Working on your hard skills is not enough.

I know, it sounds a bit harsh — especially if you already spent a lot of time perfecting your research skills, or getting those prototype transitions to the “wow” level.

So if you’re looking for actual design tips in this article, you will be disappointed. But if you want to be more confident, productive and creative in and outside of work, keep reading.

Chances are you’re generally happy with your job, but sometimes there’s something missing. Sometimes you’re not so sure that you’ve produced your best work, or that you have it in you to “make it” in this profession.

The obvious answer for most is to double down on learning, taking courses and reading books. But those will only get you so far. Because there’s a harsh reality we hardly think of.

Improving your hard skills ≠ improving yourself

It’s time to work on the whole person, not just the designer.


Why should I focus on building self-confidence?

You might ask. Isn’t it something that comes naturally to extroverts and to the alpha males and females of the world?

Absolutely not. Self-confidence is too often mistaken with cockiness.

But make no mistake, confidence is less asserting your dominance and much more having a clear belief in your actions, your values, and the way you carry yourself.

Self-confidence is more important than you think and is linked to almost every element involved in a happy and fulfilling life. Confident people experience many benefits like:

  • Less fear and anxiety
  • Greater motivation
  • More resilience
  • Improved relationships

While many think having confidence is an innate talent, it’s a skill you can build. Every human can have it. But how?

Three-time President of the United States nominee, William Jennings Bryan once said:

“The way to develop self-confidence is to do the thing you fear and get a record of successful experiences behind you”

That easy, uh?

First, let’s acknowledge there is an obstacle between us and our confident state: our brain.

Steve Peters, author of The Chimp Paradox, thinks our confidence is often hijacked by the interaction between our primal —  and a little too emotional part of our brain — The Chimp, and our more rational side, The Human.

The Chimp and Human brain
Credit: The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters

The Chimp needs to know that everything is safe. It’s vigilant, and it looks for danger, making it (us) prone to paranoia. Often, it tries to prevent The Human from falling into the imminent (but only imaginary) danger.

As Peters says:

“Managing your impulsive, emotional Chimp as an adult will be one of the biggest factors determining how successful you are in life”

It’s clear that while we have control over our actions, it’s not just up to us to be motivated or disciplined.

Our Chimp is sabotaging us!

But fear not, there are six exercises I’ve tried and tested, and they all helped me to take revenge on my own Chimp, and become a more confident person.


How you can build a self-confidence practice

1) Do one thing that scares you, and then another one

Whether it’s starting a conversation with a stranger or making a few dance moves in front of your colleagues, realise that the aim is to keep it simple and fun.

The aim is to do something scary and say “Ha! It wasn’t that bad after all!” That after feeling is what builds up confidence.

Look for that feeling, aim to experience it as much as you can. That’s how you know you’ve done a thing that scared you. Your Chimp won’t like it a first, but it will take notice for next time, and it will be proud of you.

“What is the biggest thing that stops people from living their lives in the present moment? Fear — and we must learn how to overcome fear.”

 — Brian Weiss

2) Write down and record your accomplishments

Take 5/10 minutes at the end of each day, or each week, to make an effort in noticing what you did well. The more positives you manage to notice, the better.

The exercise is to train your objectivity and to stop your downplaying your achievements. Noticing wins builds positive momentum.

While this is mostly an exercise of self-awareness, feel free to collect external approval as well. For example, I have a folder in my computer called “wins” where I collect email screenshots, comments and messages from whenever others noticed my effort in a situation.

It’s not there for me to remind me how great I am, it’s there to remind me I’m lying to myself and going through an episode of Imposter Syndrome. When I stumble upon it, it always puts a smile on my face, and the Chimp appreciates it too.

“Some quit due to slow progress. Never grasping the fact that slow progress is progress.” 

— Jeff Olson

3) Don’t dwell on your past mistakes

I’ve had a fair share of mistakes I didn’t want to make. I was in conversations where I felt out of my depth and I didn’t understand the majority of things that were being said.

But I tried my best to not ruminate or dwell on them. Because I realised that would only make me relive the situation and keep me in a negative thinking loop.

If you make a mistake: Realise it. Accept it. Move on.

You could think about it only to realise what went wrong and what you need to do to not make the same mistake anymore. This exercise will give your Chimp little room to play with if it tries to remind you of past “failures”.

“Every second you dwell on the past you steal from your future. Every minute you spend focusing on your problems you take away from finding your solutions.”

 — Robin Sharma

4) Focus on the things you have control over.

What your manager, client or colleague says or does to you, is out of your control. How you react, act and think about situations, is in your control.

Focus on things you can control, like your work ethic, your values and your reactions to things.

Build up a tally, just like the accomplishments exercise, of design exercises, gym visits or any other activity to improve yourself. This way you can build confidence on the fact that you are taking action and you can show your Chimp it’s fine not to worry about everything.

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

 — Maya Angelou

5) Always do your best and be realistic with it

This is one of the lessons I’ve learned from Kevin Hart: there’s a way to be confident almost instantly, and it’s by doing your best.

But there’s a caveat:

This only works if you’re realistic with assessing your own best, not someone else’s.

I know that for most of us it’s easy to find a better designer out there on any social media platform, or even at work. But making a comparison with others will only skew your expectations. Only compare your best to your best from yesterday.

Ask yourself: 
Did I do my best today, given the mood and the circumstances I’m in?”

If the answer even remotely resembles a yes, you won. Now some confidence currency goes into your confidence bank. If the answer is no, so what? Pull yourself up, dust yourself off. You’ll have tomorrow to do better.

Your Chimp brain will thank you for feeling better about itself.

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” 

 — Ralph Waldo Emerson

6) Help someone out

Making someone else feel better triggers the hormones called dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin. This interesting hormone cocktail also takes the name of “Happiness Trifecta”.

A research study shows that altruism affects the person that’s being helped as well as the helper, giving birth to the ultimate win-win situation. Being helpful and altruistic is a quick confidence booster.

This is where your designer superpower comes in in the form of empathy. Being useful and supportive puts you in a more confident state.

Ask a colleague if they could use a hand or are stuck on a problem, you can help them get unstuck and boost your confidence at the same time.

Ironically, chimps are naturally altruistic, so your Chimp will oblige to this.

“Only those who have learned the power of sincere and selfless contribution experience life’s deepest joy: true fulfillment.”

— Tony Robbins

Conclusion

Focusing on your hard skills will only get you so far, the best designers out there have more than just wireframing or visual design skills.

If you want to improve your life and work, you need to focus on the skills that make you a better human being.

Thanks for reading and sharing 🙏


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