A couple of weeks ago I was called into the office of the boss of my line manager who told me that I needed more confidence in my delivery. And he was absolutely right, I was having a major wobble after a really difficult meeting with some project stakeholders who went into a major freak-out mode after realising how much time they’d need to put in to meet a really important project deadline. From there on, I spiralled into questioning my project management skills and abilities. After all, a big part of my day job is the ability to chunk work up so that people don’t get overwhelmed and they know in advance what is coming. So the wobble continued well into the following Monday when I had to feedback to my department on the outcomes of what felt like a rather disastrous meeting and ask them for help and ideas to manage the situation as I was feeling completely overwhelmed. I am guessing that this is what my boss saw and was very kindly trying to prevent a further tumble down the rabbit hole of self-doubt and inner criticism. He did tell me I was good at what I did, and that all I needed was more confidence. Judging by the conversations I have in the context of coaching and the responses I received to an earlier post on confidence in post-PhD transitions, that’s something I have in common with a lot of other PhD holders (and well, human beings in general).
In theory, achieving a PhD should be a point of reference that should act as a boost for anybody’s confidence. After all, it proves you were able to independently manage a research project and make an original contribution to knowledge, quite a feat overall. And yet so many people find that loss of confidence is the price they pay for the two letters in front of their surname and the process of getting a PhD and coping with post-PhD life is fraught with inner doubt or as a fellow coach, Jen Polk, likes to call them, “inner gremlins”. Part of that is probably the process of academic research where you learn to critique, question and to pull apart everything and anything and so it’s really difficult to stop that process of questioning from seeping into your personal life. Am I doing enough? Am I working enough? Is my research and writing good enough? And those questions carry well into the job-hunting process, whether academic or non-academic one, especially if it is the latter and the inner gremlins helpfully suggest that anything than a permanent lectureship is a failure.
I don’t think there’s an easy answer to silencing the inner critic, and as can be seen from the opening paragraph, this is very much part of my own personal struggle at the moment. When I doubt, I like to turn to my real passion, which is running and draw on the moments of completeness that seem to arrive on the course every now and then. I recently completed a major challenge which involved four marathons in four days as part of the Quadrathlon running festival in Ireland. Some of the advice to boost confidence says to remind yourself whilst in the midst of a difficult situation that you’ve done this before, such as for instance a difficult meeting so you should be able to do it again. I’ve always struggled with that advice as quite often the things I do, either in professional or personal context, are very much new challenges. Work-wise, I am relatively new to working in IT and I’m learning the ropes as I go along, managing my first multi million pound software project. Running-wise, prior to the Quadrathlon, I’ve done a number of marathons and even double marathons but I’ve never done four in a row, so I couldn’t really say to myself – been there, done that, will do that again. This is not how project management or ultrarunning works, or, for that matter, academia. So in some ways I felt very vulnerable and completely unprepared and getting injured halfway through the first day didn’t help matters, either. Regardless, I carried on, even if at some point my motivation was as shallow as wanting to collect all the four medals that would make it into a really nice centre-piece. It wasn’t exactly confidence that helped me finish, that’s still work in progress. But I was stubborn enough to keep putting one foot in front of the other and that translated into miles and added up to four marathons over four days, a personal challenge that was meaningful enough for me to carry on despite pain and blisters.
Oh, and by the way, that massive wobble I had about stakeholders not being able to finish that massive piece of work and hating me for being a rubbish project manager? Two marathon-like sessions of group work later, supported by a bribe in the form of coffee and biscuits, the project is back on track and they still want to talk to me, so I must have done something right.