Video version of this article:
“I feel like I don’t belong here”
“Everyone else is so good, I don’t know if I’ll ever reach that level”
“How in the world did I get into here?”
Talking to other designers, I keep hearing the same issues: low confidence and impostor syndrome. Students will ask me: “When did you feel comfortable calling yourself a “Design Expert”?
Even years into my career, I’d have that sinking feeling that I’m not good enough. I’d look at other designer’s work and have this sense of panic: They are so much better than me. I’ll never be as good as they are. How did they get that good? I don’t have what it takes.
It trickled down into my work, and into my client interactions. I’d have trouble standing up for my design decisions. I’d be afraid to ask for not only the salary that I’m worth but the salary that I needed to pay the bills comfortably.
Why Is Confidence Important?
Confidence is a critical ingredient to becoming a successful designer. If you’re confident in your abilities, you wake up in the morning, excited to go into work and make something that you know is of value.
When you’re working with clients and stakeholders, confidence gives you the courage to speak up when they are making unreasonable requests — like asking you to change the color of your layout because their director “really wants it that way”.
When you’re negotiating a salary with your employer, confidence is the key ingredient that gives you the courage to tell them what you’re worth, why you’re worth it, and what they are losing by not working with you.
The hard part about confidence is that it has to be authentic. There are lots of articles on the web about how to change your body language or to use specific phrases to get people to think you’re more powerful. But you can’t fool an experienced hiring manager with tactics you learned on some blog — you have to understand the root causes of confidence and how to build it.
You can’t fool an experienced hiring manager with tactics you learned on some blog — you have to understand the root causes of confidence and how to build it.
I’ve noticed that there are three big levels of confidence you can experience in your life. You progress through the levels from 1 to 3 as you grow.
The 3 Levels of Confidence
Level 1: No Confidence
The first level is having no confidence. These are people that are very insecure, stuck in their heads, they may have a craft or skill they are good at, but they don’t even realize how good they are, because they have no confidence in themselves or what they are doing. These people are generally not happy with their lives. They get walked over and taken advantage of, and they know it’s happening, but they don’t know what to do about it.
Some people at Level 1 just give up and blame the world for being terrible and unjust. Others begin to go over the situations in their lives where they were treated unfairly and figure out ways to deal with similar situations in the future. They arrive at confidence Level 2.
Level 2: “Perfectionist Confidence”.
These people still have low confidence, but they’ve learned that if they work really hard and plan everything out really well, and appear as if they have it all together, it gives them a sense of security to operate from.
This is better than no confidence, but people who are at this level can come off as aloof, robotic and arrogant because they are unable to connect with people. They also might be overly competitive with others and see the world around them as hostile, which drips into their interactions with others.
Once people at Level 2 have alienated enough relationships around them, they might start to reflect on their lives and think to themselves “Yeah, I did good in that situation, but I was a real dick in that situation and I shouldn’t have done that”. That’s the beginning of Level 3.
Level 3: “Humble Confidence”.
This is when you know that you’re good, but you’re not a dick about it. You know your strengths and are confident about your abilities and accomplishments, and not afraid to talk about them, while also acknowledging your weaknesses and where you went wrong, and also not being afraid of talking about that. You become kinder to others and also kinder to yourself.
Level 3 is really hard to hit. It’s even harder to maintain consistently because being both modest and confident is a delicate balance. I wonder if you can even do it without also being an amazing communicator and tremendous self-awareness.
At level 3, you know your strengths and are not afraid to talk about them, while also acknowledging your weaknesses and where you went wrong, and also not being afraid of talking about THAT, either.
How Do You Increase Your Confidence?
Now, I’ve got some bad news for you: confidence doesn’t come overnight. If you’re just starting out as a designer, you should be a little insecure. It’s like with any new skill: at first, you’re not that good at it.
Step 1: Work On Your Skillset
After I graduated from college, I spent another three years reading every single design blog and book I could find. I read Smashing Magazine and Lifehacker so religiously, that after a long time of reading them every day, I noticed that the content started repeating itself.
I’d then apply what I learned in the blogs at work the next day. In the beginning, there were a lot of unknown situations I struggled with. Over time, the unknowns became less frequent, and I had more opportunities to apply a variation of what I had learned in the past to a situation I was being confronted with. I was gaining experience!
Working on improving the skillset of your craft gives you something concrete to grasp onto when you’re still feeling insecure. You may not feel confident yet, but you know that if you keep reading, and keep practicing, you’ll get better. You can measure your progress. And in a year or two, you’ll look back on the things you used to struggle with, and laugh at the fact that something like that was ever a problem for you.
Step 2: Compare Your Work To Others
When you’re just starting out, it’s important to build up a mental collection of different types of work. To accomplish this, you need to look at as many designs as possible. With the information you collected in step 1, you can start asking yourself: what makes these designs good? What makes them bad?
It’s normal to get a sense of dread when you start looking at other people’s work that’s much more sophisticated than what you are currently capable of producing. I still have that feeling. But it’s also important to be able to dispassionately assess where you are compared to others. You’re very likely not the worst designer of all time. So where are you on the totem pole? How good is your work? What makes your work better than others, and how are others better than you?
My confidence started taking leaps when I realized that the stuff I was making was legit better than some of the other work being done at companies that are considered “world class”. It was at that point that I realized that I had arrived at the expert level. But I may have never realized that, if I had not spent the time assessing my progress over time.
Step 3: Be Happy With Where You’re At — No Matter Where You Are
If I had a chance to do the last decade all over, I’d enjoy the process of growing more. I never allowed myself to be proud of anything I worked on until my work was verifiably world-class. Even then, the best praise I could muster for myself was “You know what? You did alright.” I had spent 7 years not praising myself for anything, and it took another 1–2 years to break that habit of not being proud of my work.
So as you’re progressing through your career, of course, you should strive for more, but it’s also important to be happy about every bit of progress that you make along the way.
What You Should Take Away From This Article
Confidence is one of those things that everyone talks about but very few people authentically have. It’s one of the most important ingredients to a successful and fulfilling design career. And the best thing is that it is something you can methodically increase.
There’s no magic bullet to achieving it — true confidence is rooted in a knowledge of your strengths and limitations, and a slow and steady buildup of small successes. That takes some time, but it’s worth the effort to improve yourself in that way.
Tell me one story of how confidence and impostor syndrome has affected you. Share it in the comments.