The ‘obvious’ usually isn’t. That which friends and colleagues see ‘as plain as the nose on your face’ can be incredulous to the nose bearer. And without someone sticking a mirror in front of you, how well do you see your nose?
The world of engineering has never been known for holding up mirrors. We prefer to keep a downward gaze and shake our heads in ruthless self-scrutiny, rather than admire our professional sleek contours. As a result, we don’t tell our story and the world is poorer for never getting to hear about the value of engineering as a profession.
But studies have proven that a robust and radically positive self-image can spawn unprecedented success in one’s personal and professional life. The art of becoming both narrator and audience of your own success story is not so much vanity as it is good common sense. If our perceptions pave the way to our reality, then we need to ask ourselves, what’s causing potholes in our own road?
The chances are our pitfalls are self-induced – rooted in doubt and reductionism that breeds compliance and smallness and humility at the cost of innovation. Before waiting for others to back us, we need to learn how to first back ourselves. As bestselling author Jon Gordon recommends, the secret to up and onward may just lie in ‘talking, more than listening,’ to ourselves.
Facing our internal enemies
The art of becoming both narrator and audience of your own success story is not so much vanity as it is good common sense. The subjectivity of our reality can be proven in something as simple as a backpack. Throw in some extra weight on a hiker’s shoulders, and suddenly the campsite around the corner becomes a thousand miles off. The distance hasn't changed, but the perception of it has.
Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.” Essentially, he pokes at the idea that reality is a complex mental construction of our own making. All too often, rather than seeing ourselves as aiders to a world of limitless possibilities, engineers allow fear and false assumptions to cram our contribution into unimaginative boxes. The idea of uncertainty cripples us, but the possibility of rejection flattens us completely. So, rather than take a chance and pitch that curve ball concept to our superior, we opt to pass the ball onto a more impervious someone who can stomach rejection.
The problem is, in doing so, we rob ourselves and others of the unique contribution only the self-confident engineers can create ̶ a world of limitless possibility, a new vision of communities, a more sustainable and economically viable future.
We have to recognise the unleashing power of self-confidence in pioneering transformative change. We need unconventional thinkers to dream of and build the cities of tomorrow. But much to Stuart Smalley’s chagrin, silencing the inner critic will take more than an affirmation mantra and morning pep talk in the mirror.
It will require discipline – ongoing inspection into the motives that drive us and the defaults that hijack our developmental journey. It will summon honesty to face the excuses and rationalisations which roadblock our way. And it will take courage to undo and unlearn the bad habits which currently hold us back.
The power of the mind
Perceptions are powerful. Dr Alia Crum proved this with a milkshake. In her study on the effects of placebo foods, she found that labels can literally get under the skin and alter our processing. Having concocted a big batch of vanilla milkshake, she then redistributed the drink in two labelled batches. Those who consumed the so-called ‘high-calorie Indulgent’ shake had produced enough gut hormones to halt all hunger and kick-start metabolism. While, on the other hand, the ‘low-calorie, Sensishake’ consumers were still bellyaching for more. How is that, when technically the same amount of calories were consumed?
Crum proves that in a showdown of mind vs milkshake, the mind wins. The simple perception of calories consumed was enough to rearrange bodily function. The study shows that the intangible topography of our inner world matters. In this case of a creamy shake, our assumptions are measurable. But in most other cases, we lose the paper trail that links our mindsets to their tangible outworkings in our character and careers. We have to work, live and play in such a way that what we think and believe is the most important thing about us. When we start there, we’ll become whom we want ourselves and others to be.
At some point, every company was a ‘start-up’ with an audacious vision. And while road blocks and problems are inevitable, and most likely self-doubt, if entrepreneurs don't or can’t push through them, the likes of Google or Facebook or Apple or any company for that matter would not come into existence.
Society today needs the next generation of things to be created. We need (as engineers) to find the self-confidence to dream big and find the pathways to future visions we have created. We need to be able to get others to buy into that vision and have the ability to engage them in the story of our future, to attract the investors and the policy makers. We need to believe in the future of ourselves before we can get someone else to believe. Before you can do that, you have to believe in yourself.
Learning to tout your own ‘awesomeness’ is not an exercise in self-denial. It does not equate to a pile of weaknesses and failed track records under the rug or a prescription of self-medicating mantras for your bruised ego.
The discipline of growing in self-confidence, on the other hand, is about welcoming failure and sitting comfortably with weakness. This ability to perceive sinking ships as stepping stones comes from what Dr Carol Dweck has termed the “growth mindset”. In this way of thinking: Intelligence can be developed; mindsets are malleable; and nothing is undoable. Learning is the highest virtue in a growth mindset – not performance – and so challenges are perceived as opportunities; criticism is a honing tool; and the unknown is thrilling. As opposed to a fixed mindset that sees others’ success as threatening, a growth mindset embraces others’ achievements as inspiration and springboards for synergistic success.
Failure is not debilitating, but empowering. It spares us from believing we’re somehow special and immune to hard work. Recognising our innate talents goes hand in hand with owning our innate shortcomings. The key, therefore, is to see falling as a forward momentum.
As chess prodigy, Josh Waitzkin, said: “The moment we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level of ability, we will be brittle in the face of adversity.”
If we are to sidle up to our civic responsibility as engineers, we have to take our self-limitations head on. CS Lewis defined true humility as “not thinking less of yourself” but “thinking of yourself less.” Believing in ourselves is not so much a call to self-centredness, as it is bravely owning our lines in the story.