Lately I’ve been grappling with the difference between being confident and simply basking in a big ego. There’s a fine (fine) line, I’m learning, but I might have discovered a good way to keep both things in check.
Here’s my thesis: confidence is believing you have the ability to do great things. Ego is thinking you’ve already accomplished them. Seems simple, but they actually feed off each other. It’s difficult to do amazing things to stoke your ego when you don’t think you can do them, but it’s even harder to be aware of the great things you could do if you haven’t done something wonderful before.
The important thing to understand with these two phenomena, however, is that they have to be balanced. We’re not talking perfectly even — “fair and balanced” doesn’t mean each side gets the same amount of time to talk. As a journalist you wouldn’t do a piece on how to prevent forest fires and give campers an equal chance to explain why they should be allowed to let their campfires go wild and burn entire neighborhoods.*
*Unless you’re cable news, however. They’ll do anything to fill 24 hours.
Similarly, ego and confidence both have their places, but they’re different places that don’t deserve the same amount of airtime in your decision-making process. Here’s how I came to this conclusion. Bare with me: it’s quite a story.
In August I was invited to speak at the Maryland Bankers Association’s Council of Professional Women in Banking and Finance’s quarterly meeting (say that three times fast. I did — in front of 100-plus people). Cindy, the woman planning the meeting, had read my blog post on how Robin Williams’ greatest roles were paragons for mentor. It was a piece that I wrote in about 15 minutes for two self-serving reasons: 1) I needed to fill my weekly blog post quota and 2) Robin Williams was major click-bait and I wanted in on the page views. Who says journalism is an entirely noble profession?
Anyway, the next thing I knew was that I had received an email from Cindy (cool), who asked me to present a 45-minute speech (not as cool) on what I had learned about mentors from both my own experience and those of some of the women I had interviewed (who were very cool), such as SAP’s Jenny Dearborn. The Council had done its research on me, and I now felt exactly how anyone I interview must feel: both flattered and creepily over-exposed at the same time.
Mom and Dad both said I should and could do it. So did my editor and boss, Kellye. But that’s my parents’ job (to make me feel confident in myself), and Kellye was probably just excited to have me out of the office for a day so she could get work done without me coming in to update her on leads I had discovered.
I received the invitation on my way out to St. Louis for Labor Day weekend, which I planned on spending with friends and, as it turned out, sister Bridget, who all make me feel extremely good about what I can accomplish by encouraging me to be myself because “I’m good enough; I’m smart enough; and, doggone it, people like me.” I must be somewhat competent at life because these people were willing to share a table with me not just at Columbia, Mo.’s Flatbranch Pub but also at Sparky’s Ice Cream Parlor and the Heidelberg all in the same afternoon. And I must have real potential, because they haven’t abandoned me in my post-college social collapse (OK, so Bridget might not have a choice on that one). What I’m trying to say is they make me feel like I can do anything, regardless of how weird I appear when carrying my side of any conversation with well-chosen movie quotes. Ego level: 0. Confidence level: 1.
Over the trip, the friend I stayed with (Dan, whom I’ve mentioned on this blog before, so you should be close friends by now) helped me see my way clear to accepting the gig, and by mid-September I found myself coming clean to the association that, hey, I’m actually 23 and had never been a mentor and had only been a mentee for about two years in college. Are you sure you want me? “Yes!” she said. They had several younger members who wanted to hear from people their own age, and I seemed to be a perfect fit because of the depth and gravity of my work. My work has gravity, apparently. Ego level: 1. Confidence level: 1.
After two months of working on the speech — which really amounted to opening a Google doc titled “Mentors,” writing the header “Mentor Speech: Maryland, November 5, 2014” and getting lost in a loop of TED talks under the guise of needing inspiration before deciding Archer reruns were probably just as charisma-inducing — I found myself standing in front of about 100 women while wearing heels I hadn’t walked in since hobbling across the stage at graduation and a Calvin Klein suit that I also blogged about for work.
For 40 minutes I talked about how mentors and mentees come from the most unlikely places by referring to Robin Williams, Jenny Dearborn, The Vanguard Group’s chief learning officer Sherryann Plesse, Pixar Animation’s president Ed Catmull, Missourian editor Liz Brixey and my own mentor in college, Mizzou professor Etti Naveh-Benjamin. There was certainly a rush after the event when the audience gave me two rounds of applause and several people asked me how long I had been speaking. The chairwoman of the group commended me for being able to adapt to technical issues that kept me from showing two movie clips and come up with a witty ending to close the conversation portion of the meeting. I got to eat Maryland crab cakes for lunch. No one chased me out of the hotel with torches and pitchforks. Ego level: 2. Confidence level: 1.
Back at the office, work continues as usual. In October, my editor had asked me how often I blogged, to which I responded “once a week,” adding that if I had to continue blogging every week, wouldn’t it make sense for me to find a focus and have my own channel? This was based on ego because of being invited to speak based on a last-minute blog entry and personal confidence in what I could accomplish if I had an actual focus instead of grasping at straws and dead actors.*
*Which, to be fair, was still a lot.
And that is how the “Mind Over Matter” blog was born. Starting the beginning of November, I’ve blogged weekly on the psychology, neurology and overall science behind adult learning. Ego gets a point for “Hey, I have my own blog now! I’m important!” and confidence gets a point because I actually think that I can write about science on a weekly basis without sounding like an idiot. Ego level: 3. Confidence level: 2.
I didn’t stop there. Profile writing got me through a speech that I didn’t really finish preparing until a week before presenting it, and I hadn’t gotten any profile action at work since September. Queue email to editor asking for profiles. Ego and confidence working hand-in-hand again. Two profiles got added to my editorial schedule, both due in the next month along with a special report and case study — and that’s just for one of the three magazines for which I write.
That last bit comes off quite egocentric, but confidence is going to sweep in for the tie once I explain my psychological condition when standing in Kellye’s office. She looked concerned when I told her I’d take both April and May’s profiles for Chief Learning Officer. “Are you sure you can handle that?” she asked. “Even with all your other projects, not just for me but also for Ladan (Diversity Executive), Rick (Workforce) and Frank (Talent Management)?”
Yep, I said. Not a problem. I’ve already fit it into my schedule.
At that moment, I wasn’t thinking about “just wait until Ladan realizes just how much I’m writing again this month!” or “I can’t wait until I’m in an(other) issue review where I have three stories in one edition!” I was thinking, “I can do this. I want to do this. I need to do this. And doggone it, people like me.” Everything I focused on was about what I could do — not what I had done in the past. Knowing I can handle a heavy workload helps (ego has its uses, after all), but knowing I will be able to handle a heavy workload in the future is more important. Ego level: 3. Confidence level: 3.
But there’s another team at play here, one that goes unappreciated or unobserved in this world of 1,600-word blog posts that equate to “Look what I can do!” Stuart moments. Confidence and ego might be the tools, but you keep them in check through humility.
A family friend wrote an email to me the day of the Maryland speech congratulating me, but ended it with something that’s more important than knowing how to balance the future with the present. “Always remember: be confidence, but humble, and always have gratitude,” he wrote. Humility and thankfulness keep other people from wanting to kill you for being so fan-damn-tastic (a byproduct of ego and confidence arriving at a tie score at the end of regulation play).
So humble up, team. We’re going to overtime.