Successful Designers are Less Confident

Confidence is key for success, so they say. But as a designer I realized that no designer is exempted from insecurities. From junior to senior and leader positions, they all have times when they are unsure to come to grips with challenges in the design process. In fact many creative minds enhance a lack of confidence in their work. Then, to what extent confidence make designers successful or, at least, consistently perform better, be more effective and creative in the design process?

In a Harvard Business Review article Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Professor of Business Psychology at University College London says: “There is no bigger cliché in business psychology than the idea that high self-confidence is key to career success.” But he turns the argument around: “Less confident people are more successful.” He sustains this argument on the idea that only if people are serious about their goals, less confidence is more likely to make them successful. Chamorro makes his point by distinguishing between extremely-low, low-enough and high self-confidence. He argues that low-enough confidence helps you recalibrate your goals so they are more realistic and attainable accordingly to your strengths, needs, values and contexts of interaction. Success is different for everyone.

I got interested in Chamorro-Premuzic’s analysis because it resonates with some of my own research results about designers’ performance. One of my objectives is to know how designers achieve consistency in the dynamics of their practice (e.g. creativity, research, experimentation, production, with internal and external stakeholders). Let us assume that a lack of consistency in their work undermines their confidence and vice versa.

For many a high level of consistency in our performance is, just as confidence is, key for success. After many years researching how designers interact in their practice, a part of my conclusion shows that there are three modes of consistency in which designers approach their goals. I introduced these modes as responsive, adaptive and stable. When I connect them with Chamorro’s analysis responsive relates to extremely-low confidence, adaptive to low-enough confidence and stable to high confidence.

Being in the adaptive mode (less consistency — less confidence)

In my research I argue that being more in the adaptive mode (less consistent) designers are more successful. I base my argument on the idea that if designers are clear about their goals, the adaptive mode is more likely to make them successful. This is complementary with Chamorro’s less confidence argument of people being serious about their goals. If they succeed to have clear goals, they make consistent plans to make them happen. And if people are clear about their goals, they become serious enough to achieve them. In the adaptive mode, as in less confidence, designers are more able to clarify and adapt their short and medium term goals while being flexible enough to make them more realistic and attainable.

I’ve observed that the real problem is that designers often have difficulties to define clear goals and focus, although they seem often very positive about their work. One reason for this, I presuppose, is the way their creative and dynamic minds operate. They are naturally disposed to explore new creative solutions which also takes them to change job fields and clients frequently. Today, as in any other professional practice, things get even more complicated since designers are overwhelmed by the amount of information they need to deal with on a daily basis and the diverse contexts and environments they work at to achieve their goals. Besides is quite common to see them work under the stress and uncertainties of being a freelancer or an entrepreneur. As a result they tend to be more active in the responsive and stable mode.

Dealing with the design practice is a complex relational endeavor in which designers are constantly moving in between these three modes. In fact we all need to do so to acquire self-knowledge and experience. Some of us may feel high self-confident in face-to-face communication, others in connecting digitally, while the rest tries to develop a mixture of physical and digital means regarding the context.

Designers that have clear goals and ambition tend to be more successful in the adaptive mode because they are open to dig into their past experiences, self-criticism and listening to negative feedback. They define a strategy for action according to their strengths but are flexible and realistic about what they can really achieve within the context and environment they are working in. They take their weaknesses as opportunities to develop, they work harder and prepare more taking seriously into account time schedules. They work on short and medium term goals, and they reduce the chances of blocking their creativity, relationships and opportunities by avoiding being over-confident.

When designers are in the adaptive mode, with a tendency towards the stable mode, they are looking into a substantial progress, impact and power. When they are in the adaptive mode with a tendency towards the responsive mode, they spend more time trying to survive.

In brief, if you are a designer able to define clear goals, being in the adaptive mode (less confident) will bring you more career success. It will keep you motivated and alert to fresh ideas, it will make you more empathetic with your clients and users’ needs and preferences. You will become more collaborative and realistic about what you can do and who to team-up to meet bigger goals. Besides you will feel less worry and stressful. You will realize that high confidence (stable mode) and extremely-low confidence (responsive mode) will block your development.

Start training yourself, your team and organization in the adaptive mode values (less confident) to consistently design your own success.

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