Naomi Stead looks back and offers some well-earned advice about ignoring self-doubt and building up confidence in your own abilities.
I picture myself back in my early days at university: it’s not a pretty sight. Rather than the bright-eyed, ambitious, energetic and confident youngster that the brief for this series proposes, I was instead a skulker. I lurked around the edges. I was wary and proud, prickly and introspective. I watched silently and did not (necessarily) contribute. I was self-contained, but while some mistook my reserve for arrogance, really I was plagued by doubt. I was lonely on some restless, existential level – searching for people and places to which I could belong.
Of course, much of this early experience is the story of queer kids and misfits everywhere: the profound feeling of being different. It’s hard to overstate the significance of that feeling, and its lifelong effects. Even today, when I definitely do belong, in many different spheres, the memory is strong. These days I count it as a kind of blessing – the empathy that comes from knowing what it’s like to be an outsider. It comes with a sense of responsibility – to use what powers and resources you have, to help others who are disempowered, vulnerable, exploited, lost.
So what, now, would I tell that melancholy, self-conscious young woman, venturing alone into the world? The first thing to say is that life gets better. The doubt recedes, you do find your people, there are many varieties of fulfilment and consolation.
After that, if I could reflect, and give myself (and other young women, by extension) some advice, I might say the following.
1. Know thyself
To understand yourself takes some work. Some characteristics from the beginning stay the same, and intensify. Others mutate in unexpected directions. Generally, it seems, as you get older your character solidifies, comes into focus, you become more yourself. That (ideally) brings greater confidence, or at least acceptance. To obey Plato’s injunction to know thyself means taking the time and making the effort to work out and recognise both the good and the bad, the strengths and the weaknesses in your character. Don’t get carried away with your less desirable traits – although it’s good to recognise them and perhaps do some work in amelioration. Remember your good characteristics too, and there are plenty of them – for each quality there is an equal and opposite one. You’re just as flawed, and as remarkable, as everyone else.
2. Look after thyself
More than knowing yourself, you need to actively look after that self. There are some practical things here – don’t work like a maniac, or not for too long. You’ll exhaust yourself, and miss out on other things that are important. Be judicious with what you agree to do, work out some firm boundaries and practise saying no. Look after your mental health: get some exercise, listen to music, eat chocolate, know that you can seek help if you need it, and work out where and how to do that. Generally: be as kind and generous and forgiving to yourself as you would to a treasured friend. It shouldn’t be necessary to spell that out, but alas, I think it is.
3. Suspend disbelief in your own abilities (Or: fake it ’til you make it)
There will always be self-doubt: especially at the beginning when you don’t yet know what you’re capable of. But if you’re going to get anywhere, you have to ignore the negative voices of self-doubt. Confidence is crucial. You need to know and demonstrate what you’re good at, as hard as it may be to do that. Going for a new job, or a promotion, applying for a grant or fellowship – these situations each require a particular kind of performance, and a particular kind of script, one where you set out strengths, skills and abilities, where you argue a case for yourself. You need to recognise what is needed in the performance, and recognise it as a performance, and the projection of a particular persona. Think of that character as a more assured version of yourself. Crucially, you are playing a part, so it doesn’t matter if you think you’re not fully the character you’re playing. You need to suspend disbelief in your own abilities. Now, this can be an icky experience – that kind of careful boasting goes strongly against the grain for many people. But while modesty is a charming virtue, it won’t get you that promotion you amply deserve. Likewise, self-deprecation is rarely read as such – it’s much more likely to be taken as literal fact. So don’t do it!
4. Surround yourself with the ‘circle of niceness’
This one I learned from my friend Kelly Greenop (who is herself super-nice), and she learnt it in turn from Inger Mewburn of Thesis Whisperer fame (likewise – one of the nicest). Inger argues (and I’m paraphrasing here, from memory) that in a professional context you can never entirely escape from difficult or mean or poisonous people, but what you can do is insulate yourself within a gang of good eggs: the circle of niceness. So, find the people who are trustworthy, humble, funny, decent and genuine, and use them as human shields against the rest. It goes without saying that you too should be nice – be a loyal, supportive, attentive friend and generous, ethical colleague. Trust your instinct when you meet the good ones, and hold onto them for dear life.
5. Trust others’ faith in you, even if you have little faith in yourself
In the late stages of my PhD, I was at a low ebb. I had lost all perspective, lost faith in my own abilities, I thought I couldn’t do it and it would never be finished, or good enough. My PhD is the hardest thing I have ever done (with the exception of raising a child), and it’s also the thing of which I’m most proud, aside from my son. During those difficult months at the end of the doctorate, the thing that kept me going was the faith that others had in me – others who knew me, those I trusted. While my own self-critical mechanism was set to overdrive, and my self-doubt had risen to drowning level, these other people were steady and calm in their conviction. Even though I couldn’t believe in myself, they believed in me, so I surrendered myself to their judgement, and I kept going, and got through. The moral of that story is: find people who you trust, respect and admire, try to come to know them and have them know you, and even when you can’t believe in yourself, believe in their belief. More than this, go looking for these people – don’t expect that they’ll fall in your lap. You have to search for your people, but you will find them, and the search will have been worthwhile.
6. Be ambitious, but don’t be an arsehole
Some people get ahead by treading on others, and crushing them on the way up. Obviously, that’s a bad way to behave. But what’s even more striking is that it’s completely unnecessary – it is absolutely possible to be ambitious, to progress in your field or in your career, while bringing others along with you. There is no law that says one person’s progress has to be at the expense of another, and in fact it’s much more fun, and much better karma, to look for the win-win situation. Collaboration is one of the great compensations and pleasures of work life, so be a great collaborator and hoist others up as you climb yourself.
7. For god’s sake, stop apologising
I don’t just mean literally apologising (although there is that too). I mean couching your words apologetically, or being tentative, or holding back your assertive self. This may take a deliberate effort – it’s so strongly inculcated in women to be agreeable and conciliatory (at their own expense), you’re going to have to use manual override. So while your automatic impulse will be to say ‘this might be a silly idea, but…’, or ‘maybe I missed something, but…’ or ‘I agree with what [that guy] said, but…’, you’ll have to stop yourself from beginning like that, recognise that you don’t need to apologise for having ideas or being competent or speaking up, and take it from there: speak directly, and spit it out. Also, read this and laugh – and never do these things again.
8. If you’re unhappy, make a change (Or: action dispels fear)
Throughout my working life I have seen many people slowly marinading in an acidic stew of bitter resentment, cynicism and unhappiness. I’ve never been able to understand why they didn’t leave – it’s rare to have no options at all, to be completely trapped in a situation, and my profound sympathies to those who genuinely are stuck. What is far more common is for inertia, fear and a lack of imagination to keep people in a place where they are unhappy, and where they make others around them unhappy too. So, if you don’t like where you are, then move. If you don’t like what you’re doing, then make a change – especially if you don’t like the person you’ve become (grumpy, stale, not learning). It’s in your power to change it. Be imaginative, be inventive, ask the question. You never know what opportunities might open up if you only walk away.
9. If you’re an impostor, then plenty of other great people are too
It was an enormous relief to me when I discovered what ‘imposter syndrome’ was, and even more when people I admired (men and women both, but especially women) revealed that they, too, often felt like a fraud, and feared that one day they would be exposed – that they really didn’t know as much as others thought they did or have the skills they were thought to have, and that there had been some kind of mistake that had led them to a position of power or authority or public notice for which they were hopelessly inadequate. Before I found out about impostor syndrome I thought it was only me who had those feelings. It seems to me that academics, in particular, are susceptible to the so-called ‘Dunning-Kruger effect’ – where people who are not skilled at something tend to over-estimate their level of skill, while those who are skilled tend towards the opposite. As an academic, there is always more to know, and the more you know, the more you know how much you don’t know. It’s an abyss. But remember: the only people who have no self-doubt are egotists, narcissists, or people who are genuinely incompetent. If you do have self-doubt, you’ve already put yourself in the company of high-achievers.
10. You can cope when things go wrong
There have been plenty of rewarding and fulfilling events in my working life, even some wildly euphoric ones. But the moments that really stretch you are when things go badly wrong, and there have been two fairly dramatic low points in my career thus far. One happened more than a decade back, and could be classified as a public humiliation. It was unspeakably horrible, with feelings of mortification and hurt and a complex kind of betrayal. But I became reconciled over time. I was badly winded but it didn’t crush me; it didn’t stop me from doing that same thing again. I exorcised what demons I could, licked my wounds, and moved on. That experience helped me to deal with the second career low, which happened quite recently, and could be classified as a public attack. It was deeply upsetting, and also mystifying. It shook my faith in human nature. But the support that I received from friends and colleagues was ultimately affirming, and I realised the truth of the adage that if you’re going to do anything in public life, there are always going to be people who don’t like it. And that’s no reason to disengage from public life. So you pause, rest for a while, seek solace in your friends, resist in a judicious way (don’t be a marshmallow – if you’ve been unjustly attacked, then use what resources you have to defend yourself), and then you continue on. The secret to surviving setbacks is to outlast them.
11. Think of your deathbed (Or: be clear about your values, and live by them)
We’ve all read those stories about what people regret on their deathbeds – and these regrets are never ever about having missed a deadline or submitted a document with a spelling error. In fact, they’re not about work at all: they’re always about people, about human relationships and connections, and a way of being in the world with other creatures. Ultimately these are questions of whether you were a good person, whether you loved and were loved, whether you made the world a better place. They say that if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything. Know what you stand for. Be clear about your moral compass, and allow it to guide your actions. Live by your values, get your priorities right, be a generous colleague and an attentive friend, a loving and supportive family member. Whatever power you have, use it for good. Whatever your privilege, skills, talents and abilities, use them to benefit others, as well as yourself.
12. The secret to purposefulness and happiness is not actually a secret
I remember being absolutely dumbfounded when I read (I think it was here) that there is a very straightforward and already-known answer to the question of how to find meaning and purpose and happiness in your life. It’s quite clear: as the philosopher Dan Dennett says, ‘find something more important than you are, and dedicate your life to it’. That’s it! It’s the best piece of advice I have ever read. The ‘more important thing’ could be anything – a cause, an issue, an object, a place, a belief. It doesn’t matter what it is, the point is that you are a small and finite part of a much bigger world. You won’t be around forever, but that other important thing might be, and you can make some small contribution to it, and that will give you a feeling (a justified one, what’s more) of meaning and purpose. That’s all.
13. Let your freak flag fly
Don’t be ashamed of who you are. Be proud – of your foibles, your unconventionalities, your freakishness. It’s what makes you interesting and unique. Normality is vastly over-rated, and when you come to understand more about the world, you realise that ‘normality’ (or, as the scholars say, normativity) is a prison. The most interesting people in the world have their own thing they’re doing, their passionate interests and obsessions, their hobbies and expertise. They engage with the world on their own terms. Ultimately, it’s the geeks who inherit the earth.
14. You, too, can be happy
It would be nice to tell the young woman that I was back at university that happiness is possible – in professional as well as personal life, and in the two as they interrelate. That seems like such an obvious thing to say, a given. But back then it didn’t feel like that. It would be nice to tell that young woman, spiky and awkward as she was, that the full sphere of human experience is open to her: that she will find solace and pleasure and fulfilment in work, just as some are lucky to; that she will find trouble and happiness in love and family, just like many do. In fact, it will even be possible to be completely ordinary, perhaps more than she ever imagined possible, or even desired – the job, the partner, the child, the house, the cat, the garden, the car. The full sphere of human joy and suffering is open to her. That, in itself, is a gift.
So: what would that younger version of myself make of this avalanche of advice? Probably not much, actually – as I recall she wasn’t much for being told what to do. She might have read it, but reserved judgement, made her own way and her own mistakes. And that’s fine. You get older, and become more who you are. Accept that person, embrace them, look after them, make the most of them.
Naomi Stead is Professor of Architecture in the Department of Architecture at Monash University, and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Queensland. Her research interests lie broadly in the cultural studies of architecture: in its production, reproduction, mediation and reception. Photo: Peter Bennetts.