‘til you make it’. It’s not about exuding a false or arrogant sense of confidence, but rather entering into a space with a brave energy. It’s about being up for a challenge, engaging in the messiness of self-growth and trusting in the process to experience the outcome.
The irony of the RGD roundtable experience was that I felt a lack of confidence leading this important discussion with industry professionals, much more than I usually do in the comfort of my classroom. I had no idea what to expect and I anticipated virtual eye rolls and crossed arms. But while my mind raced, my body took a deep breath, I smiled and I turned on my camera. I chose to bring lightheartedness and approachability to the process, doing my best to create conditions conducive to sparking meaningful conversation. It could have gone very badly. It didn’t. It rarely does and often it turns out brilliantly. The energy you bring to a space is a powerful catalyst, for better or for worse.
There will always be someone better than you
There are two ways of looking at the fact that there will always be someone better than you and one’s limiting while the other’s liberating. (I choose the latter.)
It’s simply a fact that someone will always have work that is more refined/professional/interesting/creative/noteworthy/special than yours. But that doesn’t mean that your work is any less important. The beautiful thing about creative work is that it’s rarely binary; there’s often no right or wrong answer. Instead there are hundreds of different ways to approach a solution to a single problem. Our unique views, our life experiences and our specific ways of thinking help us create work that is meaningful to ourselves and to others. Furthermore, the nature of creative work means that not only is it encoded and created in many different ways, but it’s also received and decoded differently by different people. Beautiful work to one person is less-than-stellar to another. The subjectivity of creative work makes it both scary and exciting, challenging and rewarding.
What’s your superpower?
At the end of each round-table session, I invited the groups to identify and express the unique value they bring to the world; in other words, their superpower. When they strip away all of their titles and tasks, what defines them? What’s at their core?
One participant shared that she’s persistent and never backs down from a challenge. Someone shared that her sense of humor serves her well, while another shared that she’s resourceful and can find the answers she needs. I shared that I can often find the opportunities and the joy in a task, even when it’s disguised as a challenging situation.
For me, defining one’s superpower is important because it’s our common denominator. If clients become difficult or work dries up or the going gets tough, we can turn to our superpower to remind us of our unique, omnipresent value. It’s a confidence booster in the most difficult of situations.
Feeling confident is often situational and on a sliding scale and quickly affected — for better or for worse — by the people around us. It’s something that ebbs and flows when we’re feeling comfortable in our work and when we’re feeling pushed outside of our comfort zone.
I don’t believe that confidence is something you can master, but rather something you can learn to cultivate; a type of magic that you can call upon deep in your being when it’s needed most. And that little seed of confidence is rooted in self-esteem.
You belong here.
Diana Varma RGD will present a talk on this topic at 2022 Creative Directions Conference taking place from Feb 14-18. The conference also features roundtable discussions on this and many more topics. More information here.
Diana is an award-winning lecturer by day and an avid podcaster by night. She teaches within the School of Graphic Communications Management (GCM), as well as the Master of Digital Media (MDM) Program at Ryerson University, where she helps students connect their technical left brains, creative right brains and entrepreneurial hearts for fulfilling careers in creative industries. Diana has 150+ published articles in Graphic Arts Magazine, as well as through the Association of Registered Graphic Designers (RGD). Lastly, she believes that more problems in this world should be solved by 'lip syncing for your life’.