Thoughts About Self-Confidence

I shared this with a group of product managers at Facebook. A few suggested it might be worth sharing publicly, so here you go:

The topic of self-confidence comes up a fair amount in discussions with/about product managers. In my opinion, it isn’t super productive to focus on confidence as a goal in and of itself. Instead, I see confidence as a by-product of two more important skills: self-awareness and a growth mindset.

Self-awareness is table stakes.

Self-awareness is the ability to be not just brutally honest with yourself, but to be accurate in that brutal honesty, to accurately assess your own strengths and areas for development. How do you build self-awareness? Practice.

An easy exercise for this is to create a list of the skills you deem most important for your role, your life, whatever you care about. Then assess yourself on each of those skills. Which are you great at, which are you terrible at, which are you somewhere in the middle?

Then — and this is the critical part — get others to assess you. This is harder than it sounds because you can’t just ask people to go down the list like you just did. Instead, you have to do it in the moment. Right after you do something that required a skill on your list, ask people how you did. In most cases, this will be some variation of these two questions:

  1. “What was the best / most effective thing I just did there?”
  2. “What’s one thing I could do better next time?”

After awhile, you’ll notice patterns and get a sense for where your self-perceptions differ from other people’s perceptions of you. Those gaps are what you’re working to decrease over time, as you build the skill of self-awareness.

Ok great, so let’s say you’ve done all that and now you have a good sense for what you’re good and bad at. The next step is to be ok with it. That’s also much harder than it sounds, but there’s a trick.

The trick is having a growth mindset.

There’s a great book about this by Carol Dweck called Mindset and the best summary I’ve encountered is this article in New York Magazine.

A fixed mindset is when you believe that skills are fixed traits. This person is smart, that person is dumb, this person is good at math, that person is artistic, etc. Thinking of skills as fixed traits is pretty disempowering because either you were born with the skill or you weren’t, either you’ll be great at something with basically no effort or you’ll be terrible at it no matter how hard you try. This mindset tends to make make you deathly afraid of revealing to others (or admitting to yourself) that you’re bad at something, and also tends to discourage the effort required to get better at that thing.

A growth mindset, in contrast, is when you believe that skills can be developed through hard work and commitment, that wherever you are now is just a starting point. This is empowering and creates not just a love of learning/developing, but a resilience to criticism. If you have a growth mindset, you’ll be less afraid of revealing to others that you’re bad at something and more willing to put in the effort to improve at it.

If you want to run an experiment, go find someone with a growth mindset and tell her that she’s terrible at something. Watch what happens. She’ll become instantly inquisitive. “What could I be doing differently?”, “Who’s someone that’s great at this thing?”, “How do you think people get good at this thing?”, etc. At no point will she become offended by your criticism, and in fact she’ll probably thank you.

If you do the same thing with someone with a fixed mindset, he’ll get instantly defensive, questioning both the validity of your assessment and the importance of that skill in the first place. You won’t get thanked and you may even get some not-so-constructive criticism in return.

In my opinion, self-awareness and a growth mindset are the skills to focus on, not confidence. If you have those two things, you’ll exhibit all the characteristics of a confident person and you’ll develop real confidence as you’re successful at developing in areas where you invest the effort.