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744: Mastering the Skill of Confidence with Nate Zinsser

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Nate Zinsser reveals practices that athletes and military cadets use to overcome pressure and build the confidence to perform anytime and anywhere.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why confidence is a skill–not a quality
  2. How to make affirmations work for you
  3. What to do when you feel unmotivated

About Nate

Dr. Nate Zinsser is the Director of the Performance Psychology Program at the United States Military Academy at West Point, the most comprehensive mental training program in the country, where, since 1992, he has helped prepare cadets for leadership in the U.S. Army. He also has been the sport-psychology mentor for numerous elite athletes, including two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning and the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, as well as many Olympians and NCAA champions.

He has been a consultant for the FBI Academy, U.S. Army Recruiting Command, and the Fire Department of New York. He earned his Ph.D. in sport psychology from the University of Virginia and his senior black belt rank from Shotokan Karate of America.

Resources Mentioned

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Nate Zinsser Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Nate, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Nate Zinsser
Pete, thanks for the invite. Wonderful to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to chat with you. One of my best friends went to West Point, and you’re the director of Performance Psychology, and I love performance psychology, and you’ve got a really cool background and resume with being a wrestling champion, a mountaineer, a karate black belt, working with elite athletes like Eli Manning. Could you share with us maybe one fun story that cues this up in terms of a transformation and what’s possible when we get a handle on some of this mental stuff?

Nate Zinsser
Okay. Well, here’s one fun little story about how I actually ended up at West Point.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Nate Zinsser
I had been prepared for a fairly traditional academic career in the field of sports psychology, although I was very interested in doing applied work, and I had gone to a graduate program, a PhD program at the University of Virginia that was very much emphasized on applied work, actually dealing with athletes and helping them rather than just being in an Ivy intellectual tower.

And I found out that there was a job opening at West Point, and I found out that on Thursday but I also found out that I had to get the credentials in and the application materials done by Monday. So, I had to believe in myself enough that I could assemble everything, and this was not your standard application. This was a very complicated federal employee application process, so I had to believe in myself to get all that stuff done rather quickly, get it in the mail, and then be patient while the system works through.

As the system worked through, I was not originally selected as one of the finalists for the job. And when I found out about that, I took the bull by the horns, I called up the United States Military Academy, I eventually got through to the gentleman who I would eventually be working for, and I said, “Colonel, you have got to look at my resume because I am the guy for this job.” And the rest, ladies and gentlemen, as they say, is history.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you know, I love it. It’s so bold and, in some way, I’m just putting myself in the colonel’s shoes there in terms of it’s sort of like you’re taken aback, like, “Well, this doesn’t really ever happen. I’m intrigued and curious. Okay, Nate, why? I’m all ears. You have my attention.”

Nate Zinsser
Yeah. Well, I explained to him that I was the guy for the job and I had everything that he was looking for, and he was open enough and relaxed enough about the process, not being able to go by the rules, play by the rules, but interpret them a little bit here and there, and the rest is history. I’ve been there for almost 30 years.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. You know, it’s funny, I think I did that technique way back in college when I wasn’t interviewed. I did not get an interview. I think it might’ve been for Walgreens for an internship, and I thought, “Well, I can see some of the people who did get interviews, and not to be totally arrogant, but I’m smarter than them, just like from grades or extracurricular achievements or whatever.”

And I thought, “If you’re interviewing them, you’d be interviewing me.” And so, I said that. I think I found a more diplomatic way to say that so they don’t say, “Who is this arrogant jerk?” And they said, “Oh, okay. Sure. We got a slot open here.” I was like, “Oh, cool.” And so, it worked. It worked for you, it worked for me. I guess I didn’t get it after the interview but it’s fine. Things worked out just fine in the summer.

Okay, cool. So, that’s some confidence and your book is called The Confident Mind, so it seems like you’re walking the talk here.

Nate Zinsser
I do, indeed, try to practice what I preach, and it was indeed a process of believing, having a sense of certainty about myself that I was indeed the right guy for the job, so I was not hesitant or nervous or afraid to put myself forward.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, so then tell us, what is the big idea behind your book, The Confident Mind, the thesis, if you will?

Nate Zinsser
The big idea is that confidence is a skill that you build and you apply the same way you would build and apply any other skill. You work on your backhand or your second serve if you’re a tennis player. You work on your understanding of organic chemistry and gross anatomy if you’re a medical student. You work on understanding your product and your audience if you’re in the sales business. You work on that stuff. It takes practice. Confidence is the same thing. It’s not a mysterious quality that magically descends upon you. It is a quality that you develop through the practice of specific thinking skills.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, let’s say I want that confidence, what’s my practice look like? What is my gym exercise equivalent for building the confidence muscle?

Nate Zinsser
Okay. In broad strokes, the exercise regime consists of being very careful in the management of your memories, both long term, short term, and immediate memories that accumulate over the course of a day. That’s one component. Another component is being careful about how you think about yourself, the stories you tell yourself, the way you think of yourself and your various capabilities in the present. How do you think about yourself? There are guidelines and techniques to manage that.

And then there are also guidelines to help you think about your future. What are the pictures? What are the short video clips that your imagination produces when you think about things that have not yet happened? By combining all of those effective thinking skills about your past, about your present, about your future, you can build the psychological equivalent of a bank account – a whole lot of constructive useful thoughts.

And when you have that, it contributes to a sense of certainty which allows you to step into an arena, a game, a contest, a negotiation, a presentation, and be rather automatic, rather instinctive, rather natural in your execution.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds really good. I’d like all of that. And so, that’s an interesting word you’re using, management of memories and managing the way you think about yourself and the way you think about the future. So, management implies proactive, assertive, the will, as opposed to just, “Hey, man, thoughts come up and that just happens, man. Thoughts are thoughts.” So, you say it’s a little bit different than that.

Nate Zinsser
Well, thoughts are indeed thoughts. They do come up, but you have to manage them. You have to manage the weeds that grow in your garden. You have to get rid of things that aren’t helpful and you’ve got to nurture the plants that are helpful. That’s management but you have to manage your own cognitions. And a lot of people, unfortunately, are the victim of their cognitive habits rather than the master of their cognitive habits.

And those cognitive habits either create or contribute to that sense of certainty or they erode it. And it’s a simple matter of exercising your free will to use your mind effectively. I say it’s simple. I didn’t say it was easy all the time. There’s a difference, but it is the matter of taking control, intentional control, of how you think about yourself in the past, in the present, and in the future. When you do that, the certainty builds.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is this certainty or confidence more like a universal, like I can do anything, or is it more of a specific, like, “I excel at tennis”?

Nate Zinsser
Well, it is entirely situation-specific.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, entirely.

Nate Zinsser
One of the misconceptions is that confidence is this all-encompassing quality and once you have it, it applies everywhere in your life, and if you don’t have it, it applies nowhere. That’s not really accurate. Confidence is highly situation-specific. You can be very confident about your tennis game, and you can be very worried and insecure about your knowledge in your mandatory statistics scores for your business major.

Interestingly, even within your tennis game, you can have varying degrees of confidence about forehand, backhand, volleying, serving, etc. But the good news is that you can develop confidence in any area of your life that you choose to by following the guidelines, by managing your thoughts, by creating a mental bank account that is specific to a particular skill or particular set of skills that you wish to have.

Pete Mockaitis
Particular set of skills always makes me think of Liam Neeson in “Taken” so thank you for that. Let’s develop some of those in a different context for a different purpose. So, I want to dig into some details of the management of thoughts in the past, present, and future, and how precisely that is done. But, first, if there’s any skeptics thinking, “Oh, that sounds kind of woo-woo and I don’t know,” could you give us a story of a client or a cadet or someone who really saw a pretty cool transformation from not so confident and not performing well to super confident and super performing well, and/or, for stacking the evidence, some excellent research or studies underscoring this?

Nate Zinsser
Well, to give you an idea of a case study, just this very afternoon, I was contacted by a West Point graduate who was the captain of our women’s tennis team back in the early 2000s, and she is now a very successful entrepreneur. She has served with distinction in her combat deployments before she retired from the Army. And she recounted to me how clearly her experience working with me changed her ability to believe in herself, and that belief led to greater execution.

She came in as a relatively low-level recruit to our women’s tennis team, but she graduated playing number one in her junior and senior year, and graduating as captain. And it was not a matter so much of her having to redefine herself physically and technically, although, let’s face it, she did a heck of a lot of work on that stuff too, but she was very clear that so much of her development had to do with her ability to manage her thoughts, to get through those tough matches, to handle criticism, to handle setbacks, and that is all just an internal process of being in control of your own mind.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. Well, let’s do it. So, how do I go about managing my memories, in the past side of things?

Nate Zinsser
Well, let’s first take a long look back. When you consider your experience in your profession of choice, or in your sport of choice, let’s go back and let’s take a look at the memory, the moment where you’ve discovered that, “Hey, this is pretty cool. I kind of like this, and maybe I’m pretty good at it.” What’s the feeling that that moment creates for you as you think back upon it? And then, as we move forward in our memory from that moment, let’s notate, record, write out the memories of a few other powerful moments that create a similar kind of feeling.

I refer to this as the top ten exercise. What are your top ten moments as a tennis player, as a medical student, as a sales manager, as a white-collar athlete, as I like to put it in any other sport? What are the major contributions you’ve made to your organization? What are the projects that you’ve completed? What are the recognitions or awards that you have accumulated in the course of your professional development?

In a way, it’s like writing a resume but you’re writing your accomplishments, you’re writing your top ten fulfilling memorable moments. That list of top ten things, those are your original deposits into your mental bank account. That’s taking ten checks down to the local savings and loan, and say, “I’m opening an account. Here’s my money.” And so, that’s how we take a look at our long-term memories.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, I like that notion of it’s like a resume but it’s a bit different in that the audience is just you, and you pick what’s meaningful as opposed to what you’re thinking someone else might find impressive, and you’re prioritizing based upon the emotional juice, as oppose to someone else’s perceived valuation of that thing.

Nate Zinsser
Exactly. This is a very personal exercise. And so, once we’ve established our bank account with those top ten moments, then it becomes a matter of managing our memories day by day by day. What did you accomplish today as you look back on the day? What did you accomplish in terms of effort? Where did you give quality effort? What moments in your day were characterized by maybe pushing through something that you knew you had to do but really didn’t want to do? Where did you overcome a little procrastination, which plagues us all, let’s face it?

So, record an episode of effort, and then look at the day, and ask yourself, “What did I get right? What little successes did I have?” Record some episodes of success, be they ever so small and ever so humble. And, third, think about your day, think about maybe some of the previous days, and record an episode of progress, “What am I getting better at? What do I seem to be improving?” And so, you have a daily ESP reflection. E for effort, S for success, P for progress. And that is an exercise that you conduct at the end of every day some time before retiring. And those are some deposits that you make daily into your mental bank account.

And we can take it one step further. Looking at how you manage your memories in the course of a day, “I finished a meeting. I have five minutes before the next one. I can take 30 seconds of that minute, of that five minutes, and say, ‘Hmm, what was the best moment for me in that meeting? Where did I hear properly? Where did I respond properly? What did I understand?’” And just that little tiny memory, of a little very small highlight, with a very small H, that’s a deposit.

And so, you can make many small deposits throughout the day, some bigger ones at the end of the day, and they are complemented by your top ten, and so you’re in this process of daily and, indeed, hourly building up a sense of certainty about yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
And, again, all these are within a particular context.

Nate Zinsser
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, what’s your advice on this one, Nate? How many domains can we tackle concurrently? Because I love the notion of focus, but if it’s sort of like, “Oh, boy, I need more confidence in my professional life, and as a parent, and as a spouse, etc.”

Nate Zinsser
You can do it for as many different performance arenas or performance situations as you care to. I would start out with the one that’s most important to you in the long term to get that started. But you could, indeed, conduct a daily ESP for your physical training if you’re working on your fitness training for a 5K or a 10K or a marathon. You can do a daily ESP for your professional work. You could do a daily ESP for your relationships that are key. And, again, this daily ESP is about a three-minute exercise, ladies and gentlemen. And we all got that kind of time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right. So we covered the past nicely, and it seems we did the present as well in terms of the super recent past. Or is there more that you’d like to add about the present in terms of the way you think about yourself right now?

Nate Zinsser
Yes, the way you think about yourself right now revolves around the stories that you keep in yourself about yourself. We all have opinions about how smart we are, how good we are at this, how bad we are at that. So, telling yourself stories that contribute to a sense of optimism and energy is really important.

The key skill here is to think about a particular skill you’d like to have, a particular quality you’d like to have, a particular accomplishment that you would care to achieve, and phrase your desire for those things in the present tense, “My crosscourt backhand goes deep and scores points.”

That’s a skill I want to have so I am affirming it, I am saying yes to it, and I’m very specific about what I want, the story I want to tell myself about myself, “My backhand is…” “I listen carefully to each of my subordinates,” “I easily stay in the moment to solve problems as they come up.” Telling yourself these stories are further deposits into your bank account, and they kickstart effort and action that is consistent with what you are affirming.

If we continue, if you tell yourself, “I’m really not good at that particular technological application. I really struggle with some of the remote platforms,” if you tell yourself that, if that’s a story you tell yourself, you will be less likely to work at that enthusiastically and with an open mind so it’ll be really hard for you to get that technology down.

If, on the other hand, you change the way you think about yourself in the present, “I easily learn new skills,” “I easily learn new applications.” If you’re a student taking a graduate course, “I easily retain the origin, insertion, function, and intervention of each skeletal muscle.” If you’re talking to yourself that way about yourself in the present, first person, present tense, very detailed, you initiate a very functional constructive self-fulfilling prophecy.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’m curious then, and there’s been some really cool studies on affirmations. I’ve dug into them in terms of, sure enough, like salespeople getting superior results and so very quantifiable and such. I’m thinking about how we had a great conversation with Hal Elrod about the six morning habits of high performers. And he said, when it comes to affirmations, we got to be careful that they’re truthful enough such that you don’t respond internally with, “No, I don’t, and that’s bull crap.”

Nate Zinsser
Yes, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
So, if I don’t easily remember these bones, or new software programs, what’s my gameplan here? But I want to.

Nate Zinsser
I want to remember so I would phrase your affirmations, at first, for things that are just a little bit out of your reach or just a little bit different from the way you’ve been thinking about yourself in terms of something that you do. One of the stories that I cite in the book comes out of Harvard where hotel workers, the folks who make the beds, vacuum the floors, scrub out the bathrooms every day, hour after hour after hour, they were taught to think of their daily work as good exercise, so the thought, “I’m getting good exercise every day.”

A group of workers were given that instruction and taught how to talk to themselves and think about their work, their daily work, as good exercise, and the control group received a placebo treatment. Well, the group that changed the way they thought about their daily exercise lost a significant amount of weight, lowered their blood pressure over a period of time while not doing any more work, while not doing their work any faster or harder, but simply as a function of changing the way they thought about themselves. That actually changed their physiology.

And there are plenty of other studies along that line, really looking at the effect of just this element of mindset on not just our mood but our actual cardiovascular, endocrine, and neurobiological systems. It’s interesting stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, absolutely, it is. That is a really cool study. And so then, I’m curious, in terms of like the specific phrasing of the affirmation. So, if I am having trouble with a software but I want to be learning it easily, if I say to myself, “I learn the software easily,” my mind will say, “No, you don’t. That’s bull crap. You’ve been struggling mightily with this while your colleagues seem to be getting it just fine.”

Nate Zinsser
Ramp it back a little bit and think, “I’m getting one piece of this down every day.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s true. I love it. That is not a lie and you can look back, and say, “Sure enough, that happened yesterday and the day before.” Boom! Cool. All right. So, then that’s the present. How about the future?

Nate Zinsser
How about the future? The question is, “What kind of future do you want? And what kind of future are you allowing your wonderful imagination to create?” We have this fantastic audio and video production studio in our imagination. We can dream up all kinds of things. And the things that we dream up have direct, again, physiological effects.

Every one of your listeners could deeply imagine holding a nice ripe juicy lemon in their hand, and smelling the lemony smell, and feeling the waxy texture, and they could imagine cutting open, cutting that lemon in half, and bringing it up and really smelling the fresh juice, and then taking a small careful lick of it, then maybe a bigger lick, and then maybe even biting into it.

And everybody will experience their mouths watering while they do that because just the thought, when you combine the picture of it with the sensation of smell, with the sensation of taste, with the sensation of texture, that literally fools the taste buds which sends messages back to your brain, and the messages come from your brain back to your salivary glands, you’re actually fooling your nervous system into creating the experience that you want.

And this is why athletes and other performers will very carefully mentally rehearse in as much real time as possible, with as much realistic detail as possible, the game-winning field goal, or the closing argument in a legal case, or that great homerun point of the sales pitch, and they’ll feel themselves in the room giving that pitch, they’ll hear the tone of their voice, they’ll see the respective faces of the audience and create a multisensory representation of that experience that they wish to have.

And when they do so, they’re actually manipulating, working their nervous system so that when they get to that moment, they’ll have a sense of familiarity about it, “I’ve been here. It’s an important moment but I have seen it happen, I felt it happen, I’ve envisioned it carefully, and my nervous system believes that I’ve already done it.” So, the experience, when you get there, while still having some excitement and some emotion, for sure, but there’ll be an element of comfort in that experience that you might not have had you not done this kind of mental preparation.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Thank you. All right. So, past, present, future, the mental management we do in order to have that confidence going. I’m curious, when we hit rough patches in terms of maybe it’s a number of failures or just, “Hey, I’m tired, I’m stressed, I’m overwhelmed, I’m de-motivated, I don’t give a hoot anymore right now,” is there any sort of acute or emergency stuff you recommend we do in our brains in those moments?

Nate Zinsser
Yeah, welcome to the real world that we all live in. We are going to make mistakes. We are going to experience setbacks. This is one of the important points about confidence, in general, is that it’s not a one-time thing that you do. Confidence is fragile. You have to rebuild it. There is no decisive victory that one can win over fear, doubt, worry, insecurity, etc. It is a relatively ongoing war of attrition, as one of my cadet advisees understood it as. There’s no decisive victory. I can’t just get it and expect to have it all the time because the world is going to kick back.

We have a saying in the military, “The enemy gets a vote,” and we all got to be aware of setbacks, difficult things that happen around us that can negatively affect our confidence, and then there are the things that we say to ourselves internally that also negatively affect our confidence. So, a few safeguards in this context, Pete, is how you look at those inevitable failures and how you respond to your own inevitable simple human imperfection.

You have to look at those moments and acknowledge that they happen, but one way to think about them is that they’re temporary, “It happened that one time. It happened that one time. It happened. It happened that one time.” As opposed to having something go wrong and you sort of unconsciously assume that it’ll continue, and you fall into the, “Oh, here I go again. Same stuff all over again.”

You’ve got to protect yourself from that trap by keeping it in the time that it occurred, “It happened that one time. It’s temporary.” And you may have to do that four or five times, “It happened this time. It happened that time, but it’s just those times.” You keep it in that context.

The second rule about this is to look at those imperfections, those mistakes, those setbacks as limited in where they occurred, “It happened in that situation,” “It happened in that game,” “It happened in that moment of my day, and that moment is just a moment by itself, that situation. And I don’t know why something that happened in one situation, in one setting, to sort of ooze out and affect my feeling about what’s going to happen in other situations.

I don’t allow a mistake in one part of my game to make me think, “Uh-oh, my whole game is in trouble today.” No, no, that one part of my game. “Okay, my second serve isn’t getting in very well. That’s just my second serve. My first serve can still be a bomber. My forehand, my backhand, the rest of my game can be fine. I got to keep my mistakes and my thoughts about my mistakes limited in where they occur.”

And then, finally, and this might be the biggest one for most of us, when the setback occurs, when I experienced some of my own imperfection, I got to be able to say to myself, “Look, that moment, that mistake is not representative of who I am as a player, as a performer, as a professional, as a person. It doesn’t tell the truth about me,” even to the point where you can say, “Okay, yeah, that happened. I did blow that but that’s sort of a fluke. That’s really not me.” So, to keep your mistakes temporary, limited, and non-representative are ways of protecting this bank account that you’ve built up through the other methods that we’ve been describing.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Thank you. And now, as I think about just before the moment of performance, the big game, the big speech, or even just an afternoon in which you’ve got to be productive and you’re not feeling it, what are your top perspectives on how to get into the right state, mood, emotion, the mindset place to rock and roll and perform well the thing you want to perform well at even if you’re not feeling it in the moment?

Nate Zinsser
This is the million-dollar question that we all face many times in the day. The answer is, as you’re about to enter that performance, if you’re about to get down to the workload at 3:00 o’clock or 4:00 o’clock, and you got to get it done before you can leave, that’s when you have to look at yourself, and say, “Okay, I’m an athlete, I’m contending for this prize of winning this moment right now, and I have to be willing to think back, maybe access my mental bank account, look how far I’ve come. I did this. I’ve done this. I’ve done this. I’ve done that.”

And then you take a few breaths, and I give some advice on breathing in the book. I’m not an expert but I’m pretty knowledgeable about it. And then it’s getting out of your mind and just getting into your senses, “What’s the one thing I have to pay attention to now? I have to pay attention to that column in these spreadsheets to get through this task. I have to pay attention to this comment from these people in my work team in order to get through this day.”

I kind of have to limit my mind to something that is important so I cue up some confidence, I breathe, and I attach my attention, attach my awareness to what’s important. And I may have to do that several times over the course of the task but I will continue with that, I will continue with that, I will continue with that. In many ways, it comes down to a matter of willpower but willpower, in and of itself, doesn’t work great unless you have some tools. And these mental-focusing tools, combined with your will, can make a big difference in your day.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, since you mentioned breathing, I’m intrigued. Is there a particular formula, timing, counting, approach that makes a difference?

Nate Zinsser
Well, breathing, in general, is another rather misunderstood process for most of us. When we take a deep breath, we tend to lift our chests up and sort of breathe up, up, up high, when a really effective breath is a breath that expands your midsection, it goes down and out using the downward action of the very important diaphragm muscle.

So, I encourage people, if you want to take control of your breath, first, exhale, and have the feeling that there might be a python squeezing you around your waist, and that’s squeezing you in and it’s squeezing air out, squeezing you in, and that air is escaping upward and out your mouth, and then that python relaxes, and now have the feeling of breathing down and out, almost like you’re inflating an inner tube around your waist.

And then you can squeeze it to put it out, and then you can open it up, down and out to get maximum oxygen into your lungs because you really want to get the lower part of your lungs where the most effective oxygen-carbon dioxide transfer takes place. You really want to activate that lower part of your lungs. Do that a couple of times, you will feel a change in your mood.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Nate Zinsser
And that’s when you open your eyes, and say, “Okay, this is what’s important. I’m just going to focus there and I almost allow myself to get into that highly focused zone-like state. I can make myself very friendly to the zone when I do that.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, Nate, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Nate Zinsser
I would just reinforce for people, it’s a skill, it takes work, but the work is well within your capabilities, and it is a constant thing. And, very importantly, if you develop the quiet internal sense of certainty I’m describing, you can remain, indeed, a very polite, modest, respectful, pleasant person to be around. One of the misconceptions is that confidence equals outspoken, chest-beating arrogance. No, no, no, no, no.

We occasionally see, and unfortunately the media likes to highlight these loud, brash, outspoken individuals, but what the media doesn’t often help us understand is how many quiet, introverted, yet very confident people there are out there. And so, for all you quiet introverts, plenty of hope for you, folks. It’s about how you think. It’s not necessarily about how you open your mouth and portray yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Nate Zinsser
A favorite quote that I find inspiring is from the great folk rock poet of the ‘60s, Bob Dylan, and the phrase reads, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” It’s from a song “It’s Alright, Ma.” And I’ve always liked that quote because you are either in a process of developing, expanding in one way or another, or you’re in a process of shrinking and stagnating.

If we look at developmental psychology, this is, indeed, a theme that takes place throughout each stage of development right through our most senior years. Are you generating things even in your 70s and 80s? Or are you stagnating? “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Nate Zinsser
Okay, here’s one. And I included this in the book because I think it’s really important. We’ve been talking about the way you talk to yourself, the stories you tell yourself, and we’ve been talking about how you get rid of the internally generated negativity. A study that took place in the University of South Africa took trained cyclists, highly trained athletes, and they were all tested on a time-to-exhaustion test, meaning, “You’re going to go as fast as you freaking can until you just can’t.” So, we get a baseline of what they’re absolute maximum output is.

Half of those trained cyclists were taken through a course in what you would call motivational self-talk, learning to talk to yourself in the moment while you are working very hard, “Keep this going. You can handle this.” Essentially, talking back to that voice of worry and doubt and fatigue that every middle-distance athlete knows it’s that fear of not being able to maintain the pace, “I can’t hold this during my mile run, or my two-mile run.” “I can’t maintain this for the duration of my swim workout.”

But these athletes were trained to start and continue and finish with a very powerful group of affirmational statements, “Get this down. You’re fine. Keep the hammer going,” etc. And then the other group were given a placebo treatment. Three weeks later, everybody was retested. On the average, the group who had learned to talk back to their voice of negativity lasted 18% longer than the non-trained subjects. They showed an 18% improvement over their previous baseline and they had a lower sense of perceived exertion while doing so.

Eighteen percent improvement? Who wouldn’t want that in their batting average, shooting percentage, sales figure growth? Who wouldn’t want an 18% improvement? That’s a pretty powerful study. And it all had everything to do with how you talk to yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Well, that’s really compelling study, Nate. Do you happen to know the principal investigators or have a citation?

Nate Zinsser
Yes, I’ve got that. Samuele Marcora, University of Kent.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome.

Nate Zinsser
Yeah, you want to look at the book Alex Hutchinson’s Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. That’s a William Morrow 2018 reference, page 260.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Thank you.

Nate Zinsser
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Nate Zinsser
I make sure that I practice 15 minutes of very careful but very energizing breathing every morning. I make sure that I am working that diaphragm muscle, I’m working those abdominal muscles, I am massaging the liver, which is what happens when you breathe properly, and it’s a very relaxing experience but, at the same time, it’s somewhat exhilarating.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have like music or an app or a track that guides you?

Nate Zinsser
Nope, I do this simply seated on a small cushion. I don’t need any guidance. I have been practicing meditation since 1971 where I learned the technique that involved the repetition of a sound, the repetition of a mantra that you do over and over again with sub-vocally. But these days, it’s all breath training.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Nate Zinsser
And, by the way, I keep my own ESP daily journal as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Nate Zinsser
I’m still practicing Japanese karate, and so every day, I’m looking at my physical practice and making notes about this movement, this feeling, this interpretation. It’s an ongoing iterative process.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget that you’re known for or people quote you on often?

Nate Zinsser
Doc Z says, “A little bit of delusion is the origin of every major important change in your life.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Nate Zinsser
A little bit of delusion, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Nate Zinsser
I have a website, DrNateZinsser.com. You can reach me there. And the book The Confident Mind has a lot of good nuggets in it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Nate Zinsser
Yeah, here’s the call to action. Is the quality of your thinking consistent with the quality of life that you want to lead and the quality of the performances that you want to experience?

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Nate, it’s been a treat. I wish you much luck with your book The Confident Mind and all you’re up to.

Nate Zinsser
Well, thank you, Pete. This has been a wonderful interview. My best wishes and best luck for all your listeners. Let’s have a great 2022.

663: How to Stop Negative Self-talk, Beat Impostor Syndrome, and Feel Confident with Melody Wilding

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Melody Wilding says: "Confidence isn't a prerequisite for success. It's a byproduct of success."

Melody Wilding shares powerful strategies to stop overthinking and deal with your inner critic.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The two behaviors that greatly hinder sensitive professionals
  2. Three tactics for silencing your inner critic
  3. Powerful questions to counter negative thinking

About Melody

Melody Wilding, LMSW is an executive coach, human behavior expert, and author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work. She has coached hundreds of private clients, from CEOs and Fortune 500 executives to leaders from the US Department of Education, the Federal Reserve, and the United Nations. She teaches graduate-level human behavior and psychology at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in New York. Her writing is regularly featured on Medium and in Harvard Business ReviewFast CompanyForbesBusiness Insider, and Quartz. Her advice has been featured in the New York TimesThe CutOprah MagazineNBC NewsUS News and World Report, and more.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

Melody Wilding Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Melody, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Melody Wilding
Thank you so much for having me. I’m so happy to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to talk about your latest work Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work. I do some overthinking and could use some help channeling emotions, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone, so lay it on us. What’s maybe the most surprising and fascinating discovery you made as you’re putting this together?

Melody Wilding
I think the concept that really underbeds the entire book of being a sensitive striver was the biggest lightbulb moment for me. Personally, yeah, I am this personality type and it was the huge discovery for me to put together and put words to something that I had struggled with for most of my life up until that point but also, after coaching people for 10 years, I had just seen this really repetitive and consistent constellation of challenges that I couldn’t put words to.

And so, when I was writing the book and I was really struggling with the proposal, trying to figure out what I was writing about, I just took a whiteboard and wrote down on it all the different challenges my clients had, grouped it into two different categories, and kind of stepped back and had that lightning bulb moment of, “Oh, sensitive and striver,” those two sides together. So, that was the biggest aha for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s a great turn of a phrase – a sensitive striver. I think I am one, and I think that’s a resonant term for many of our listeners. But can you unpack it for us? What exactly does that mean to be a sensitive striver?

Melody Wilding
Of course. So, being a sensitive striver means that you are highly sensitive and high-achieving so you are someone who thinks and feels everything more deeply, you process the world around you more intricately, but you’re also very driven, you want to succeed, and you want to advance in your career. So, it’s that combination of sensitivity and striving.
Biologically speaking, this is about 15% to 20% of the population that has a genetic trait difference so we’re actually wired differently to pick up on more of the environment. So, we have a more highly attuned central nervous system, which means that we’re more perceptive, observant. We’re more attuned to our own emotions as well as those of the people around us. We’re deeply caring. We give our 100% to our work but we tend to have an inner world that’s on overdrive. And that’s because we process more deeply than other people that leaves us more susceptible to some of the downsides of stress, emotional overwhelm, overthinking.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m intrigued and I think that we’ve got plenty of applicability whether you happen to have that genetic switch going for you or not. Well, first of all, tell us, can we get a genetic test? How do we confirm this quickly and easily?

Melody Wilding
Yeah. So, I actually have in my book, there is a quick quiz, and I can run through some of the items in the quiz if that would be helpful. But this quiz is drawn from the research, from what we know about high sensitivity as a trait, and from what we know about high performance in the science. So, some of the signs, you’re someone who experiences emotion to an unusual level of depth and complexity. You have that desire to exceed expectations in everything that you do. You need time to think through decisions before you act, since the hallmark of sensitivity is pausing before acting.

You tend to have an inner critic that never takes a day off. You’re kind, compassionate, empathetic to others. You find it difficult to set boundaries and say yes too much. You struggle to turn your mind off because it’s constantly filled with thoughts. You hold yourself to very high standards and you judge yourself harshly if you make mistakes.

So, those are just a few of the signs but we can actually dive into, I actually have a framework that explains the six key qualities that all sensitive strivers have so we can dive into that if you like.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, I’d love to hit the quick version of checking to those six. But, first, I’m thinking, let’s distinguish a bit. Everything you said resonates with me a bundle. I suppose it’s hard to say if we use words like unusually high or more than others, it’s like, “Well, I don’t know what others are experiencing in their interior life.” But I suppose what would be the insensitive striver, for example? So, I guess there are people who are ambitious but don’t have that going on. What is it? Just like, “You can’t make it on without cracking a few eggs. I don’t care who I have to dominate to win.” Is that what the insensitive striver sounds like?

Melody Wilding
The insensitive striver, I love that. No one has said that to me before so I love that. Sensitivity is a spectrum. So, as you were saying, people, you fall on that just like you would any personality trait. So, people who are highly sensitive are much more affected by the world and the environment that they’re in.

So, for example, if you’re someone who is utterly drained at the end of a long day with meetings where your partner is not. So, for example, my partner, the things that drain me and are very taxing to me, my partner, it doesn’t faze him at all. Or, things that I pick up on in a situation where I notice certain subtleties or nuances goes right over his head. And I love him with all my heart, so that is said with kindness.

Pete Mockaitis
And can this also be true about just actual physical stimuli, like sandpaper feels rougher, a loud noise is more jarring and painful?

Melody Wilding
One hundred percent, and that’s actually the first of the strive qualities is actually sensitivity which sounds obvious but it refers to exactly what you’re saying, which is sensory – sensitivity. So, we startle more easily. Yes, we’re more sensitive to smells and fabrics and bright lights, for example, so that’s why Zoom tends to be really fatiguing because it’s just visual stimulation and you’re self-monitoring all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Melody Wilding
And so, sensitive strivers can become really highly overstimulated and operate at that level for a long time, kind of just pushing themselves through it, that’s the striver side, and being burnt out. So, yes, you’re exactly right on.

Pete Mockaitis
And so that’s helpful there in terms of, okay, there is a spectrum and so it’s not necessarily binary, on/off, you got the gene, you’re in the 15% versus you don’t, you’re not. And one thing I think about sensitivity in terms of like when I’m dealing with people, I get the impression that some people I know seem to really feel, I don’t know, I guess, sensitivity, I mean, they feel the pull of like guilt and/or reciprocity significantly, and others seem completely immune to it. Like, there’s just no sense of they owe you.

And, in a way, I envy that. This is like, “Man, you’re such a killer negotiator. Like, you don’t care at all about all the things I’ve done for you. Wow, I just can’t be that heartless,” although I’d probably be more lucrative if I could be. So, does that fit in the mix or is that a totally different construct?

Melody Wilding
No, you’re 100% right. So, actually, you’re kind of leading down this framework, so the way to identify your qualities as a sensitive striver, conceptualize them, it conveniently spells out the acronym STRIVE. So, we first have sensory sensitivity, that’s the heightened nervous system response that we talked about. Then we have the T which is thoughtfulness. So, you’re contemplative, you’re reflective, you’re intuitive but you can overthink situations, worry more, get into indecision and doubt.

Next would be responsibility, which is part of what you were talking about, being dependable always, being counted on to follow through for other people but we also can’t bear to let people down so we will take on actual responsibility even when it means sacrificing our own wellbeing. Then we have inner drive which is that desire to exceed expectations, set a lot of goals. Sometimes we can set our goals so sky high that it’s unrealistic and we fall into perfectionism.

Fifth, we have vigilance, which is also being attentive to other people’s needs, having the keen awareness for those subtleties, a change in your boss’ body language, the general mood of a meeting. So, you’re constantly on high alert, taking on what’s going on around you but you may sometimes read danger where there is none.

And then, last is emotionality, so that’s our E in our STRIVE. And that is having complex more intense emotional responses, so you’re more emotionally reactive, so to speak, both positive and negative. So, we get the joy of experiencing life in full color, of the full emotional spectrum of gratitude, excitement, but we can also get stuck in negative emotions, like anger, fear, anxiety, and stay stuck there longer than most people.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s funny, I’m not a hoarder, like, “Where is this going, Pete?”

Melody Wilding
I like that, whenever a sentence starts that way.

Pete Mockaitis
But sometimes I do have a lot of complex emotional relationships associated with objects in terms of, “Are we just going to let that go and what does that mean? Does that mean that I’ve failed, I made a poor decision, that we’re no longer committed to this thing I thought we were committed to when we embarked upon this path and acquired this?” So, it’s like I really do have a lot of complicated emotions associated with several things, like, “Hey, are you going to use it? Well, then get rid of it.” It’s like, “Well, there’s a little more to it than that.” Not every item in my home but there’s like a sliver of things that fall into a weird category.

So, it sounds like, okay, there’s a spectrum. It sounds like I’m on it and I think a lot of our listeners are. And for the insensitive strivers, well, maybe you’ll learn what the rest of us are dealing with and interact with us.

Melody Wilding
That’s right because this is 20% of people, so this is one in five people. So, if you’re not one, you definitely work with one, love one, are friends with one, so it’s good to know about this personality, and in terms of how to get the best out of them, how to communicate with them, so definitely something here for everyone.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then could you maybe share with us an inspiring story of a sensitive striver – I’m really going to put you on the spot here – who was having some stresses, some difficulties, but then, gaining some awareness and some tools about the sensitive striving, was able to open things up and make a positive impact?

Melody Wilding
I do. I do. And this one is timely because this actually happened last year when the pandemic really hit. So, I have one client who is in a senior leadership position at his organization, it was a nonprofit and he characterized himself as a reluctant leader. He actually consulted with the organization before, and the organization was in a transitional period, let’s put it that way. It was really, the leadership was in disarray. They had really been managed by an old-school model, kind of managed by fear and dictating what people should do, and just kind of your old-school management style.

And so, people had left, there was a lot of turnover, there was a lot of upset on the board about the organization not hitting their targets. And so, my client was thrust into a full-time senior leadership role when someone very suddenly exited. And so, all of a sudden, he sort of found himself as this reluctant leader of this broken organization and then the pandemic hit shortly after that, and there was, all of a sudden, a lot of pressure from the board.

This was really a catalyzing moment but, for him, it was also an opening to say, “We can’t do things the way we’ve always done. If we don’t change something, we’re not going to survive,” because, actually, his organization, what they did was in-person teaching. They would bring people to teach in-person classes which, as you can guess during the pandemic, was not possible, so overnight, pretty much their entire revenue stream evaporated.

Now, what my client was able to do and what we worked on together during this time was, first, his confidence of shifting from, in his mind, keeping himself and that identity of the reluctant leader, “This is only temporary and part time, and they didn’t really want me and I got here by luck.” A lot of getting past a lot of his hang-ups around the impostor syndrome and fully stepping into, “I’m the leader of this organization,” and owning that identity.

Second was really starting to leverage how his qualities as a sensitive striver could really uniquely be huge strengths in this situation. And a big one is that sensitive strivers, because we’re processing, we’re taking in a lot of information, we tend to anticipate eventualities, we tend to be able to spot opportunities that others miss, or anticipate roadblocks that may come up.

So, my client, even before the pandemic hit, he had been very vocal about the fact that, “We need to get our online learning up and running. We need to really be going deep on that as a different revenue stream.” And so, when the pandemic hit, he was very well-poised to push that through and very quickly was able to help the organization pivot their entire business model to an online revenue stream because he had seen that opportunity coming.

And then last was using his sensitivity, his empathy, his emotional intelligence, his high value for integrity and diversity, he completely rebuilt the team from the inside out. As I had mentioned before, the culture of the company was very much by fear, by criticism, and he completely changed that to be a very psychologically safe place, to be a place that people were going from a 50% turnover to people saying, “I never want to leave this job. I love working here so much,” and people referring their friends to the organization.

So, really, he completely turned around the inside of the organization and that’s primarily through his skills as a sensitive striver, his problem-solving, complex thinking, his empathy, emotional intelligence. All of those things, combined together, was the perfect combination needed to help the organization get through the pandemic.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s lovely in terms of the reluctance from which we started there, I guess impostor syndrome is huge there with regard to, “I don’t know enough. I’m not worthy of this opportunity. I’m a fraud.” And, yet, it seems like those same kinds of instincts that lead to you thinking you’re a fraud are actually the sorts of instincts that are assets in terms of helping out in terms of the sensitivity and the empathy and whatnot there. So, that’s cool right there in terms of just having that awareness. Okay, this is good.

Melody Wilding
Yeah, those strive qualities I mentioned before, they can all be strengths. You want to think of them almost like dials on the stereo. You can dial them up and you can dial them down. And when your qualities are well-balanced, for example, when your thoughtfulness is well-balanced, you’re able to be reflective and problem-solve and bring creative original ideas to the table. But when your thoughtfulness is not balanced for whatever reason, you’re stressed, you lack the right tools, you lack the awareness, well, then it can turn into impostor syndrome, overthinking. And so, they’re two sides of the same coin.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think I’ve got a good picture for how the strive qualities can be assets, and I’ve got a little bit of a picture for how that could be unpleasant as you’re inside the head of a sensitive striver. Could you paint perhaps a detailed picture in terms of the six strive qualities and how they can be working against you or feeling not so great?

Melody Wilding
Yeah. And I think many people will be familiar with this part. So, let’s take some of the most common examples. We talked about impostor syndrome. So, that is that feeling of being a fake, a fraud, despite your accomplishments, so it’s really just being really hindered by your insecurities. So, a lot of the clients I work with come to me because they say they are playing it safe in their career. They’re running away from more responsibility because of their lack of confidence. They don’t want to put themselves out there or take higher leadership positions, or they do take higher leadership positions and they self-sabotage or flare out early on. So, that is one common thing we see.

Also, something I call the honor roll hangover. And that is a combination of people-pleasing, perfectionism, and over-functioning. So, it’s called the honor roll hangover because many of our habits that many sensitive strivers are grownup A+ gold star students, who bring that same sort of mentality, “Be the best. Do everything right,” they bring that mentality with them into their careers. And while that helps them be successful then, that it’s not necessarily the same skillset it means to be successful particularly as you advance in your career.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say over-functioning, that sounds like a good thing. But over maybe not so much, what do we mean by that?

Melody Wilding
That’s right. So perfectionism, most of us know perfectionism is not really the desire to be perfect, but it’s more the self-recrimination. It’s being highly self-critical, nothing you ever do is good enough, beating yourself up relentlessly for everything that you do, all or nothing thinking, that’s perfectionism.

People-pleasing can also look good, “I want to be helpful to people. I always want to be of value.” We hear that constantly from people in the workplace. But people-pleasing can look like agreeing to someone’s not-so-great idea when you don’t actually agree with it; morphing your opinion so someone likes you; or, a lot of folks I worked with who are managers and leaders will sort of downplay their opinions because they want their team to like them, or not give feedback. So, that’s people-pleasing.

And then over-functioning can look like a few things. It can look like swooping in to fix situations. You always have to be the one putting out fires. If others around you are very dependent on you, so if everybody comes to you for answers to the point where people don’t know how to do the work themselves, so you are basically an enabler. So, when you’re over-functioning, you tend to overwork as well. You tend to take on more than your share of responsibility.

So, if you take on emotional and mental responsibility for situations when it’s really not yours, an outcome of a meeting or a project and you are just beating yourself up and feeling horrible because it went sideways when, really, there was so much out of your control, then you’re over-functioning. And the problem with over-functioning is it causes other people under-function.

So, you can actually create this cycle where other people don’t take responsibility, they don’t step up, they’re not empowered, which only reinforces it because you feel more resentful, you feel like the kid in the group project who does everything by yourself and nobody else steps up, and it might be because you’re not giving them a chance.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, let’s zoom in on some solutions here. When it comes to your inner critic, when it comes to second-guessing or rumination, when we’re in the heat of that battle in our brains, what do we do?

Melody Wilding
So, one of my favorite strategies and one my clients love is naming your inner critic, personifying it, giving it an identity that is separate from you. And this is simple but powerful because so many of us over-identify with that inner critic. It is the loudest voice in our head. It drowns out our intuition or our wiser self, the more balanced and calm self. And so, it’s so automatic and what we need to do is be able to gain distance from it so that we can hear what it’s saying but not necessarily buy into and act on what it’s telling us.

So, when you personify your inner critic, I recommend giving it a silly name or imagining it as a character from a movie. So, one of my clients named his Darth Vader, and actually got a Darth Vader Lego figure, put it on his desk so that every time his inner critic was acting up, he was able to look at it, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Darth Vader is uniquely perfect because he’s so critical and so overreacts, like he’s going to choke you if you make a mistake, and so that is perfection. What are some other examples?

Melody Wilding
Well, I’ve had a lot of people call theirs the little monster or Gremlin. Some folks, a lot of Karens this year with the rise of…

Pete Mockaitis
Poor Karens in real life.

Melody Wilding
I know. I feel very bad for real Karens.

Pete Mockaitis
All listeners named Karen, we love you.

Melody Wilding
I know. Yes, that is very true. So, yeah, that’s a few of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah. Okay, so we give it a name. That’s a great tip. And then what?

Melody Wilding
And so, once you are able to gain distance from it, that’s half the battle. Half the battle is even recognizing when it comes up so that’s not so automatic. But where the greater power is starting to change your thoughts, starting to reframe the impostor syndrome dialogue that’s going on in your head. And so, this is really a process of self-coaching, and so much of my job as a coach is to put myself out of a job because I want to give my clients the ability to have a Melody in their head so they can coach themselves to better thoughts and better solutions.

And so, for example, if your impostor syndrome is saying…well, what are some critical thoughts that you struggle with?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s see. I don’t know if, you call it negative self-talk but I don’t know if it’s so much of a criticism, it’s not like, “You screwed up. You’re bad. You suck. You’re unworthy of love.” I don’t have much of that going on but I can sort of dwell on the, “Ugh, I’m tired. I’m exhausted. This is too much. I don’t know if I can handle all of this.” Some sort of like, “Woe is me. Tired. Overwhelmed.” So, does that count as an inner critic? It’s not helpful.

Melody Wilding
Well, that’s what I would say, yeah. And so, one kind of coaching question, or coaching questions I come back to again and again and again, one of them is, “How is this thought serving you? How is that thought helping you reach your goals?”

Pete Mockaitis
Fantastic question. Usually, it’s not at all. Occasionally, it might help me anticipate something, like, “Hey, yeah, good point. That’s probably going to pop up so let’s prepare.” But more often than not, it’s just bellyaching in the moment which does nothing for me.

Melody Wilding
Yeah, exactly. And negative or critical thoughts stick around because there’s always a kernel of truth and usefulness. As you said, it helps us anticipate or prepare whatever it is but they become so outsized that it’s not helpful. So, that’s one question is, “How is this thought serving me?”

Another one that really stops people in their tracks is, “What am I making this mean about me?” That’s my golden coaching question that I come back to again and again, because, so often, we are personalizing other people’s actions and behaviors to mean something. We interpret it as something negative about us, “My boss used a period instead of an exclamation point. Well, that must mean they’re mad at me, they’re going to fire me. I knew he thought I did a bad job on that,” instead of looking at the facts of the situation, which is, “He used a period instead of an exclamation point.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s so good.

Melody Wilding
And we go down this narrative, right?

Pete Mockaitis
And the stimuli doesn’t even need to be external. Like, in terms of me saying, “I feel tired,” I could say, “What does that mean about me?” I could leap to conclusions, it’s like, “Well, yeah, I’m out of shape. I haven’t been doing much working out. I’ve been neglecting my health and vitality. I’m getting older. I’m not as motivated as I used to be. I’m losing the fire. I used to be such a go-getter, and now I’m getting weak and soft.” Whereas, it could really just mean, “Yeah, you didn’t get enough sleep last night,” or, “Yeah, it’s been about seven hours since you had a meal. That’ll do it.”

So, that’s awesome whether it’s coming from the external or the internal. We could personalize and make it mean something about us that’s not so handy.

Melody Wilding
Yeah. And two other helpful tools to get past that then when you do find yourself personalizing or getting hooked by those stories, one is another acronym, that is THINK. So, you’re going to be thinking anyway, but THINK stands for, “Is this thought true?” Do I have factual evidence? Or is this an interpretation or an opinion? A fact is, “I made a typo in an email,” whereas an opinion is, “I’m horrible at my job.”

Is it helpful? “Is it serving me or others?” Is it inspiring? “Does it help me move closer or away from my goals?” Is it necessary? “Is it necessary that I focus on this thought now, that I act on it, or even pay attention to it or can I let it go?” And then last is kind. “Is it compassionate? Is it caring towards myself or to others?” And even just that, I’ve a lot of clients who just keep a sticky note on their computer with THINK. And whenever they find themselves going down that spiral, it’s an instant reset to help you access some of that more balanced, calmer, compassionate thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I love that so much. Boy, this reminds me of, every once in a while, something reminds me of a verse, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, and if there’s anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” If there’s any Christian in the house, that might resonate, like those are similar things and themes to think in terms of those are the kinds of things that are going to serve you and help get you where you want to be.

Melody Wilding
Yeah, that’s beautiful.

Pete Mockaitis
Right on. Okay, so we catch ourselves, I guess, in the moment. We go through the THINK acronym. And then what if we say, “Hey, you know what? No, it’s not true or it’s not helpful,” how do we kind of shimmy from there?

Melody Wilding
Yeah, part of it is even practicing on, practicing new thoughts, because new thoughts then lead to different actions. Because if your thinking is, “I’m not worthy. I’m not capable. I’m inadequate,” well, your actions are going to be congruent with that. You’re not going to put yourself out there. You’re going to diminish your successes. But if your thinking is more constructive, well, then you are going to put yourself out there, you are going to feel more confident.

And so, so much of overcoming impostor syndrome comes down to changing your thoughts, yes, but then taking a leap to act differently so that you get evidence to build your credibility with yourself. And so, when I have clients in my group coaching program, the first thing I say in our initial session to them is that, “You build confidence and credibility with yourself in proportion to the number of promises you keep to yourself.”

And so, if so many of us put other people first in our careers and in our lives, and we are the last person on the list that we say, “Well, I’ll take my lunch break today,” “I’ll finally take that course that I’ve been wanting to take,” that always falls to the wayside, or, “I’ll speak up in that meeting and I’ll share my idea this time,” “I’ll give feedback or I’ll ask feedback from my boss,” and we don’t hold ourselves accountable. And that only reinforces the negative thinking, the inner critic, the impostor syndrome thoughts, because, look, you are such a scaredy cat. You can’t even ask your boss for feedback? Who does that? No wonder you’re not successful at this job.

But if you take a leap and you keep that promise to yourself, well, you start changing. You have evidence to back up that new story that you’re telling yourself. You’re depositing in your confidence bank, so to speak.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Thank you. Well, tell me, Melody, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Melody Wilding
I think the last thing I wanted to mention around impostor syndrome is really internalizing your achievements because so many times, sensitive strivers, again, we place all of our attention externally on other people versus channeling it internally. Most of the time, when we channel our energy internally, it’s to be critical, it’s about how we’re not measuring up, or we need to be stronger, our weaknesses.

So, I have my clients keep a brag file, which is an ongoing place of work journal, essentially, where, on a daily basis or on Monday and Friday, they are talking about their biggest achievements, their biggest wins. And what’s important about this is it’s not to think of wins in the glorified sense of, “I made the company a million dollars,” but in the, “What moments of strength did I have? Did I overcome resistance? Did I do something that was hard?” It can be wins, like positive phrase and feedback, but it is important to do this because, if we don’t, the negativity bias will take over. It’s very easy to get to the end of a day or week, and feel like, “I did nothing productive or worthwhile today.”

And so, your brag file is a force point of reflection for you to do that and to help you really take in, internalize and appreciate how far you are coming. And through that, you can see your strengths, your talents, what type of work you are good at, so it can be useful in a number of different levels.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Melody Wilding
Mine would be a quote from Charles Dickens that says, “Have a heart that never hardens, a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts.” A very sensitive striver.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, lovely. Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Melody Wilding
Lately, I have been reading a lot of future of jobs reports from the World Economic Forum, for example, about what are the skills, workplace skills that are going to be most valuable in the future, and it’s all things sensitive strivers are strong in – emotional intelligence, empathy, complex thinking, problem-solving. So, I have really just been fascinated by where the future of work is going and how much those skills are in demand.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Melody Wilding
Thanks for the Feedback by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone. Fantastic book. If you have ever struggled with taking feedback or criticism personally, you need to read it. It completely changed the way I see communication and conversations in general.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool?

Melody Wilding
With this, I’m going to go with the Oura Ring. Not sure if you’ve heard of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, it’s like a Fitbit except it’s a ring.

Melody Wilding
Yes, and I have mine on right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, good.

Melody Wilding
And it’s fantastic. It tracks your sleep so it’s been really helpful to help me spot patterns in my sleep. It tracks your heart rate so it has really been helpful for helping me manage stress and build more healthier, productive habits.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, if I can dork out here for a moment.

Melody Wilding
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Does it do stuff above and beyond what a Fitbit does or is it just more a form factor thing?

Melody Wilding
I think the sleep might be superior and deeper to what you can get with a Fitbit but I think beyond that, most of it is the same and it’s, yeah, it’s a fit and form thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it looks cool. All right. And how about a favorite habit?

Melody Wilding
For this, I’m going to go with every Saturday I do a weekly reflection. I call it my CEO report, and it’s a time for me to sit down, quiet, no other distractions, and really log different metrics for my business, but also ask myself big questions about, “What is going well? What needs to be improved? What’s on the horizon?” So, it just really helps me feel grounded.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share with your clients, something that really connects and resonates, they quote it back to you frequently?

Melody Wilding
Yes, “Confidence isn’t a prerequisite for success. It’s a byproduct of success.”

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Melody Wilding
You can head to MelodyWilding.com/book. That’s where you can find more information about me, my website, but also get your copy of my new book Trust Yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Melody Wilding
Start viewing your sensitivity as a strength and the world will change.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Melody, this has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck in your sensitive striving.

Melody Wilding
Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

571: How to Crush Self-Doubt and Build Self-Confidence with Dr. Ivan Joseph

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Dr. Ivan Joseph discusses the critical practices that build unshakeable self-confidence.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The fundamental building block of self-confidence
  2. How to control the negative tape in your head
  3. A powerful trick for overcoming impostor syndrome

About Ivan

Dr. Ivan Joseph an award-winning Performance Coach, Sports Psychologist, author and recognized educator and mentor. His TEDx talk on self-confidence – with over 18 million views to date – has been selected by Forbes magazine as one of the 10 Best TED Talks about the Meaning of Life. 

Dr. Joseph travels extensively around the world to speak to organizations and teams about the power of self-confidence in leadership, career, sports and life – and how to build high-performing teams that exceed expectations. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Ivan Joseph Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Ivan, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Ivan Joseph
Thanks for having me, Pete. Appreciate it. Looking forward to this conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m looking forward to this conversation as well. And I have to chuckle a little bit. So, your book is called You Got This: Mastering the Skill of Self-Confidence and I couldn’t resist sharing that my mother really hates the phrase “you got this.” And I want to hear if you’ve heard that before.

Ivan Joseph
Yes, indeed. In fact, I’m looking behind you in your bookshelf to see if you have it. I don’t see it back there, so, clearly, your mother has won the day.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve clicked in depth on your virtual version, so. So, yeah, tell me, what’s…I’ll tell you my mom’s take, but what are you hearing in terms of the pushback on the title?

Ivan Joseph
You know, there’s two things. People say it’s really catchy, and they love it. It’s easy and it’s a good affirmation for themselves. And then some folks say, “Oh, man, I wish it wasn’t so contemporary and so pop culture-ish.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, pop culture-ish. Well, I kind of like it. I think the first time I heard the phrase was in a movie or something, I was like, “Ooh, yeah, that resonates.” But I think my mom, it’s the specific context in which someone’s on social media, they’re sharing like a real challenge, like someone has cancer or something, and then people comment, “You got this.” And my mom is like, “That is so inadequate. What they’re going through deserves so much more than a flippant…” That’s kind of her thing.

Ivan Joseph
When we were writing the book, we were vacillating back between You Got This, and The Skill of Self-Confidence. If I had to do it again, I’d probably stick with The Skill of Self-Confidence.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, that is your area of expertise. I’m really excited to dig into it. So, self-confidence sounds like a good thing. We’d all love to have it. Could you maybe share some research that reveals how more self-confidence can really translate into actual results for professionals, particularly if you’ve got those examples, as opposed to just feeling good?

Ivan Joseph
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
I mean, it’d be nice to feel confident, but what does it mean in terms of results and victory?

Ivan Joseph
Well, I think the first thing you have to recognize is let’s start with the definition of self-confidence. So, everybody’s playing and starting at the same place. And so, the definition I use in the research is this genuine belief in your ability to accomplish the task at hand – self-confidence. And I want everybody to know it’s not this magic pill that you just take and you can swallow, and you can just, “Oh, I’m, all of a sudden, self-confident.”

But the research that started looking at this goes way back to some foundational work that talks about optimism and happiness. But the big one that I started that got me in this venue was looking and reading about Angela Duckworth and Grit. And she was studying grit, which is the belief in your ability to accomplish tasks despite setbacks, and she was looking at how people, what they’ve told themselves, how they believed in themselves, how that really influenced their ability to move forward.

And she studied a bunch of military personnel. It was Beast Barracks week during West Point Military Academy. And, you know, the Military Academy, they’re really interested in, “How do people decide that we should make it through candidate training school?” because it’s hell. They don’t get to sleep, they don’t get to eat, there’s noise pollution, all these things, because they’re testing those candidates to make them ready.

And so, they did aptitude tests, they did physical testing, they did all these leadership scores, they did a battery of tests. And when they looked at these tests, they were somewhat predictive of who would be successful. But when Angela Duckworth came to these 13 items to predict grit and resilience, she found those 13 items more reliable than those hundreds of questions combined.

And when I read that, I’m like, “Whoa! Grit is a reliable predictor of performance and your ability to succeed?” And when I started really looking into grit, I studied just the first half of it which was this genuine belief in your ability to accomplish the task at hand. And then there was further research that went into how affirmations played a role in that, which is another word for self-talk, how focus played a role in that, how repetition played a role in that. The research is out there and it’s all saying the same thing. you can’t start with talent. You have to start with this belief in your ability, and only then will the talent get a moment to shine.

Pete Mockaitis
it’s intriguing. You talked about a given task at hand in terms of self-confidence. Then I imagine you may very well have self-confidence in one domain and not at all in another because those are very different tasks, and some you think you’ve got totally covered, and others you feel woefully unprepared for. Is that accurate?

Ivan Joseph
This is really accurate, your concept about, “Is it global?” I want you to think about the first time you had your first job, right? You’ve got it, you’ve mastered that skill, and, all of a sudden, your boss comes in and says, “Here’s your promotion and you’re ready to roll.” And imagine the doubt and the fear. We all hear about impostor syndrome, that now starts to creep in. You are master of your domain, you had it taken care of, you were the queen of your ship, or the king of your castle, whatever it is, the term you want to use, and, all of a sudden now, you’ve got to manage people, or you’ve got to lead this presentation.

And because these tasks are typically novel to you, and you haven’t had the affirmations and the feedback that says, “You got this,” to coin a phrase from the book, then that whole self-spiraling doubt and negativity starts to spiral into you, which affects your performance.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, so then if we find ourselves in a space where we’re not so self-confident, and we would like to be, what do we do?

Ivan Joseph
That’s a great question. And I always tell people this story, you heard me earlier in the podcast talk about this magic bullet. When I give a speech about this topic, I say it’s not like you’re at the Las Vegas, and Celine Dion is on stage, and I’m Canadian so I’m going to pick Celine Dion, and she gets food poisoning. And, all of a sudden, the manager comes in and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we can no longer close out the show. Celine Dion can’t sing her amazing closing song because she’s sick.” And you stand up, Pete, you say, “Yeah, I got this. I’ve watched Titanic a hundred times.” That’s not really confidence. That’s somewhere on the edge of delusional, I’ll say.

When I talk about confidence, the task can’t be novel to you. So, there’s a series of steps to really move towards confidence, and the first one is repetition, repetition, repetition. Gladwell talks about it, there’s a 10,000-hour rule, whatever it is for you to have confidence and genuine belief in your ability. And so, I want you to think about it. For some folks and some listeners out there, about the first time you drove stick shift. You drive stick, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
I tried a couple of times then I stopped. It didn’t go very well.

Ivan Joseph
Right. The first time you drive stick on a hill with a car behind you, oh, my God, your heart is racing 100 miles an hour. By the time you’ve driven stick for a year later, a year and a half, whatever it is, that skill is so automatic. And so, the number one thing is, like, find a way to get to your practice, to your repetition.

And if you’re a leader and you’re getting ready to present, present in front of the mirror, present in front of your partner, present in a small group of friends, get the feedback, so by the time you got onto that big stage, you’re no longer scared. So, that would be the first step.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly.

Ivan Joseph
After you get to repetition, for me, the next thing to do is to really control that negative tape that plays in your head. You know that tape, “I wish I was this. I hate myself in this look. Oh, I can’t do this job.” As a sports psychologist and a performance enhancement consultant, I work with a lot of athletes. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Olympians and NBA athletes and the national team of basketball for Canada, and we do a lot of what we call centering or thought-stopping.

The next time you’re watching a professional athlete, watch the different physical cues that they’ll use: pointing, clapping, finger-snapping. Whenever they make a mistake, they don’t dwell on the mistake. The phrase we use is “Live in the moment,” or, “Be in the presence,” right? And what that is about is about being in the moment, meaning forget about the mistake. Stop that negative talk, whatever that negative doubt is. Use a physical cue to bring you to the present and replace it with a positive talk, whatever that might be, “You got this,” “I got the next one,” “I’m ready.” The power of affirmation is really critical.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. So, are you telling us that frequently, when we observe such physical snaps, claps, etc., from athletes, this is exactly what they’re doing?

Ivan Joseph
Oh, 100%. I guarantee it. I remember one time, the first time I noticed it many years ago into my dissertation, there’s a famous soccer player by the name of Thierry Henry, and this is a guy making millions of pounds a year. And he missed a wide-open goal, right? And all he did was point back to the person that passed him the ball, and said, “Nice job. I got the next one.” And you could read it on his lips and see it on TV. You don’t get to be excellent by focusing on all the mistakes and all the inadequacies that you have.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, excellent. Well, so then I like that notion of the physical gesture to kind of just make it really clear, “Hey, we’re stopping that now and we’re transitioning to something else.” So, snaps, claps. What are some other good ones?

Ivan Joseph
You’ll see some athletes that will take a little rubber band and move it from one wrist to the other, sometimes they’ll snap it. You’ll see some folks that will jingle some coins. Watch the next time you’ll see an athlete just take a deep breath in, and that reminds them, “Okay, I got this.” I remember the one time, the very first time I was doing a big speech, and I’d spoken before, but you get paid in a bottle of wine or like a coffee mug. But the very first time I was on stage and it was 4,000 people, and then the night before Maya Angelou was on stage, and this was like the big deal. I was about to be big time, at least as big as C-level celebrities are, or maybe E, or G, or whatever the number is. But I was so nervous. Behind the stage, I had to clap, clap, clap, “You got this. You got this. You got this.” I had to physically remind myself that I was good at what I do, and that was really critical for me to be able to get on stage and speak in front of 4,000 people.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Excellent. So, well then what’s next? So, we got the physical indicator or anchor, and then shifting gears from the negative to the positive talk. What’s the next step?

Ivan Joseph
Well, I want to remind folks that the affirmations must be really simple and bite-sized, right? Mine is, “I got this,” “Nobody outworks me,” and, “I can learn anything.” And you asked me about research before, I want to turn your readers to a study from Harvard that talked about how three affirmations a day, if you’re in the problem-solving world, increased your efficiency to solve that problem, something like 26%.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding?

Ivan Joseph
And if you’re in the sales marketing world, your revenue went up 30 some odd percent by using three affirmations a day. And that’s that. What you tell yourself you start to believe and how it translated directly to the output of your work, your production, your ability to solve complex problems. And so, that affirmation and that self-talk moves right into that next thing which is reminding yourself of how good you are.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Well, this affirmation stuff, that’s juicy. I love a good study with some numbers behind it. So, we had Hal Elrod who talked about the six morning habits of high performers. He wrote the The Miracle Morning and such on the show earlier. And he gave some great distinctions associated with what makes an affirmation good versus delusional and problematic. So, I’d love to hear your take. So, from the research, what are some of the ingredients or do’s and don’ts for a positive affirmation? What I’m recalling, I think Hal used the example of, “Money flows effortlessly to me. I am a magnet for wealth,” is not so helpful because your brain goes, “No, it doesn’t. I’ve got to hustle and bend over backwards to make things happen.” And so, can you give us some pro tips on making those affirmations effective?

Ivan Joseph
I think it’s a great question. And one of the things I recognized early on is in order to have an affirmation be meaningful and have genuine belief, you have to have genuine control over it. And so, that locus of control for an affirmation is really important and critical. “Nobody outworks me,” so I can control that. “I can learn anything,” I can control that too, right? And so, when you listen to those things, are they within your circle of influence? “I’m the wealthiest guy in the world,” I mean, maybe if I was reading The Secret and I wanted to put that out there, and I wanted to start putting it out there. But the magic, for me, as a sports psychologist, is to always give agency to the people to control their affirmation. So, it has to be something that you can master and you can own.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. Well, then proceed. So, that’s the affirmation side of things. What’s next?

Ivan Joseph
So, then from there, I talk about a letter to yourself. And I think this is a really important piece. We all will feel self-doubt, or it will creep into us when we get a promotion, when we get a new opportunity, or when somebody will criticize us, or be really hard on us, and you have to be able to pull out a letter that you’ve written to yourself at good times.

I remember when I became the Director of Athletics at Ryerson University, it was a university of 40,000 people. I came from Iowa, a university of a thousand people. Oh, my goodness, I’m in charge of millions of dollars, I have to manage people, and I remember that whole impostor syndrome kicking in, and I read this letter to myself.

And my letter goes something like this, “Dear Ivan, thanks for choosing the right person to marry. Nice job on accomplishing your Ph.D. before you hit 40. You’ve launched a business with an amazing partner.” All these things I wanted to brag to myself. It was my own personal brag sheet to remind myself, when I was going in the dumps and going this way, “No, no, no. Let’s remember all these things and all these challenges that you’ve had.” And I pull it out and I needed to read that day in, day out, day in, day out.

Now, a lot of folks out there will say, “Well, a brag sheet, that’s ego, man.” And I want people to recognize this is not a letter to others. That is arrogance, right? This is a letter that you’re writing to yourself. And so, people are like, “Well, how do you define confidence over arrogance and ego?” That’s it. Confidence is what you tell yourself. Arrogance and ego is about what you’re telling others about yourself. And so, it’s important to take this letter, look at yourself in the mirror, take your quiet spot, and engage in this personal reminder of all the amazing things you’ve done.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I really like that. You had it in a letter, I have it on my shelf. There is a black Mead spiral notebook. I haven’t looked at it lately, which might be good or I don’t know if it’s good or bad. I haven’t needed it or felt the need.

Ivan Joseph
Well, that’s it, Pete, right? When you get to that next space, wherever your career or your life will take you when you’ll need it, you know where to get it. You found it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. And it really is so handy. And I think I borrowed this from maybe Tony Robbins who talked about if you have a belief, I still see this diagram in my head. I read this when I was a teenager. It’s like if you have a belief, you need to have some supporting legs, like a table, for your brain to be like, “Yeah, okay, that’s true.”

And so, I think this was in college, I was feeling kind of like a loser because in high school I was just like, I don’t know, I was kind of the man, if you will, in terms of, “Oh, I’m valedictorian and homecoming king,” and I was getting lots of praises and affirmations in all kinds of directions, and then in college, I was like rejected from the sketch comedy team, and the business consulting group, and the other business club, and then the other…and I was like, “What is wrong?” And so, I was feeling pretty down about my capabilities.

And then I just sort of thought, “Well, hey, maybe I’ll just make a list of reasons why the belief that I’m capable of rocking and rolling is true.” And I was like, “Holy smokes, this is a pretty long list. Okay, I guess I’ve just had a bad luck streak, and I’m going to keep trying.” And, sure enough, I found some clubs that would take me and a good college career.

Ivan Joseph
I love what you’re saying because you’re doing what we call as self-confident people interpret feedback differently. And what you’re able to do right now is, “I guess I had a bad streak.” After using some skills, instead of like, “My God, I’m a loser. I’ll never do any good.” And then you start to dig yourself what we call, “Lord, the snake’s belly and a wagon rut,” right? You interpreted those failures differently. That is so key. How we interpret setbacks really sets us apart.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, thank you. And it’s funny, and it wasn’t immediate. I’d say there’s definitely, I don’t know what the time period was, some weeks or so of just like, “Ooh, I suck.” But, eventually, that turned around. So, now, let’s talk about, Ivan, right now, as we’re recording, the coronavirus is a hot topic everywhere on the news, etc. and I’ve been chatting with a few people who have admitted to really experiencing a healthy dose of depression, anxiety, mental health challenges, that is not so typical for them under normal circumstances but, hey, not getting out, not seeing people, not as easy to get to the gym, or all these sorts of rituals habits, routines, healthy good things they got going on are disrupted, and they’re now kind of reaping what they’ve had to. So, hey, help us here. If listeners are experiencing this right now, how might we apply some of these tools to help shorten the time and the funk?

Ivan Joseph
Well, it’s a great question again, right? And so, one of the things you recognize is that we know that thoughts influence our beliefs which influence our actions. And so, when you’re in a funky space, you know that’s you’re thinking, and then it’s influencing your beliefs, and then how you get to the action part.

And so, one of the things that’s really important is in this whole world that we’re using the term social distancing, and the psychologist in me says, “I don’t know if that’s the right term that we should be thinking about. I think the term should be physical distancing, and we should be engaging with the people that are important to us, who add value to us.”

A lot of times when I talk about the lens of confidence, I talk about getting away from the people who will tear you down, which is the negative people, the people who are giving you negative feedback versus critical feedback. But I think the opposite is also true, which means get close to the people who will build you up.

And so, you know who are you and who those people are, and you can know and you can see what are the tells that are telling you, and you’re going off into a place. And you need to pay attention to your physical tells that say you’re getting to a point of stress, and then you need to put yourself in a place where you can connect with those people. And, in today’s world, it’s going to have to be virtual, but with Zoom, with Microsoft Teams, with FaceTime, with Google Hangouts, there’s a way to infuse yourself and your relationships with positivity to help build you up and to help pass you through these troubling times.

When we say we’re all in this together, nobody does it alone. And sometimes we’re so proud and we’re so afraid to share our vulnerabilities, that’s not what confidence or high-performance life is all about. It’s about recognizing that we are in this together.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s good. Now, you mentioned physical stress tells. Please, flag them right up front. So, some listeners might be like, “Huh, that’s been going on.”

Ivan Joseph
You think about it, right? We don’t recognize we need to always talk about stress. There’s two types of stress. There’s distress and there’s eustress. Eustress is the positive pieces that raise our levels and help us perform better. And distress is the one that overwhelms us, how we react to that stress overwhelms us.

I remember when I was first leading, a stressor for me that I was not ready, the skin on my hand started to peel. I started to get like serious, like bad cotton ball mouth. But there’s also a point where I need to be at the right level of performance anxiety in order to get the best out of me. When the butterflies are in your stomach, when you’re feeling your heart start to raise, I know I’m ready. I’m at my peak game.

Have you ever had a client or a guest on your show where you are like, “Man, I was on. I brought my A-game to this guy,” and thought about how you felt just before that moment?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, you know, it’s funny, just before we spoke, I was feeling a little bit like, “Meh,” my energy level was sort of lower and, yeah, I was just sort thinking, “Well, how would I prefer to feel?” I was like, “Well, I’d like to be fascinated and powerful and curious.” So, yeah, I guess that’s how I feel before a great interview.

Ivan Joseph
Right. I think it’s really important about how we connect with those around us, and not just the energy we give but the energy we draw from those people.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you. Well, let’s see, so in your book you mentioned five skills, and it sounds like we’ve hit a few of them: positive thought, team building, grit, higher expectations, and focus. Are there any of these that you think we’ve covered too shallowly and we got to give a little bit more love to before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Ivan Joseph
Well, I think the one that we haven’t touched is this ‘higher expectations’ one, and I think this is really key about we talk about it from the Pygmalion Effect is what we call it in the world of leadership or sport in which people will rise through a minimum level of expectations. And I think this is really important for leaders that are out in the field. It’s about, “How do you lead people to be excellent and confident? And how can you influence them?” And one of the ways is about catching them when they’re good because they’ll raise your minimum level of expectations.

And what I mean by that is we know that if you are critical, if you give negative feedback, “Hey, I need this presentation to look like this. Hey, this chart didn’t have what I needed on it. Hey, I need you to do this, this, and this,” that we know that we’ll get the behavior we want. But, typically, it erodes the relationship. Typically, it creates conflict.

If we can, instead, forget about that, the negative things that people are doing, and instead focus on the team member that might be doing it right, meaning, you’re in a meeting, “Hey, folks, thanks for coming on time to this meeting. It helps us get started.” Or somebody presented a report, “Hey, I love how this report was. Notice the font size is the way I want it. I love that the logo is here on the bottom left.” Instead, what happens is you catch people when they’re good. And what we’ve known and what we’ve seen in the research is that improvement exponentially improves over when we catch them when they’re bad.

In the world of psych, we call this the social learning theory, is that people learn through observation. If we can focus on the excellence, now, what happens is instead of us tearing down a player over here who was really sour or bitter or angry because of our feedback, we built up somebody else, and they feel great and aligned to you and really increase their loyalty and their willingness to follow you, and we’ve said somebody else over here is like, “Oh, I better pay attention. I want that same feedback.” And the whole organization rises because you catch them when they’re good.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, it’s excellent. Thank you. Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Ivan Joseph
Well, I think the last piece is just to remind people that this is a skill. The skill of self-confidence isn’t about just sitting here and, “Okay, I’ve tried. I wrote this letter, I read it once, it didn’t work.” “Oh, I said my affirmation today, and it didn’t happen.” “Well, I tried praise and it still hasn’t happened.” We have to be willing to persist just like the master of any task in the workplace, and give it an opportunity to grab hold.

And so, for the listeners that are out there, be patient with yourselves, and be patient with the people that you’re leading, because good things will happen if you give it an opportunity to shine, and you will see a cultural shift in the people, and, most importantly, or just as importantly, a cultural shift in yourself in how you approach leading.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful. Thank you. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Ivan Joseph
Well, one of my favorites is an old Apple commercial. I always attribute it to Steve Jobs but I know it’s somebody different, but it was after Steve Jobs had been kicked out of his company and he came back, and they launched this commercial in the Super Bowl, and it was called “Here’s to the crazy ones.” I don’t know if you know. It’s really a poem. “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo.” And I’ll fast-forward to the last line, “Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” I love it because it speaks to a higher purpose.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Ivan Joseph
Oh, gosh, being a psychologist, I have a whole bunch. But one of them is a study by Jacobson and Rosenthal. Jacobson and Rosenthal studied the Pygmalion Effect in a New York high school, and what they did was they brought some teachers, and then they said to these teachers, “Hey, we developed this late-blooming acquisition test. It’s an amazing test. It will tell of all your students who the best late bloomers are.”

And so, of course, the teachers said, “Yeah,” and so they administered the test. And these students in the back of the class, the very back, the ones you would think would be the dumbest, most bonehead, because that’s what they sit. At least, that’s where I’ve sat but don’t tell anybody. They said, “These students here scored the highest on the late-blooming acquisition test. We’re going to come back at the end of the year and see how our test works.”

So, Jacobson and Rosenthal show up, and sure enough, at the end of the year, the teachers were excited, “Ah, your late-blooming acquisition, this was amazing, it worked. It did everything what it’s supposed to do.” But, as you can imagine, the magic of it was there was no such thing as a late-blooming acquisition test. It was a confederate. It was a ploy. In fact, what happened was the teachers, because they expected more from these students, they called on them more. They didn’t ask, they didn’t take the dog-ate-my-homework as an excuse. They didn’t say, “I don’t know good enough.” They didn’t say, “Okay, you know how you avoid eye contact when you don’t know the answer?”

By those teachers interacting differently with those students, those students exceeded their own expectations and rose to the expectations of the teachers. And this has been a key tool in my leadership toolbox.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Ivan Joseph
Oh, well, one of my favorite books, and don’t tell anybody because it’s one of those things. It was Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, hey, we have some more Tony Robbins references here, yeah.

Ivan Joseph
Right. Have you read that one?

Pete Mockaitis
I believe it is on my shelf, yeah. When I was a teenager, Tony Robbins was who I wanted to be. Fun fact, I was a weird kid. But, yeah, what’s something useful from that book that was impactful for you?

Ivan Joseph
You know, at the time I read that book I’d flunked out of school and I hadn’t told my parents. And, for me, what I liked about it was it gave you the ownership and the control. It was about awakening the giant within. Stop blaming everybody else outside, external reasons for why you’re not succeeding. It’s time for you to really take ownership, and you have the ability to control your destiny, where you want to be, who you want to be, and what you want to do. And I remember taking that to heart and really just taking my life right by the scruff of the collar and just deciding I was going to drive where I wanted to be.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Ivan Joseph
Well, I’m a big believer in surrounding myself with the right talent. And so, for me, that tool is I’m really careful about who I choose, and I really pay particular attention about who I hire and how I hire. And you always talk about it, it’s like fire fast, hire slow. I don’t think people think enough about building culture, and these other things that when you’re asking the questions around the workplace or in the interview process that will get at, “Who do you want and do they fit?” because that fit is so important. That values alignment is mission critical.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Ivan Joseph
I’m a morning person and I found this out by accident. But one of my favorite habits is getting up early to make sure I align my day up right. That time before anybody gets up is so productive. I’m not part of Sharma’s, 5 AM Club. I’m not that, but I’m probably a 5:30-5:45 club. But the ability to set your day out to really think about what those three big buckets, or four big bucket things are, that’s the way you move your needle.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And tell me, is there a particular nugget that you share and you’re known for, people quote it back to you often?

Ivan Joseph
I think it’s about getting away from the people who will tear you down. I think that’s really important because you will start to believe them. And if you can’t be really careful and mindful of who those people are, then you’re setting yourself up for failure, and they will undo all the good work you’re doing for yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Ivan Joseph
Well, I would point them to You Got This launching soon as an Amazon website, or an Amazon book but I’d also point them to my website Dr. Ivan Joseph coming soon, so stay tuned. You can find me on Twitter, I guess, @DrIvanJoseph.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Ivan Joseph
I think one of the things that I want to remind people is that you’ve got to remember that if you don’t think you can or if you don’t believe in yourself, nobody will. And I want to remind them that they’ve already achieved success, if they’re in a position right now where they’ve done a really nice job, or they’ve been promoted, and so we already know that you’re capable and competent. Just remind yourselves of that and keep reminding of yourselves of that when you go out into that next-level job and opportunity.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Ivan, thanks so much for taking this time. And I wish you lots of luck in all your adventures.

Ivan Joseph
My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Pete. I really appreciate it.

500: Building Unshakeable Self-Esteem and Confidence with Victor Cheng

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Victor Cheng says: "I'm worthy simply because I exist."

Victor Cheng discusses the mindset and habits that lead to powerful self-esteem and self-confidence.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The foundational mindset that yields self-esteem
  2. The three skills for developing healthy self-esteem
  3. How to recover from confidence-shaking setbacks

About Victor:

Victor Cheng is the founder of CaseInterview.com, the most prominent blog on the management consulting industry.  He also serves as a strategic advisor to Inc. 500 CEOs, and has been featured as a business expert in media, including Fox Business TV Network, MSNBC, TIME, The Wall Street Journal, and Forbes.

Victor is a former McKinsey & Company consultant and has been a senior executive in several publicly owned technology companies. He’s a graduate of Stanford University with a degree in quantitative economics, and the author of several business books.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Victor Cheng Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Victor, thanks so much for joining us on the 500th episode of How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Victor Cheng
Thanks, Pete. I appreciate that and honored to be the 500th episode.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Well, I’m delighted to have you and, in a way, I really think of you, I don’t know if you know this, Victor, but your voice is inside my head almost every workday as I think about how to make epic content and build audience. And you’re sort of like maybe my content conscience, the little voice in my head who won’t let me get away with publishing suboptimal stuff, so I think all the listeners can thank you for that.

Victor Cheng
Thank you. I appreciate that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I think one of my favorite tidbits along those lines was we were making a program together for interns, and I had something about, “Hey, have enough clothes ready so that you don’t have to do laundry for two weeks.” And you said, “Pete, this is not sufficient. I need to hear how many blue dress shirts, how many white dress shirts, Like, “Okay. Yes, sir.” And that’s really stuck with me, it’s like, “Okay, am I thinking about this from a, ‘I have two weeks of clothes,’ or am I thinking about this from a, ‘These are the particular garments that you need?’” It makes all the difference.

Victor Cheng
Yeah, I know I think I always like to have, when I help people, I try to be as actionable-oriented as possible and I know some of the preparations you sent over for our talk today was around be actionable as you can, and I strive to do that as best I can and it sounds like you do too.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you, yes. Well, so let’s talk a little bit, you and your team at CaseInterview.com, you serve another audience of professionals who would like to achieve and more and do better. Can you orient us, what’s this brand all about?

Victor Cheng
Yeah, so the case interview term refers to a kind of interview that’s very widely used in the management consulting industry, and I help people who aspire to enter that industry with that interview process, which is very different than other industries. And so, most of my audience are people who at one point in their careers were very interested in that interview process, and most of my readers are either have worked in consulting, used to work in consulting, tried to work in consulting but went in a different direction. And the one thing they have in common, which I think they share with your audience, is they really want to be awesome at their jobs. And so, that’s kind of a tie-in between the two of us.

Pete Mockaitis
And you’re also really great at zeroing in on what do folks really want and need to learn and then building that for them. And so, I understand you and your team, you were kind of surprised when you discovered this need for developing self-confidence and self-esteem. How did that come about?

Victor Cheng
Yeah, the short answer is listening and paying attention. So, I noticed that we would try to help people be successful in their careers in this particular industry. The industry is very difficult to get into, maybe like less than 1% acceptance rate. So, there are a lot of people who strive to get in but can’t, and a lot of them will contact me, and say, “I just feel so down and out. I went very far in the interview process but I didn’t get a job offer that I wanted, or I got a second-tier offer.”

And so, you find these people who are, in many cases, with Ivy League degrees, sometimes multiple Ivy League degrees, feeling they’re kind of worthless when they’ve accomplished almost everything except kind of these one or two things that were really important for them. And so, I realized there was kind of a gap between kind of their achievements and how they feel about themselves. And so, I’m noticing, “Hey, there’s a self-esteem problem.” I see sort of, quite often, within my audience and started to help them with that issue.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s fascinating right there in terms of you said multiple Ivy League degrees and all kinds of credentials and achievements, and yet that’s sort of not enough, they’re not experiencing or feeling the self-esteem and the self-confidence. What do you suppose is underneath that?

Victor Cheng
Well, one of the things I like to distinguish between is the concept of self-esteem versus other esteem. And esteem really is how one feels about one’s self. And how one feels about one’s self kind of either come internally, right, and that would be self-esteem, or it can come from external sources. So, when someone is feeling really rotten about themselves because something outside of them has occurred, they didn’t get into this school they wanted to, they didn’t get the job offer, there was recession, their net worth took a big hit, stock market went down, they didn’t get a promotion, whatever that might be, and that is what I call other-based esteem. And that is when you tie your identity and sense of self worth to things outside of your control in your environment that aren’t always your decision.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, so I think that that’s common and I would certainly prefer to have my esteem coming from myself as opposed to the fluctuating whims of the economy or other people’s opinions. So, how do you pull that off in terms of building that internal fortress of self-esteem?

Victor Cheng
Well, this starts with the mindset and the mentality. I think there are sort of two schools of thought or two ways of looking at the world and human worth, right? So, one is what I call the newborn baby approach, which is when a new child is born, like everyone looks at this baby, “Oh, they’re so amazing, they’re so precious, they’re like perfect in every way possible,” even though probably they aren’t in an objective sense, but that they have inherent worth, that they’re amazing purely because they exist. They haven’t got into Harvard yet, they haven’t had major achievements, they haven’t done many, many things in life because they’re literally just existing. And so, that idea of inherent worth I like a lot. And it’s very much associated with healthy self-esteem.

The other approach, which I mentioned, I alluded to earlier, was we tie our identity to outside achievements. So, one of the important things with developing self-esteem is to accept the premise of self-based esteem. And the premise of good, healthy self-esteem is this concept of inherent worth, that you and I, we’re worthy human beings solely because we are human beings and for no other reason. So, it’s a starting point to buy into that belief.

And anytime one’s actions or instinctive impulses of beating one’s self up for some kind of perceived failure, you have to remind yourself, “I’m worthy simply because I exist.” So, that mindset is an important starting point to have to kick off that process. And then the rest of the process really involves a lot of self-acceptance. When you have, externally, wanting to esteem, your esteem will fluctuate based on kind of the whims and volatility of the external world.

And what a lot of people do when they have the external environment changes for the negative, they feel worse about themselves, and they either beat themselves up, feel ashamed, embarrassed, or irritated at themselves, or shaming themselves. And that is a symptom or a sign of lack of self-acceptance, right?

So, when the world changes, when your life changes, when you make a mistake, healthy self-esteem people say, “No, I still care about myself, I still value myself, I still love myself. I may choose to do things differently going forward based on mistakes and lessons I’ve learned, but as a human being, my worth does not fluctuate based on my achievements or how the external world perceives me.”

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, there are so much really good stuff here and these are some really, I guess, profound philosophical nuggets in terms of I’m thinking about many religions or wisdom traditions. We talked about the intrinsic dignity of a human being, whether it’s Christianity, humans being made in the image and likeness of God, or from a secular perspective, like the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights. And so, I’m with you, I’m bought into that. But if folks aren’t, do you have any kind of support pillars or evidence or how do you persuade them to make the leap?

Victor Cheng
Well, I think it comes twofold. One is the choice, making that choice consciously, and then the second part is there are certain sets of behavior       s and habits and practices that help reinforce that. And so, I don’t have a magic pill, if you would, on how to get someone to sort of buy into that idea. It really is deciding that’s the way you want to live your life. And after that, it’s making a lot of habitual choices and habit changes, which I’d love to talk about, in terms of reinforcing that. But, really, it comes down to a choice because you either say, “Hey, I’m going to live that way,” or not. And then if you decide to live that way, then it’s getting better at the habits around that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, what are some of those habits that go a long way in terms of reinforcing that?

Victor Cheng
Right. So, once you believe that sort of philosophy in life, if you would, and you’ve come to realize the importance of self-acceptance, there are three other skills that are really important to developing healthy self-esteem. And those are what I call individuation, boundaries, and self-care. So, let me explain what each of those are because they’re kind of, you know, those terms come from the psychology world so not everyone may be familiar with them.

But individuation is a huge one. I think this is where a lot of people, myself included, have had difficulty in making the transition from other-based esteem to self-esteem. And individuation basically says, “I am comfortable with myself, with my thoughts, and my feelings, and my identity. And my thoughts, feelings, and identity will not be altered based on your thoughts, and your feelings, and your identity.”

So, for example, do you have a favorite sport, Pete, or a favorite team?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I don’t follow sports much but my favorite sport to participate in would be swimming or weightlifting.

Victor Cheng
Got it, okay. So, Michael Phelps, great swimmer, most of us have heard of him. You could argue Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer of all time. I could argue something completely different. The ability to have what’s called good individuation is where I can feel confident in my decision on who I think the greatest swimmer of all time is, you can feel confident in yours, and we can both acknowledge that we have a difference of opinion on that, right?

So, where you find is some people with very low self-esteem and no self-esteem cannot agree to disagree, right? They have difficulty agreeing to disagree. And what ends up happening is when you see two people with low self-esteem who lack this skill, the arguments never end because they’re trying to convince the other person they are right.

So, a simple example is my favorite flavor of ice cream is vanilla, yours might be chocolate. We could argue who’s right, but what this really is, is a conflict of opinion. You have your opinion for what you feel is the best flavor of ice cream, I have mine, and if we were sort of two healthy people with great self-esteem, we go, “Wait. You like chocolate, I like vanilla,” we agree to disagree, end of conversation, right?

And if you watch most sitcoms, most movies, a lot of marriages, you’ll find people will just argue forever. And the reality is there is no right, particularly when it’s a subjective subject, there is no right answer, right? And it’s really what you decide for yourself. So, people with good individuation won’t get riled up, or triggered, or irritated, or sucked into social media debates about something that’s basically an opinion. And so, that’s one part of healthy individuation, and you can separate the validity of your thoughts around your ideas from other people’s opinions about your ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
And I suppose maybe and this could be a totally different concept.

Victor Cheng
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
But I’m guessing that if you’re strong and healthy there, then you can also be okay discovering that you’re wrong and adopting a new belief, like, “Holy smokes, Victor, you’ve brought up some excellent points about Michael Phelps that I was not previously aware of. I’m going to chew on this, and I may choose to adopt your position, but that doesn’t mean that I am a loser or a moron for having previously held a prior position.”

Victor Cheng
That’s right. And so, people with healthy self-esteem and self-based esteem are able to hear feedback without getting defensive because either of us are totally wrong, or actually there’s some merit there and I can consider it, but regardless of whether I accept it or reject your feedback, in no way is your feedback going to impact my sense of identity and worth because I’m pretty secure in my identity and worth.

And so, that’s why there’s a huge advantage at being awesome at your career when you have good healthy self-esteem because you can listen to feedback without getting defensive. And if you look at some notable figures in sort of in the news these days, some very high-profile people cannot take criticism, they cannot admit when they’re wrong, they can’t take feedback, they can’t apologize, they double and triple down on a position even when all objective data and feedback says they’re wrong, and that can oftentimes be a sign of someone who’s uncomfortable being wrong because they tie being wrong to a sense of poor identity. And so, that can be a very difficult situation to navigate.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I think there’s a famous scientist, and maybe you’ll know this, but there was quote I thought was awesome. It went something like there were two scientists, they were having a bit of a disagreement over time about a theory of sorts, and then one scientist got some great experimental data, then the other scientist said, “Hey, all right. It looks like your theory is right.” And then the person who changed his view got criticized by the prevailing scientist, but then the changing scientist said, “Well, when new evidence, just that my prior beliefs were incorrect, I change my beliefs. What, sir, do you do?” Zing!

Victor Cheng
There you go. There you go.

Pete Mockaitis
I better look that up. All right. Okay, so that’s individuation. And we also got boundaries and self-care.

Victor Cheng
Yeah. So, boundaries would be setting rules for yourself to protect from people who have sort of toxic behaviors. So, one example is like name-calling. Name-calling is very, very damaging on esteem. If you call yourself a name, like, “I’m such a loser,” you do that a thousand times in your life, or 10,000 times, or 100,000 times, it’s going to have an impact, right? So, name-calling and avoiding it is super important to protecting your esteem.

So, one rule is I will never call myself a name, right? And if I do, I will call a timeout and find a different way to express my frustration. That’s an example about an internal boundary, a rule that I govern my own behavior. Another one is around governing what situations I am willing to allow myself to be in. So, for example, for me, if I’m in a situation when someone does engage in sort of very toxic name-calling at me, I have a rule that I will remove myself from that situation.

So, if it is one of my kids, and they’re getting really volatile, I will call timeout for myself. I will leave that room, I let my kids know, “When you’re ready to have this conversation in a respectful way, I’m willing to continue, and let me know when you’ve calmed down.” If it’s a client that does that, which does not last very long, I say the same thing, or eventually I fire them fairly quickly because I don’t want to be around people who would try to bring me down because it is not healthy behavior, not good for me.

So, boundaries are a set of rules, kind of if-then statements, if you would, that ensures that you’re going to be safe and your esteem is going to be protected. It’s a form of self-defense in a healthy productive way. And the way you define a boundary is, “If this scenario happens, then I’m going to do this.” “If I catch myself calling myself a name, then I’m going to immediately stop and try to find some other way to address that feeling.” So, it’s an if-then rule that you decide in advance as you discover the kinds of situations where you really feel very bad, like you don’t want that situation to repeat, you create a new boundary rule for yourself as a way to continually get you safer and safer and protecting your sense of worth.

Pete Mockaitis
So, name-calling, that’s a great area to put some boundaries around. Any other top boundaries you recommend?

Victor Cheng
Yeah, another one would be lack of acceptance of differences. So, for example, you know, we got in this debate of vanilla ice cream versus chocolate. A healthy version of that conversation would be, “Oh, I see, Pete, you like chocolate, I like vanilla. What do you know? We’re different. Okay, that’s great.” And I can affirm and validate that, “I can see clearly, Pete, you like chocolate ice cream,” right? And I don’t have to feel a pressure to try to change your mind, I don’t have to like shame you or say, “Only losers think chocolate ice cream is a bit like…you’ve got to be kidding me, that’s so 1990s.” I don’t have to do any of that putting you down.

So, one form of boundary is to look for people who can receive your ideas and not try to tell you your ideas are wrong. They might share additional information, they might try to persuade you, but they don’t make you try to feel bad just for having an opinion. Another variation of that that’s even more important is feelings. When you have a feeling, a feeling is always valid. A feeling is really a personal experience in how you’re experiencing a situation.

So, for example, if you go to a funeral, and maybe you didn’t know that person very well because you’re maybe with somebody, a significant other and they know the person really well, and you’re very sad because you just felt sad at the funeral. If someone who says, “Why do you feel sad? You didn’t know him, right? Like, that’s so lame,” that would be an example of someone who is encroaching on your right to have your own emotional experience about the situations you encounter.

And it’s neither right or wrong but all emotions have their own experiential validity that can be acknowledged. It’s such a healthy behavior to acknowledge your own feelings and to be around people who are able to acknowledge your feelings even though they don’t necessarily agree with them, and that’s a form of respect that’s important.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, not to muddy the waters too much here, but I’d love it if we can maybe make this even more difficult with regard to, so sometimes we have opinions about things that maybe they are perceived as right and wrong, have big consequences. So, let’s just say that there’s someone who’s vegan and they believe that meat is murder, and that the cows and all of the resources to tend to them are terrible for the earth and the greenhouse gases and CO2 and climate change, and meat is just bad news, and then someone else is an enthusiastic beef eater who’s into that. So, now, these folks need to co-exist and they have strong feelings. So, does that change the game at all or how do you think about those situations?

Victor Cheng
It depends on the context of the disagreement. If it is in general, “Is veganism right or wrong? Is eating meat right or wrong?” that’s one kind of conversation. And the other would be more like policy change, make changing the laws that govern society because laws impact all of us and, therefore, we need to settle that dispute. But if it’s a matter of personal choice, relating a healthy interaction is, “Pete, I see you feel very strongly about being vegan and I respect that choice that you make for yourself. It’s not the choice I’m comfortable making for myself and I can see that we’re different, but I totally honor and respect that that’s what you’ve chosen for your life.”

And you might say, “Hey, Victor, there’s some new information that you might not be aware of, we should be open to hearing some reasons why you, Victor, might want to consider eating less meat or even converting to veganism.” And I would say either, “Yes, I’m open to hearing about it,” or, “No, I’m not,” right?

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Victor Cheng
If I say, “No, I’m not,” and you push it anyway then you’re crossing a boundary. You’re trying to control my personal life choices. This is my body, I control what I do with my body, and you’re encroaching on that limit. If I invite you, “You know, I heard a lot about it, I’ve seen some documentaries, I’ve seen some companies that try to make money in that market, yeah, I’m curious. What have you seen? Why are you vegan? Is it environmental? Is it philosophical? Is it moral? I’d be curious to learn more.” So, if I give you an invitation, and you accept that, then you can fully discuss that.

So, it is recognizing when a choice is yours to make, when it is somebody else’s to make, or if it is something that we are in it together. So, for example, we’ve got a coupon to go buy ice cream and we can only get like one pint of ice cream and we got to choose vanilla or chocolate, then we have a decision to make, that’s a joint decision. And we can agree that you like chocolate, that I like vanilla, you think chocolate is the best in the world, I think vanilla is the best in the world, that’s fine. We agree to disagree on our opinions on that but we still have to make a resource allocation decision because we can only get one, and that becomes a problem-solving exercise of, well, how do we solve that problem.

So, again, it depends on whether this is a judgment of somebody’s personal choice or is some kind of joint decision, or social decision, or team decision, or in a couple, a marital decision that impacts both people. So, that’s kind of the distinction between those two.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And now let’s hear about self-care.

Victor Cheng
Well, self-care is recognizing that in many ways you have to take care of yourself because you can’t always rely on somebody else to do it for you. And I think healthy relating is about taking responsibility for your own health, physically and mentally, and to look out for yourself. And I think healthy relating is when two people, if we’re talking about a romantic context, two people in a couple, they’re monitoring themselves, they’re figuring out what they need, they are requesting help from their partner when that help is needed, but it is their own responsibility to look out for themselves and to ask for help when they need it.

I think things get problematic when people sort of assume somebody else is going to take care of them for you, particularly if you just assume it but don’t actually ask or have them consent to it or form some kind of agreement. So, I think good maintenance and support of self-esteem involves taking care of yourself.

So, a simple example, it is very hard to have high self-esteem if, for example, you lack the ability to provide for yourself financially, right? So if you’re in an abusive relationship, whether that’d be like a marital one or working for a terrible boss, if you are dependent on that other person for your financial resources and they put you down, for example, it’s very hard to walk away because you have a form of dependence on them that makes it very hard to assert your boundaries to keep yourself emotionally safe.

So, if you have your own ability to earn your own living, you have a resume that’s strong, you have the ability to go get other jobs if you need to, then it becomes easier to say, when someone steps across the line, to say, “You know, that wasn’t cool with me. I’d like you to stop doing that.” And if it happens repeatedly then I need to reevaluate whether I can be in this form of relationship with you or not. And that gives you a lot of power to take care of your needs when you have the ability and means to take care of yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when you say self-care, I was originally envisioning meditation and massage and sleep, but you’re thinking about just actually having the means to care for yourself.

Victor Cheng
Yeah, and that’s certainly included in that, but it is a very broad sense. So medical health, dental, like the basics of life. It is very hard to feel good about yourself if you feel ill, right? And so those two go together. So, all those skills become a form of esteem. So, think about the opposite, think about sort of the stereotype of the man-child, right? Usually male, maybe in the 20s, 30 years of age, and they just can’t take care of themselves at all. They aren’t able to feed themselves. They can’t do their own laundry, they have difficulty paying bills, and they feel bad about themselves.

And so even though they have inherent worth, they feel bad because, like, “I have to rely on everyone else around me to do anything.” And so, it’s very hard to feel that sense of internal power when a lot of basic needs you can’t meet for yourself. You’re just so reliant on other people. So, you can see how someone would naturally gravitate towards having this sense of worth be tied to other people’s opinions that fluctuate just because they do when you can’t take care of yourself. You get much more sense of a grounded-ness around a volatile world when you have the ability to take care of yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, that’s really true. And what’s coming to mind for me right now is the funniest example. But we had a situation in which, well, I guess, so we’re recent homeowners.

Victor Cheng
Oh, cool.

Pete Mockaitis
And so it’s kind of doesn’t feel so great, I guess from a self-care perspective, when I don’t really understand what the heck is going on with so many of the systems, with plumbing, or electrical, or whatever, and maybe people feel this way like when they go to the mechanic with their car. And like, “I don’t know what’s going on, I hope you’re not lying to me and ripping me off with the work that needs to happen.”

And then, by contrast, we had this experience where our refrigerator temperature was just going up in such that it wasn’t even cool anymore and we had to throw some things out, and that was sort of frustrating because it was only like three years old. And so, I went through a process of assessing the temperature with this cool temperature laser gun and watching some YouTube videos.

Victor Cheng
That sounds like you, by the way.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, clearing some stuff out and opening a panel on the freezer and discovering that there was a huge ice clog where the cold air flow would go from the freezer so I resolved all of this, and then things worked properly. And I just felt awesome.

Victor Cheng
Yeah, of course.

Pete Mockaitis
I am capable of ensuring that my family’s food remains safe and cool.

Victor Cheng
Yep, I can totally relate. And I recently moved in this new house. Like, a lot of little things I didn’t like, it’s like light switches and light bulbs are wrong, so I changed all the light switches, they’re all motion-sensor lights. I put timers in the bathrooms because I wanted them to have an auto off, so I changed all that, and a few amounts of electrical works, I changed out a chandelier. I did this like 15 years ago when I first bought a house a long time ago, and it felt really good to be able to do it myself. And, sure, I could’ve hired an electrician but these are literally 10-minute jobs, there’s something very satisfying for me about doing that.

And this will be kind of crossed over from self-esteem into self-confidence. So, what you just talked about, what I just talked about, is we are developing competence in certain areas, and part of that feeling of feeling really good is feeling confidence in our competence in our ability to do certain things. And sometimes people kind of get self-esteem and confidence mixed up, but this is probably a great segue to switch it over to talk more about self-confidence and where that comes from.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes, please. Well, how about we hit that distinction, and then we talk about self-confidence?

Victor Cheng
So, self-esteem really is how you feel about yourself and your worth as a human being. It’s very global around the essence of who you are. And confidence tends to be situational-dependent around particular areas of skill. So, I am not confident at dancing ballet, okay? Not my thing, never done it, never taken a class, I watched my kids do it when they’re little, but I feel very un-confident in my ability to dance ballet. In fact, I feel terrified if I had to do that in public.

But when it comes to this case interview thing, the thing I’m known for professionally, I’ve been doing it for so long, I’ve done it so many times, I’m very confident in my core area of expertise professionally. And so, confidence is about a specific domain of activity whereas self-esteem is about your domain as a human being. That’s kind of the difference in scope between those two concepts.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s very clear. And so, when it comes to boosting self-confidence within a domain, how does that go about?

Victor Cheng
First, there’s competence. How good are you at something objectively? There is what I call outer confidence. What are your behaviors and actions, and how do they signal your comfort level with that particular skill? So, an example would be you see something in a job interview and they feel, they act very nervous, very fidgety, they say, “Hmm,” and “Ahh” a lot, and they look un-confident, and that prompts an external person to question their competence. So, it’s this idea of outside or external confidence, how you come across.

And then there’s internal confidence which is really how you feel about your skill level in that particular area. So those three, I think, are more useful way to think about this idea of confidence because sometimes you can act confident but be really incompetent and not know what you’re doing and people figure that out eventually. You can be really good at what you do but you sort of underperceive your own skill level and you sell yourself short a lot. That might be something called like impostor syndrome if you’re familiar with that term. So, it’s useful to have those distinctions because you address each of those particular challenges in those three different areas quite differently.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, I’d love to hear, so if you want to build that up, how would you recommend making it happen?

Victor Cheng
Several what not to do. So, one thing people often suggest is to come across as more confident, “Fake it till you make it.” You’ve heard that phrase. And I disagree with that a lot. I like this idea of what I call earned confidence, which means like I put in the work, I feel good about myself, and I demonstrate that. So, in your case, it’s around the refrigerator. In my case it’s around light switches. We put in the work, we learned the skill, we got better at it, we feel really good internally about it, that inner confidence, and then as we talk about what we’ve done, we express our stories and our experiences in a confident way, and it comes across. It’s sort of a standard cycle when everything works really well.

So, the first foundation of all this is to really accurately assess your competence level. Like, what is your skill level in this area? So, with ballet, for example, my skill level is zero, right? My confidence is also zero. It makes no sense for me to try to fake till I make it because I’m just going to look like a fool. Better to admit it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, these are the American Idol people.

Victor Cheng
Yeah, better to admit it than to prove it to other people. So, if I want to improve my confidence as a ballet dancer, what I really need to do is to work on my competence, work on my skill level, and learn, and put in the work, to learn the skill, and to get good at it. And as that improves, for someone with good self-esteem, as your competence improves so does your confidence because they’re supposed to go hand-in-hand when you have a good sense of self-esteem.

So, for those situations where, again, foundation is there, good sense of self-esteem, you’re lacking a skill in an area, you don’t feel defensive about it, you can completely admit you don’t know, you want to learn, you want to receive feedback, the next step really is just to go get the skill. Learn, read a book, YouTube videos, whatever it is, get the skill, practice the skill, get good, and confidence naturally flows from that because you’ve earned it, because you’ve rightfully earned it. So, that’s sort of like the ideal scenario.

Sometimes people have a situation where they have that skill level but for whatever reason they are either over or underconfident particularly externally. And oftentimes that can be sometimes a sign of low self-esteem. So, for example, if I’m really good at what I do, but I constantly put myself down, I’m constantly like really unsure of myself, yet my track record is 100% correct, like my objective track record is amazing, but the way I act about that and express that is very, very poor, that can be a self-esteem, a signal of a self-esteem problem because maybe I feel like I don’t deserve this feeling of confidence that I’ve rightfully have earned but don’t feel comfortable accepting. And so that becomes a different way of solving that problem.
So when you’ve earned the right to be confident but you just can’t do it, that becomes more of an issue of looking at your sense of self-esteem, the things we talked about earlier about self-acceptance, individuation, having good boundaries, and self-care, and you kind of go back to the foundation sort of shore up the foundation. The flipside is also true where if you are always overconfident and the way you express your level of skill is far greater than your actual skill level, that’s called arrogance, right? And you’ll see people oftentimes perceived as arrogant.

In those situations, their sort of cockiness is one that’s not earned and kind of rubs a lot of people the wrong way when they’re overly confident, they have not earned the right to have that confidence. Michael Phelps says he’s the best swimmer of all time. That’s like called accurate thinking, right? He’s confident, he’s not cocky, he’s not arrogant, it’s just true. If I say I’m the greatest swimmer in the world, I’m being an arrogant fool because, clearly, I’m not, right?

And so, if I’m doing that regularly, always overestimating my own sense of competence in an area, projecting a level of confidence that is not earned, that, too, is a form, oftentimes a form of low self-esteem. And it’s a little counterintuitive but the reason that happens is because people with low self-esteem cannot bear the thought of being thought of as poorly, or being imperfect, or having flaws, or having to learn something because they haven’t developed the skill yet so they go around pretending and projecting a level of confidence that’s not warranted as a way to hide the fact that they’re really ashamed of their skill level. And so that, too, can also be a form of self-esteem problems.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. Well, this is very helpful in terms of the distinctions and a means of folks recognizing themselves in some of this. you can kind of diagnose, “Okay, well, then what are the interventions that’s going to make the impact?” Because it’s a very different road in terms of, “Okay, hey, got to build some skills,” versus, “I got to see if I really do buy into this notion that my worth doesn’t fluctuate with other people’s opinions.”

Victor Cheng
Yeah, and it’s an entire process. I like the word practice. It’s a practice to stay focused on yourself, to stay grounded, and to get your sense of worth from internally. And I think it’s important to only be in situations that can reinforce that and try to avoid situations where that gets eroded over time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I want to hear, if you do take a hit, like so you have many folks that you know who they had big dreams, the dream job, the interview didn’t go their way, or there’s disappointment, or demotion, or getting fired, when you take a hit, what’s sort of your recommended SOS or recovery strategy there?

Victor Cheng
Yeah, so when you want something, you don’t get it, sort of the natural and appropriate and healthy reaction is a feeling of disappointment, right? “I wanted that, I didn’t get it, I feel disappointed.” So, someone with healthy self-esteem will feel naturally disappointed. They’re human, that’s what they do. What’s unhealthy and more indicative of low or no self-esteem is when a setback occurs and rather than be disappointed, they go way beyond that to say, “I’m a loser. I feel worthless.” At the extreme, it’s, “Maybe I should kill myself,” that would be the extreme version of that, “because I didn’t achieve, and, therefore I have no value. When I have no value, well, logically, why would you want to continue living if you have no value.” That’s kind of the weird mental cognitive distortion of that sort of spirals around suicidal ideation and whatnot.

So, the SOS on that really is sort of going back to around self-esteem, and when there is a setback, one of the things you want to do is to have self-acceptance. This goes back to one of the key steps of self-esteem, is having self-acceptance. And one thing I didn’t mention earlier about self-acceptance is rather than using other people’s opinions or achievement as sort of your scorecard on how you feel about yourself, the opposite of that is to have an internal scorecard, if you would, on how you feel about yourself and, in particular, have the internal scorecard not be around achievement but around values, what are your personal values, what’s important to you in life.

And so, I’ll give you an example. So, a couple of my values includes respect, kindness, love, adventure, learning, teaching, these are things that are important to me. And, for me, at the end of my day, like, “Did I have a good day?” That’s the question I ask myself, “Did I have a good day this week? Or this day? Did I have a good week this week? A good month this month? Did I have a good year?” And it’s easy to use as sort of measuring stick to make that determination. Again, the alternative is to have an internal measuring stick around your own values.

So, for me, regardless of whether I have a setback or not, I say, “Well, today, was I respectful to myself and to others?” I go, “Yeah, I think I was.” “Was I kind to myself and others?” “Well, yeah, I was.” “Did I learn something new today?” “Oh, yeah, I definitely learned a lot today because I made some mistakes.” “Did I teach something today?” because I’m big on teaching. “Like, yeah, I did teach somethings to my kids. I turned this failure into a lesson for my kids and so they can learn from my mistakes so I feel good about that.”

And, basically, you kind of go through the list of your own personal values, and you go, “Okay, did I live by my values today? Separate from outcomes, separate from what may have happened, positive or negative, did I live by my values?” And if I do, it was a good day. And if I didn’t then I have the option to do better tomorrow. So, it’s a good way to buffer one’s self from specific outcomes because you can’t always control the outcomes. We can only control what we put into the outcome.

So, you can control the inputs, cannot always control the outputs, and the way to measure your value from a sense of self-worth standpoint is to compare your inputs relative to your values and see if you’ve lived the way you wanted to and did you put in the effort the way that you wanted to. And then if you did, be happy with yourself because you did what you’re supposed to do in the way you want to do it. And what happens, not always in your control.

Pete Mockaitis
And I imagine it really is powerful compounded sort of day after day, week after week, with those check-ins in terms of really forming kind of like an unshakeable core in terms of, “This is who I am and what I’m about and what’s more important to me is how my check-in goes internally than whether you give me this opportunity right now.”

Victor Cheng
Yeah, and I think the inverse is also true. If you don’t do the internal check-in against your internal scorecard, then the temptation is very, very strong to do it with the external scorecard, right? So, “I didn’t get the job offer,” “My net worth wasn’t as high as my friends and peers,” “I didn’t get the promotion. I got passed over.” Whatever setback you have in your external world and have lived it. It’s a miserable way to live because these are things that aren’t in your control. But how you contribute to what you do and how you show up, how you put in the effort, how you conduct yourself and your own behaviors, that is 100% in your control. 

And so that’s why it’s less volatile is because it’s in your control. And you can control it. And if it doesn’t go well, you can change it. When it’s very achieve- and externally-driven, you can’t control it, which means if you had a bad day you can’t even fix it because it’s something somebody else is deciding, not yourself. And that’s a very hard way to have a very calm and peaceful life when you’re always dependent on the whims of the external world, which is at times quite whimsical.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. So, that’s powerful stuff. Victor, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Victor Cheng
I’ll mention one other thing that kind of can sort of get people on the wrong track around self-esteem. Self-esteem, when done well, comes from parents with good self-esteem, that’s maybe a better way to say that. So, when they’re pretty comfortable with who they are, they’re very well individuated in the sense that you can disagree with your parents and they’ll be okay with that, and they have good boundaries, and they have good self-care, they’re good parents who have that skillset are going to naturally teach that to the kids.

When that process sort of goes awry is how you end up with adults who have other esteem, like myself for most of my life. And so, this concept of what I call traumas, that’s useful to be aware of. A trauma can be like a major life event. So, like if your parents were killed in a car crash and you’re orphaned at five years of age, like this whole process of building self-esteem gets completely contorted and can get really off the rails, right? That’s an example of a major trauma.

Another example of trauma is what I call a micro trauma. It’s lots of little things that erode your esteem what otherwise would develop in childhood, and that could be as simple as your parents only paid attention to you when you brought back a perfect 4.0 GPA. You got all As and suddenly they’re really excited about that. And you got one B and they kind of look the other way. And it was very clear that you weren’t approved of, right? When that happens hundreds of times, thousands of times in little ways, those micro traumas, they really add up. And so, even if nothing major negative happened in your life going up until maybe age 20, if a lot of little things just repeat over and over and over again, you can still destroy the normal path of self-esteem through sort of this erosion of what I call micro traumas.

So, that’s something to realize. If you haven’t been around people with a lot of high self-esteem, particularly the people who raised you, that’s a very high likelihood you’re going to have the same kind of other-based esteem that they may have. And people with other esteem tend to inflict micro traumas on the people around them. And so, it’s just something to be aware of to get with your own behavior towards others and also to be mindful of the other behaviors that you’re receiving from others to determine whether that’s something you want to be around or not.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, thank you.

Victor Cheng
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Victor Cheng
There are several that I like coming out of the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I found that book when I was 17, 16, and it’s taken me more decades than I care to count to try to master the seven habits. I think I’ve gotten six down. I’m still working on the last one for the last two decades which is around self-care, ironically. He calls it renewal or sharpening the saw, which is another word for self-care and taking good care of yourself in all aspects.

So, I like all the seven habits. I think one is “Begin with the end in mind,” what do you want to achieve in your life and kind of work backwards. Another one which is really great for self-esteem is “First seek to understand the other person before you seek to be understood.” And so that goes back to our example of why you like veganism versus not, why you like chocolate ice cream versus vanilla, and be able to hear other people. You can only do that really well if you have good esteem where you don’t feel threatened by somebody’s opinion that might be different than yours. You can genuinely hear them and understand them, that’s a very useful skill.

So, I love all of seven habits and I find those quite useful as a way to live life.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Victor Cheng
Let’s see. Well, personally, I carry a Leatherman. I have one in my belt right now. It’s a multifunction tool, kind of like a Swiss Army knife but better.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, literally, a collection of physical tools.

Victor Cheng
Yeah, literally. It does really. That helps me function around the house much better. I like that. And then, let’s see, on the job. I like Trello, which is a workflow management tool. I use that as a workflow management tool. I like that for coordinating multiple tasks, I need to follow a set process, that’s really useful for my team from a management standpoint and working in collaboration with others.

And then, individually, it seems really basic but let me explain it because it’ll seem kind of too basic, but my calendar. I think the calendar is a very, very powerful tool and there are probably two things I do with it that are probably a little atypical which I’ll mention. So, one is, and this reminds me, I’m not doing it currently but I’m going to start because I don’t like being a hypocrite. But for many years I would set appointments with myself.

So, most of us will set appointments with other people. I like to set appointments with myself. And the appointments I set with myself or for myself are either do things I want to work on because they’re important, or they are related to self-care. So, there are certain timeslots in a week that I do self-care activities and I will schedule that in there as a deliberate way of taking care of myself in being productive and effective.

And this can be time to read, the time to take an online class, they can be more mundane like I go to the chiropractor regularly, I had one yesterday. That was on my calendar. I carved out time to go to do that. And that can be very, very useful. The other part around the calendar that I use is I really like setting recurring appointments. I use Google Calendar and they can do this sort of every Monday, every Thursday at 2:00 o’clock kind of a thing. And what I’ll do is I will set recurring appointments with people that I’m close to, like my close friends.

And so, the reason I like that is I can make one decision to have a recurring phone call with somebody, like every Tuesday at 2:00 o’clock, and that can oftentimes, in my case, it’s gone on for years, in some cases decades.

And so it takes a lot of time to connect with people with a similar sort of philosophy in life, and that’s very enjoyable without spending, in some cases, more time trying to schedule the phone call than the actual phone call itself, which is very true for myself because I’m quite busy and a lot of my friends who are equally busy. So, I like that as a productivity tool as well.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Victor Cheng
Sure. So, one of the things I wanted to offer for your folks is I have a class around how to improve your self-esteem, and I wanted to give everyone an excerpt to that free as a gift. And people can get that at CaseInterview.com/awesome sort of as a gift to all the people who are awesome here looking to be awesome at their careers. So, again, that’s CaseInterview.com/awesome and that’s a free excerpt from my class on how to improve your self-esteem and develop unshakable confidence.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Thank you. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Victor Cheng
Yeah, I think I’ll leave everyone sort of a quote from Stephen Covey, from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Begin with the end in mind,” figure out what you want for your life, your career, and work backwards, it’s a process for getting there. It’s been very useful for me. I encourage others to do it, and I would challenge everyone to think about that and to work backwards and to work towards it once you figure that process.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Victor, thank you so much for sharing this good stuff here and for all the ways you’ve helped me learned and grow. It’s been a real treat.

Victor Cheng
Great. I appreciate it. Thanks for having me on.

465: The Cure for Impostor Syndrome: How to Feel Less Like a Fraud and Appreciate Your Successes with Dr. Valerie Young

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Valerie Young says: "We think we're supposed to excel at everything but we're not going to."

Valerie Young sheds light on the impostor syndrome and shows the healthy way out.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Just how prevalent impostor syndrome is
  2. The 5 impostor syndrome archetypes
  3. How to strategically shift your thinking from impostor to non-impostor

About Valerie 

Dr. Valerie Young is an internationally-known expert on impostor syndrome and author of award-winning book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It (Crown Business/Random House), now available in five languages.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Valerie Young Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Valerie, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Valerie Young
I’m really excited, Pete. Thanks for asking me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m excited too. And so, we’re going to talk about impostor syndrome, which is a hot topic for listeners. But I want to start with hearing a little bit about your personal history and I guess origin story for how you and the impostor syndrome topic got to be well-acquainted.

Valerie Young
Well, very, very well-acquainted. I didn’t even know there was a name for these feelings until I was in a doctoral program when I was about 21 years old at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and someone brought in a paper by Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes. Those are the two psychologists who first coined the term the impostor phenomenon, as it is more accurately known in the world of psychology.

And she started reading from this study, and going, “Oh, my gosh, listen to this, everybody. They found that all these intelligent, capable, competent people feel like they’re fooling folks and they’re going to be found out.” I was just nodding my head like a bobblehead doll.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting.

Valerie Young
I was like, “Oh, my God, that’s me. There’s a name for this? Other people feel this way?” So, it’s tremendously liberating just to know that there was a name.

Pete Mockaitis
And then you found a posse of impostors. Tell us about that.

Valerie Young
Well, I did. Now, I’ve gone on to speak to many tens of thousands of graduate students and, yeah, it turns out it’s really epidemic amongst, especially, graduate students for a host of reasons. But, basically, looked around the room, while I was nodding my head like a bobblehead doll, and all the other graduate students were nodding their head.

So, I often tell the story, Pete, that we decide to get together after class for a little impostor support group, and we would talk about being intellectual frauds and how we’re fooling all of our professors, and everything went great for about three weeks. And then I started to get this nagging sense that even though the other students were all saying they were an impostor, like I knew I was the only real impostor. So, clearly, they were phony impostors and I was like a super impostor.

Pete Mockaitis
An impostor amongst impostors.

Valerie Young
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
And they were probably thinking the same thing, like, “Ha, ha, ha, this is really kind of a funny joke that we’re saying but I don’t think they mean it.”

Valerie Young
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, intriguing. So, you mentioned then, I guess, a little bit of the definition for impostor phenomenon or impostor syndrome. Can we hear, I guess, the official or, since you’ve done decades of research on this, your definition for what we call impostor syndrome if you were to give like a quick dictionary sentence or two?

Valerie Young
Sure. Well, I think, as it’s commonly understood, Pete, is this sense, this feeling experienced by countless millions of people around the world, across culturally, across industries, this sense that, “I’m in over my head and I’m going to be found out.” And what really makes impostor syndrome very specific is that there’s concrete clear evidence of one’s accomplishments or capabilities and, yet, people who felt like impostors tend to dismiss them, minimize them, or chalk them up to external factors like luck, timing, computer error, personality, and those kinds of things. But the overwhelming fear then, really, is that you’re going to be found out.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, the fear, it’s a fear you’re going to be found out as opposed to, I guess, low self-esteem, it’s just like, “I’m not really very smart or good or anything.” But I guess impostor syndrome has that extra dose of there’s an outcome that you’re dreading and think really could happen to you.

Valerie Young
Yeah, there’s definitely an outcome. But I think, additionally, Pete, now there are some studies, let me be clear, some studies on impostor phenomenon have connected, found a connection between self-esteem and impostor feelings. Other studies have not found a connection, which tells me, it’s possible to have healthy self-esteem and still have impostor feelings.

How I look at it is self-esteem, think of it as kind of a global sense we have about ourselves kind of across the board. But impostor feelings are very specific to achievement areas, work, school, business, career. You don’t feel like an impostor when you’re walking the dog or emptying the dishwasher, right? But you do at a job interview, or going to your first pitch when you start your new business, or when you’re being challenged on your work, things like that.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, just to make it clear, you shared a couple of words, thoughts, phrases, internal sub-talk, bits you might have in terms of, “Oh, they’re going to find me out.” But just to make this really real and resonant and connected for people, can we hear some kind of recurring words and phrases internally that impostors say to themselves all the time and so we can maybe recognize ourselves within that?

Valerie Young
Well, I think, clearly, it’s the “I’m going to be found out, that I’m in over my head. I don’t know what I’m doing. Everyone else is smarter than me. If I was really competent, I wouldn’t need any help. If was really competent I’d feel confident.” It’s interesting, like the fact that you even struggle with impostor feelings or confidence, in the mind of the person who feels like an impostor, just kind of proves that they must be an impostor, “Because if I was really competent, I wouldn’t feel this way.”

The sense that, “I should know 150%. This shouldn’t be this hard. If I was really competent, I should be able to kind of hit the ground running and figure this out and master it very quickly.” So, the voices kind of vary depending on how the person is judging or measuring their own competence.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, that’s an interesting notion right there, it’s like it’s sort of related to a catch 22 or is it the opposite? But it’s sort of just like, “If I am feeling unconfident, or if I’m having a hard time, I’m struggling, there’s difficulty, then that means I’m no good.” And so, could you share the truth of the matter? What does it mean when we struggle and are feeling unconfident? If it does not mean that we’re frauds, what does it mean?

Valerie Young
I think it probably means we’re in the middle of a normal learning curve.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, there you go.

Valerie Young
You know, where we started something new or unfamiliar. But the problem is that how we view that. The non-impostor, if you will, says, “Well, gee, I’ll figure it out as I go along,” or, “Well, I’ve only been here a week. I can’t possibly know everything there is to know about this job,” right? But the non-impostor walks in and expects themselves to hit the ground running and to pick things up incredibly quickly. So, it’s a difference between how you frame that situation.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, let’s talk about non-impostors for a moment. And, first, so can you share with us what’s the data suggest in terms of the proportion of people, professionals if you have it, who experience this impostor syndrome?

Valerie Young
You know, Pete, there’s this percentage that’s been thrown around since the 1980s, I believe, late ‘70s, early ‘80s from Gail Matthews, where it kind of originated, is that up to 70% of high-achieving people have experienced these feelings to varying degrees at one time or another, which is pretty high, which means we’re actually in the majority, which of course begs the question, “What’s up with the other 30? Why aren’t we studying them? Why aren’t we writing dissertations about them?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, 70% that is striking. Well, Gail Matthews, I’ve cited a paper of hers about goal setting in dozen of keynote speeches, so I feel like I should give her a high five or a hug.

Valerie Young
Oh, wow, that’s very cool.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I’ve never met her in person but I can see the bar chart slide in my mind’s eye, but back to the number at hand. Seventy percent are saying that they experience it and 30% don’t. Can we just get a glimpse of their world for a moment? Like, I don’t know, is that dangerous in its own right if you don’t have any impostor syndrome? Are these the folks who have exaggerated views of their own competence and end up singing terribly on American Idol and feeling very foolish? Or what’s the non-impostor life like?

Valerie Young
You know, it’s interesting you say that because that’s definitely some portion of that 30% have, as you say, the opposite problem, which is irrational self-confidence syndrome, that their sense of their knowledge and abilities far exceeds their actual knowledge and abilities, which was actually a phenomenon that became documented by Professor Dunning at Cornell. It’s now known as the Dunning-Krueger Effect that did find through multiple consistent studies, that found that the people who have the lowest expectations for how they’re going to perform on an exam, for example, performed the best, and the people who were quite certain that they were going to ace it, often performed the worst. So, we often don’t see our own limitations.

But here’s the thing, and that’s why I don’t buy into this notion of we should embrace our impostor syndrome because it keeps us humble, because I think it’s a false choice, Pete. It’s like the choices between, “I’m going to be an arrogant kind of smartest guy in the room person who really isn’t that competent, or an impostor,” I mean, you know, most are going to go, “Oh, I’ll keep the impostor syndrome.” But I think that there’s a whole middle ground of people I describe as kind of non-impostors who are part of that 30% who just have a very different way of viewing the world.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s intriguing. And so, they might view the world in that they have exaggerated views of themselves. Or, do you think they’re just super healthy with regard to their acknowledging, “Yeah, so I am in the middle of a normal learning curve”? Do you think that’s more the picture there?

Valerie Young
Absolutely. I always tell people that the only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like an impostor. Let’s separate out the arrogant people who really are not competent, let’s kind of put them in a different box right now. What I’m talking about is people who don’t feel like impostors in a healthy kind of way. They’re more intelligent, capable, competent, qualified than the rest of us. The only difference between them and us is in the exact same situation that triggers an impostor response in us, they are thinking different thoughts. That’s it. Which I think is incredibly good news because it means all we have to do is learn how to think like non-impostors.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, I was going to get to it later but I can’t resist. All right. How do we do that? What are the key ways we need to adjust our thinking?

Valerie Young
Well, there’s three kind of categories of things that non-impostors think differently about, Pete. First of all, they think differently about competence.

Pete Mockaitis
Competence.

Valerie Young
Competence, yeah.
People who feel like impostors tend to fall into different kind of mindsets about how they measure our competence, right? We hold ourselves to these unrealistically high, unsustainably high standards that no human could consistently hit. So, you might be a perfectionist, for example, in your kind of mental rulebook, 99 out of 100 will be unacceptable. Forgetting to make some minor point in an otherwise flawless presentation, you’ll beat yourself up endlessly.

But the non-impostor, they still can set high standards for themselves, and they have a healthy drive to excel, but they don’t feel shame when they fall short as long as they tried their best. Other people who feel like impostors, their definition of impostor syndrome, and this is five of them, I’m happy to go through them or not.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do them all, yeah.

Valerie Young
But the second one is kind of the knowledge version of the perfectionist, the person I think of as kind of the expert. That doesn’t mean they are an expert. It means that they think they have to know 150% before they speak up, raise their hand, start their business, go after a promotion, and they’re just endlessly searching for that, like waiting to wake up one day and think, “Now, I’m an expert.” So, they never feel like they know enough.

Then there’s the person I describe as the natural genius. Again, it’s not that they’re a genius. It’s that they’ve somehow got it into their head that, “If I was really intelligent, capable, competent, this wouldn’t be this hard.” So, the fact that they struggle to understand something, or master something, in their mind kind of proves they’re an impostor because they’re defining competence as being about ease and speed. They look at other people, and they think, “Oh, that looks so easy.” And then they try it, and it’s hard. But they don’t understand that that other person worked their ass off to get good, or they might be naturally good at something, which we all are.

Then there’s the soloist, as it sounds, who thinks it only counts if they do it all by themselves. So, they’re going to feel shame if they have to ask for help, they don’t give themselves credit if it’s a team effort, and then, of course, the superwoman/superman/super student who expects themselves to excel across multiple roles they play in their life.

So, non-impostors think differently about competence in that they realize that not everything can or needs to be perfect. Sometimes you just have to kind of jump in and figure it out, or like just don’t persevere over the routine tasks. Obviously, if you’re flying a plane or you’re performing surgery, please be a perfectionist. But the mantra I hear from a lot of very successful multimillionaire entrepreneurs is, “Half ass is better than no ass.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Valerie Young
And they don’t mean do a bad job. But they’re not letting perfectionism hold them back. It’s like they know the first version is never going to be as good as the tenth version. So, kind of get it out the door and you can course correct as you go along. So, they’re looking at it very differently.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, so there you have it. We have sort of five archetypes.

Valerie Young
Yeah, kind of competence types really.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, so, let’s see. We got the knowledge, we got the natural genius, we got the soloist, we got the super students.

Valerie Young
Superwoman/Superman.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And what’s the fifth one?

Valerie Young
The perfectionist, the expert, the natural genius.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, perfectionist. Okay, got it. Interesting. So, each of these, they have sort of a lie that they’re clinging to and you sort of need to see the light based upon sort of where you fall in. And so, is there any kind of bridge you recommend that we cross in order to pull that off successfully or consistently?

Valerie Young
Yeah, I think it goes back to learning to think like a non-impostor. Like, when you’re having this moment where you’re holding yourself to these unrealistic unsustainable standards, to kind of step back and say, “How would a non-impostor think and feel and act in this same situation?”
And it’s not just competence that they think differently about. People who don’t feel like impostors also look at failure, mistakes, and criticisms differently and they have a different response to fear.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s cover each of these contrasts or distinctions then. So, how do we think like non-impostors in each of those contexts?

Valerie Young
Well, people who feel like impostors, experience shame when they fail, right? Nobody likes to fail and make a mistake, or have an off day, or have to struggle to master something, or have to ask for help. But when these things happen to non-impostors, they don’t experience shame. Impostors feel shame, and that’s a key difference.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, can we define shame here?

Valerie Young
I cannot give you a psychological version of that, a definition of shame.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess it’s different than, “Aw, shucks, that didn’t work out the way I wanted to.”

Valerie Young
Oh, no, no, it’s personal, by beating yourself up, embarrassment, humiliation.

Pete Mockaitis
“I’m stupid. How could I have been so foolish, etc.?”

Valerie Young
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Valerie Young
It’s the difference between non-impostors, they recognize they have setbacks, they have failures, and I just want to be clear with people. It’s not that they’re okay with it. They can be crushingly disappointed. Think about sports, right? Intellectually we all know one team is going to win and one team is going to lose. One team is going to be crying in their towel on the sidelines at the end of the championship. But they don’t go home and hang up their uniform and quit, right? They go watch the game tape, they get more coaching, they get back in there, and they say, “We’ll get them next time.”

So, it’s really how you handle failures and setbacks that matter. And, again, you can be crushingly disappointed if you fail or fall short, but not ashamed. The only time you feel ashamed is if you didn’t try, or maybe you procrastinated to the very last minute, it didn’t really reflect your best effort, yeah, then shame is called for. But, otherwise, there’s no shame.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, got it. And how about the next one?

Valerie Young
Well, let me just add one more to that because criticism is something that is really problematic for people with impostor syndrome. It wounds and crushes our soul, right? So, if you’re in a job and your boss tells you four things you did outstanding, right? You’re having your performance review, four things you’re outstanding, one thing you need to work on. What do you obsess over and feel horrible about, right?

It’s the equivalent of wanting to win an Oscar every time you make a film. But people who feel like impostors becomes over-personalized. So, if someone says, “That report was inadequate,” what we hear is, “I’m inadequate.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Valerie Young
And non-impostors not only see constructive feedback and criticism as invaluable, but they seek it out. They might pay coaches ridiculously good money, as I have in the past, to give them really direct honest feedback about how they can perform. Or even if someone says they did an outstanding job, the non-impostor will say, “Thank you so much. What’s one thing I could’ve done even better?”

Pete Mockaitis
There’s some distinction there between your performance and your, I guess, worthiness or goodness as a fundamental human being.

Valerie Young
Oh, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Gotcha. Cool.

Valerie Young
And to see yourself as kind of this work in progress, you’re always going to be getting better. And the last thing that non-impostors think differently about is fear. When I’m speaking to a large audience, Pete, I’ll often say, “How many of you would like to feel confident 24/7?” And lots of people raise their hand. And my response is always, “Good luck with that.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, you know, it’s so funny. In almost, as you say that, I imagine a life that’s a little bit less exciting in terms of like if I always felt confident, I think I’d get bored. Like, a little bit of, “Oh, boy, can I handle this?” makes things kind of exciting for me.

Valerie Young
Well, yeah, and it’s normal, it’s realistic. Denzel Washington, before he walked on stage to be in a Broadway show in “Fences,” he said, “Well, you’re standing in the wings, if you don’t have that what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here moment, it’s time to hang it up.”

Pete Mockaitis
So, then how do the non-impostors handle a fear? They just sort of, like Denzel Washington say, “Yup, that’s there and it’s all good.”

Valerie Young
Absolutely. Some incredibly successful performers, artists, entertainers, singers, have terrible stage fright, but they don’t lean into the fear. I always recommend people understand that your body doesn’t know the difference between fear and excitement. You have sweaty palms, nervous stomach, dry throat. So, are you’re walking on stage, or into the job interview, or up to the podium, or whatever it might be, you just have to keep telling yourself, “I’m excited, I’m excited,” then you have to keep going regardless of how you feel.

Because what everyone is waiting for, Pete, is to feel more confident. And then it’s like, “Well, when I feel more confident, then I’ll do it.” No, it doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to do the thing, you’re like, “Maybe I can’t perform on Broadway, but I’m going to give it my best shot,” right? Put yourself out there and do it, learn from it, try again, and keep going.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great. That’s well-put. So, we’re waiting to feel more confident before we do it but that is just backwards. You’ve got to do it and then you’ll feel more confident.

Valerie Young
Absolutely. Or to really change your thoughts, start thinking like a non-impostor even though you don’t believe the new thought yet. Somebody said to me, I was speaking at a group, and she raised her hand, she said, “Well, this is great, Valerie. But what if you tell yourself all this stuff and you still don’t believe it?” And my response is, “No, trust me, you won’t believe it. You believe the old thoughts, the old impostor rulebook but you have to keep telling yourself.”

But if you just can say to yourself, “Aren’t I entitled to make a mistake once in a while? Aren’t I entitled to have an off day?” That’s the way non-impostors think. You may not 100% believe it that day, but over time you start thinking, “Yeah, I am entitled as the next person to get it wrong, have an off day, not know the answer.”

Pete Mockaitis
And you also have a strategy you recommend when it comes to reframing. Can we hear about this?

Valerie Young
Well, that really is the process of thinking like a non-impostor is to step back and to say, “Okay,” become consciously aware of the conversation going on in your head when you’re having a very normal impostor moment, and then try to reframe it the way you imagine a non-impostor would. I’ll share one of my favorite reframes was Daniel Boone, the wilderness explorer, who said, “I was never lost but I was bewildered once for three days.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s good, yeah. And even if you’re successful, like you can frame that like an impostor or a non-impostor. Can you give us an example of that?

Valerie Young
I’m not sure what you’re asking. Say more about that.

Pete Mockaitis
So, Daniel Boone got lost and he reframed that as he was bewildered, which is cool. But sometimes an impostor can even frame a success or a good result or a victory in a non-affirming way about themselves. whereas the non-impostor would do so differently.

Valerie Young
Right. So, the impostor, I think this is what you’re getting at, might say, “Well, it’s only because I had help,” or, “It’s just, yeah, they say they love my presentation, but it’s just because they like me or was a good audience,” right? And those two things might be true, but you’re not including yourself in that equation.

And I think non-impostors make an effort to celebrate successes so that it becomes, whether it’s a conscious desire or not, but it kind of consciously wedge it in your mind and makes that connection between your efforts and outcome, and that you need to reward yourself. If we spent nearly enough time rewarding ourselves in positive ways for the little and big wins, there’ll be less for an impostor about.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, we had BJ Fogg on the show earlier who’s amazing and he was talking about how important it is to celebrate because he’s talking about the context of making habits, saying that emotions build habits, and most people are very bad at celebrating themselves, even if it’s just a little, “Nice job, Valerie,” like internally for three seconds. Most of us struggle with that.

Valerie Young
Absolutely. And I think it’s really important. As you said, even from small things, for folks who are familiar with making a list of things they’re grateful for to just step back at the end of a project and say, “I’m really happy that I did these three things,” or, “I did a good job,” or, “Good for you for trying,” regardless of the outcome. And I think that’s important, too, to not just celebrate the wins. It’s like, “Did you give it your best shot?”

You know, I got my book deal with Random House. I had a great agent, she took me around New York, we had two days of interview schedule with some of the biggest publishing houses in the industry. And I was pretty nervous for the first one. And the irony was not lost on me, Pete, pitching this book, right?

Pete Mockaitis
I have a log here. I can give you the top publishers.

Valerie Young
Right, exactly, looking at the skyline of Manhattan, sitting in these beautiful conference rooms. But I decided, no matter what, this when the iPhone just came out, I was going to get myself an iPhone for just kind of being in the running, right?

When my book came out, I’d already decided I was going to buy this painting. Again, a friend of mine said, “What if you buy this painting and then the book is a flop? It’s going to remind you of that all the time.” I said, “To the contrary, the picture is going to remind me that I gave it my best shot, and after that the outcome is out of my control.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That is good. Oh, we’re having so much fun here. I had lots of stuff I wanted to make sure we covered. So, I’m curious, for the hardcore impostors, whoever are like, “Okay, Valerie is saying some really encouraging things. But, no, I seriously don’t belong in my role.” Like, I guess at times our doubts about our capabilities are accurate.

Valerie Young
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
So, how can we kind of get nuanced and appropriately distinguished? Like, what sort of just an impostory thought we should discard, like, “Oh, that’s silly,” versus what’s like, “Yeah, you’re right. I am kind of outmatched here, and I got to take some steps to get where I need to be”?

Valerie Young
Oh, well, you just said it right there. The reality is you may be in a situation, as we all probably have been at one time, where we’re really out of our element, or thrown into something where we’re really over our head. But, again, it goes back to the difference between saying, “I’m an impostor. They’re going to find out,” versus saying, “What an amazing learning opportunity. Let me marshal whatever resources there are available to me whether it’s time or brain power. Or, how can I grow into this position and recognize that I’m in the middle of a really, you know, I’m in a learning curve?”

Think about it. There are CEOs that go from the CEO of an insurance company to a manufacturing company. They have zero experience in manufacturing but they look at that, and, again, they’re scared by the way. There was a study out of the UK that found 80% of CEOs and 81% of managing directors sometimes feel out of their depth.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s encouraging. Thank you.

Valerie Young
But I think I look at it as a normal response to being in new situations. In a rapidly-changing world, whether technology-wise, or advancements, or just trends where you’re never going to know it all, and you’re never going to do everything perfectly yourself, and you don’t need to. There are other people who can, you know. We think we’re supposed to excel at everything but we’re not going to excel at everything.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Well, I was going to ask, so we had that 70% figure that’s been thrown around, and not that we need to slice and dice it 50 different ways as scientists sometimes like to do. But you shared an interesting stat there with 80% of CEOs feel out of their depth at times. Do we see the proportion of folks who feel impostory vary by either gender, industry, seniority, functional area? It sounds like the more senior people felt it even more than the 70%.

Valerie Young
Yeah, I do think the higher up you are, you go, the more susceptible you are. There’s more scrutiny, there’s farther to fall. If you’re in a highly-educated environment, like academia, or in certain scientific fields. Somebody said to me recently, Pete, I was speaking at a university, I think it was Michigan State, and she said, “This is crazy. I shouldn’t feel like an impostor. I have a PhD.” I said, “No, you feel like an impostor because you have a PhD because now people look at you a certain way.”

You’re right. Certain fields, creative fields, writing, acting, music, even producing. Chuck Lorre, producer of Two and a Half Men, Big Bang Theory, other shows, have talked about feeling like a fraud when he walks out on a set. When you’re in a creative field, you’re only as good as your last book, your last performance. You’re being judged by subjective standards, by people whose job title is professional critic. People in medicine, technology, areas that are rapidly advancing and very information-dense, they also tend to be more susceptible.

Pete Mockaitis
And you wrote your book specifically for women. How do you think about gender in this?

Valerie Young
Women, as a group, tend to be, you know, we’re kind of generalizing here, right, they tend to be more susceptible for a host of reasons. But there are plenty of men who feel like impostors. And that’s one reason, honestly, I absolutely hate the title of my book. I hate it. I didn’t want it. I argued against it. Clearly, I lost the battle. And I hate it for a few reasons. It does leave men out, and men almost are always at my talks and when I speak in organizations, so it leaves men out, but also even women who, by any measure, are successful, we don’t often resonate with that term. So, you can have a junior in college in an engineering program, and she really could benefit from the book, but she’s not going to see herself in that title.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Valerie Young
When, what is her name, Sandberg, why am I forgetting her? Sheryl Sandberg from Facebook. Is that her name? Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Valerie Young
When she was asked a question by a reporter once, and the question was something like, “Do you consider yourself successful?” And she hesitated before she answered in the affirmative, but she hesitated, which I really get because success can also separate us from other people. So, I think it’s important to say here that sometimes we might hesitate in the face of achieving greater levels of success, and we think it’s confidence, and it could be, but it can also be other factors. Like, in varying iterations, success can separate us from other people. And if relationships are important to you, then that might kind of hold you back even on a very unconscious level.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, so let’s talk about sort of the long term here. I think we have a lot of great respect in terms of in the heat of the moment, reframing and thinking about things differently. When it comes to building your career, day after day, month after month, year after year, how do you think about this differently at all?

Valerie Young
Do you mean me or how would someone…?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s say those who experience impostor syndrome who are looking to grow their careers over the long term, do you have any pro tips from all your research here?

Valerie Young
Well, I think in some ways the answer is right in the question, that it’s always a long game, and the more you can see yourself as a work in progress and understand that you don’t need to know it all and have done it all. One thing that I think holds people back from becoming even more successful is we make this assumption that we have to know or already basically done that previous job before.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah.

Valerie Young
Again, a mind shift. Let me give you an example. There was a guy in my town here in Massachusetts who he was on the town select board for 12 years. He ran for reelection and he lost. Well, for a lot of people who feel like impostors that would just be devastating to lose this election. The next day this guy went out, he submitted the papers in Boston at the state house to run for state rep, which is like a statewide level. He was on the town level. He went to the next level.

And his quote was, “It was the next natural step.” And so, the message there is sometimes shooting higher after a setback is the next natural step. But that’s not going to be intuitive to people who feel like impostors.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly. And then when it comes even taking on specific challenges or opportunities that you don’t quite think you’re ready for, how do you evaluate those decisions?

Valerie Young
Well, I think it’s important to talk it through with people, but I would say there’s very few instances where I will tell somebody, “No, you really can’t do it.” I would say, “Jump in, trust that you can figure it out as you go along. Figure out who your support network is and how you’re going to learn and grow into this new role and just give it your best shot. But put your hat into the ring and understand that you’re being hired based on your capacity and your potential.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Valerie, I’d love to get, maybe before we shift gears into your favorite things, maybe. Could you share with us a couple quotations or stories from some of your most super-accomplished impostors?
Valerie Young
Oh, yeah. Yeah, there’s a guy at Stanford University, he said, “If I can get a PhD in astrophysics from Caltech, anybody can,” right?

Pete Mockaitis
“Because I’m a moron.”

Valerie Young
Right. Exactly. I had to point out to him that most of us can’t even balance our checkbook, so I don’t think so.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that’s awesome. More please.

Valerie Young
A famous quote, right? Jodie Foster did an interview on 60 Minutes many, many years ago, which she had gotten the Academy Awards for “The Accused.” Now, when she was at Yale University, she took time out of acting to go to Yale. She felt like an impostor when she got accepted into Yale, and she felt like an impostor when she got the Academy Award. And the quote was something to the effect of, “I kept waiting for them to come, knock on the door and take the Oscar back and say, ‘Excuse me, we meant to give that to Meryl Streep.’”

Which is fascinating because Meryl Streep, years later, did an interview with Ken Burns, and he asked her, “Do you think you’ll always act?” And her response was, “Well, I always think, ‘Who would want to see me act and what do I know about acting?’” It’s like the most Academy Award nominated actor of all times, right? If that doesn’t make you realize this is irrational, nothing will.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s excellent. Thank you. Well, any final thoughts about impostor syndrome before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Valerie Young
I will say two seeds I want to plant. One is that when you think about it, Pete, there’s a certain amount of arrogance to the impostor syndrome because what we’re really saying is, “Other people are so stupid, they don’t realize we’re inept.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s good. It’s like you’re a master conman.

Valerie Young
Right. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re able to pull the wool over everybody’s eyes.

Valerie Young
Right. So, imagine if you would introduce me, Pete, “Valerie Young, internationally-recognized expert,” and I was like, “Oh, brother. Come on, Pete. I mean, have you ever had an expert on your show before? Seriously?”

Pete Mockaitis
One person in Canada recognizes me, that’s all that means.

Valerie Young
Well, no, it’s more about kind of insulting you. Like, “Do you got a house much or what, Pete? You picked me.” It assumes that whether it’s professors, or managers, or people who hired or promoted you, or clients, or customers are so inept that they don’t recognize you’re incompetent, which is very arrogant. The other thing I think people need to realize is that this is not all about them, that everyone loses when bright people play small.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Valerie Young
Somebody out there could be benefiting from your full range of knowledge and skills and potential. But when we hold back, there’s a consequence that go far beyond us.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Valerie Young
You know, this is not about impostor syndrome, but this is a quote that I’ve loved for many, many years, and it’s by the actor Will Smith who said, “Being realistic is the most commonly-travelled road to mediocrity.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. There it goes. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Valerie Young
I’m a big fan of Carol Dweck’s work. She wrote a book called “Mindset.” Honestly, I used to read her stuff in the academic literature, she’s in psychology, but people in academia write in such dense convoluted jargony ways that it’s not always easy to see the raw power in the findings. So, I read her stuff for many years.

Now, when she wrote her book “Mindset,” which is much more written in very accessible kind of way, it was like very conforming because she was doing all this quantitative research that confirmed everything I’ve been saying for the last 20 years about how people who don’t think like impostors, and impostors for that matter, how they think differently about competence basically.

So, it was very confirming. If you’re a parent, I think you’ll really enjoy her book. Let me give you one little, if I have a minute.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Valerie Young
One, I think her best exercises is to think about that typical kind of dinnertime conversation with school-age kids, which is, “What did you learn in school today?” to which they say, “Nothing,” which we did too, right, or, “I don’t remember.”

And Dweck said, “Wouldn’t it be more interesting if once a week, a couple times a month, you say, ‘Let’s all go around the table and talk about something that was difficult, challenging, or we failed at, and how we dealt with it. I’ll start.’” Because what you want to teach is resiliency.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Valerie Young
I was going to go back to kind of normalizing self-doubt, reframing and kind of keep going regardless.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, they kind of quote it back to you often?

Valerie Young
Gosh, I don’t know. I hope it’s what I shared that the only way to stop feeling like an impostor is stop thinking like an impostor. Remember, nothing else. And if you truly understood you are entitled to make a mistake, be wrong, have an off day, there’ll be nothing to feel like an impostor about.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Valerie Young
It’s so easy. Just go to ImpostorSyndrome.com.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Valerie Young
Just don’t play small. Look for an opportunity. Well, let me say this. We’re all going to have an opportunity to feel stupid sometime in the next 24-48 hours, so step up, seize the opportunity, and just keep saying to yourself, “Somebody is going to get that cool job, somebody is going to do that cool thing, it might as well be me.”

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Valerie, this has been a lot of fun. Thank you so much. And good luck in all of your adventures.

Valerie Young
Thank you so much, Pete, for having me. Great job.