My Quest for Confidence

My last job was at a nonprofit cultural institution that is still very dear to my heart. After working there for almost three years, I left because of creative differences. I decided to embark on a quest for confidence.

Even though I had been a skilled worker, I suffered from a nagging sense of low self-esteem. I used to equate my job performance to my self-worth, which should not have the last word.

I didn’t want to feel “stuck” anymore.

In January 2018, I devised a personal campaign to overcome my public speaking phobia. I called it CBS, an acronym for: Confidence, Boldness and Spontaneity. I vowed to be more spontaneous, sign up for new activities, be present in conversations, and say “yes” more.

After all, what’s the worst that could happen?

Anyone who’s spent time with me knows that I’m a planner. I schedule meet-ups far in advance (even months out), I can research for hours, and I’m always punctual. In short, I didn’t give myself much room to explore outside my comfort zone.

I tended to skew toward experiences that I already enjoyed, excelled at, or was familiar with. I needed to expand if I wanted to meet different kinds of people and learn how to think quickly on my feet.

So one Saturday, I signed up for an improv class. Then another. And another. Improv helped me get out of my head. At improv class, I practiced speaking and behaving in different scenarios.

Here, I wasn’t “Sarah Tung” — I was someone’s neighbor, nemesis, lover, friend. Improv trained me to actively listen to my scene partner and respond without inhibition.

Then I tried Toastmasters. I volunteered to speak impromptu for two minutes on a given “table topic”, such as a favorite book or podcast. This means talking completely off the cuff. At first, it felt unnatural and nerve-wracking. But I leaned into the discomfort. I pushed myself to keep coming back and improve.

Each time I returned, I loosened up. I could sense my body relaxing, and I’d smile more. In these classes, I took on an assertive persona. I approached others first instead of waiting for others to talk to me. These groups helped me accept myself for who I am, rather than try to fit into a mold.

Along with seeking out groups, I consumed information voraciously. I read countless career articles and books, watched TED Talks, and attended workshops. I tried to gain insights into what my next career move could be.

I craved meaningful exchanges so I talked up strangers at networking events. No hidden agenda. Often, I walked away with a new contact, new idea, or new understanding.

Recently, I joined CreativeMornings’ Talk Watch Squad (shout-out to the CreativeMornings/New York team!). I get a jolt of inspiration every time I hear a speaker, review a talk, or tag a moving quote. Connecting with others and expressing myself gives me a renewed sense of purpose. It is my “why.”

Problem-finding versus problem-solving

For the creative and unconventional, this is often where we start first. We notice the navigation system on a website is confusing. The check-in process at a gala is inefficient. We can easily spot what’s wrong.

While problem-finding has its benefits, it’s also important to offer ideas to move forward. That’s what employers are looking for. They don’t want to hear you complain about something that’s wrong. Provide constructive feedback.

Leaders, ask yourselves: How can you be part of the solution, and how can you help improve processes?

Producing versus being

We live in a culture that values quick responses and high productivity. But what we produce is not the measure of our worth. You are enough.

I’ll reiterate: You. Are. Enough.

For your own health and sanity, cultivate mindfulness. You can start by carving out dedicated time for imagination, meditation and reflection. For several months, I made a daily habit of recording in my journal one thing that I’m grateful for.

Being thankful puts things into perspective.

We often critique ourselves much more harshly than we would a friend or colleague. While it’s admirable to desire improvement, perfectionist tendencies can hinder growth.

Decision paralysis is exhausting. Expecting others to always meet your exacting standards is unrealistic. On the flip side, nobody likes a Debbie Downer who only focuses on their weaknesses and mistakes.

I had to shift my thinking to a growth mindset.

My sister introduced me to the fixed v. growth mindset, which came up in conversation when we were discussing self-development resources.

To become more confident, you need to go out and achieve small successes. Inaction won’t get you to the next level. The first step is starting.

Do something. Anything.

That’s one of the reasons why improv appealed to me: it’s a low-pressure setting where less is at stake. Improv is a testing ground to practice public speaking skills with like-minded individuals. Whereas, if you try this at work, you could flop big-time and harm your career.

Actress Kelly-Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) shares her thoughts on improv:

Improv taught me something so important: how to not be afraid to look silly or to show true human emotion. As an actor, I never want to be worried about what I look like; I want to be in the moment. I want to be so honest with you that if I fail, that’s fine — sometimes the most beautiful things come out of failure, and what’s unplanned.

What’s next? Join a community. I’m part of a writing circle and organizations in support of Asian American artists and writers. I plan to write more about leadership, personal growth and identity. Also, I signed up for writing classes so that I can hone my storytelling skills. Find resources. Google is your friend.

Don’t be afraid to try new things and fail. Experiencing rejection gives us the freedom to accept ourselves. Never stop striving for growth.

Believe in yourself — your values, what you’ve accomplished thus far, and your potential. Keep your end goal in sight. Work hard and trust that in time you’ll become who you were always meant to be.

Tackling confidence by the throat is a daily choice I make. I intend to savor the journey every step of the way.

Now it’s your turn. Go get it.