'School is one of the best times of your life – enjoy it.' I often heard this growing up from many adults, yet I didn’t really find it to be true. As a slightly awkward nerd who regularly got great test results, I got a dopamine hit from having my name announced for some academic achievement. Being super shy and having very little self-confidence, my test results were a way of confirming my worth. This ended-up impacting my confidence at work too.
I grew up in a household where 'going to uni' equated to success (neither of my parents went). Over the years, I’ve reflected on how school and this traditional definition of success shaped my concept of self-worth, my beliefs about learning, and my values.
There have been some real positives. I believe hard work pays off. I expect things to require effort and focus, but I know that even when things are hard, I can adapt, evolve, and probably figure them out.
On the flip side, the more I excelled academically, the more it impacted how I viewed myself. Eventually, I felt like a failure if I wasn’t the best. I couldn’t just be 'average' at something, and I started to think that unless I was truly insightful, I wasn’t 'good enough' to be in a room.
I believed I had to perform perfectly to have worth. This turned into 'career perfectionism.' Over time, I realized how miserable it was to just tick boxes and get promotions to confirm 'I was good enough.' I wanted more enjoyment from life and to recognize my value beyond just sounding 'successful.'
Early in my career, this need for career perfectionism held me back. I self-censored in meetings, was reluctant to receive feedback, and wouldn’t state what I wanted. It took a good five or six years for me to recognize how I was getting in my own way, and I took steps to change that. I now help coaching clients with this too.
I help people reframe the belief that 'being the best' and saying 'the smartest thing' is only one (very narrow) interpretation of success. Living with the belief that your worth only comes from marks out of 10 is draining and tiring.
Don’t get me wrong; this mentality can be valuable in the workplace, especially for entry-level jobs involving data analysis or creating PowerPoint presentations. However, as AI progresses, I wonder about its long-term value.
Over time, 'I have value if I say something clever' evolves into 'I am not good enough if I say something stupid.' This evolution of belief can really hold people back. Linking our value to never getting anything wrong leads to a point where we’re scared to problem-solve, try new things, and grow. We eventually stop trying because we fear failure. Failing becomes synonymous with being a failure, rather than an opportunity to amend our actions and try something different.
This mindset can create a narrow and defensive way of thinking, leading to a cycle of self-criticism and doubt that erodes confidence in the workplace.
If you’re worried about saying the wrong thing in a meeting, ask yourself if you’re confusing a team meeting with a school classroom, or confusing an action with your overall worth. Are you seeing yourself as the pupil rather than on par with the teacher? Sure, there are times when there is a right answer, but for most people in corporate roles, it’s more about the right approach to problem-solving than the right answer.
Being reminded of your school classroom in the workplace impacts not only the quality of discussions but also your self-worth and confidence. You’ll self-censor more, be increasingly scared to step out of your comfort zone, and over time, be increasingly scared to fail. This can impact your leadership potential as well.
Being aware of this doesn’t mean you’re suddenly able to have loads of confidence or let go of perfectionism or speak up with confidence. It requires a new plan of action. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
What is going to be most valuable for the team?
Where else do I have worth?
How confident am I that there is actually one answer to this question?
How much am I devaluing others based on their responses?
When was the last time I enjoyed trying to solve a problem creatively?
If I fail or sound stupid, what is most likely to happen in this situation?
There are times when the right answer matters, but in many situations, there isn’t one right answer. There is nuance, options, and rationales. In many instances, the value is in the process of thinking and creating.