Do You Underestimate Yourself? Sometimes Others' Appraisals Are Better Than Our Own

Sometimes we are not the best judges of our own capabilities. Sometimes we give ourselves less credit than we deserve, while others see our real worth.

Several years ago I helped judge a high school public speaking competition. One student, clearly nervous and flustered, had some trouble with her talk and while leaving the podium remarked, half out loud, “That was horrible.”

I thought she was much too hard on herself, and so on her evaluation I wrote in part, “That was not horrible. This student is better than she thinks she is.” I hope she got to read that because to me it seemed what this girl needed above all was an extra dose of confidence.

And isn’t that true about many of us? I’ll cite a few examples from my own life where I underestimated myself. I do this not to boast, since I have plenty of shortcomings, but to illustrate how we can limit ourselves by having the wrong self-perceptions.

The class and the court

While a sophomore in college I took a first-semester creative writing course. I did well but didn’t consider my work to be anything special. Toward the end of the school year there was an annual awards assembly, which I didn’t attend.

To my great surprise, I found out afterward that one of the stories I wrote for the course was to appear in the once-a-year campus literary magazine, and had earned second prize in the prose division. Here I was, a lowly underclassman, winning out over the juniors and seniors whose work dominated the publication.

For several years after college I played on a basketball team that was part of an inter-city league. Some of the teams had guys who had played in college; I had only played in high school. During the second season I remarked to a friend about what an excellent player my team’s captain and point guard was. He responded, “Geez, what about you?” And, lo and behold, for that and the next two seasons, I was the one voted onto the all-league team.

The bad boss

At a couple of points in my early career I was promoted into supervisory roles. The first was as editor of a twice-weekly newspaper and two weeklies serving suburban communities. I would describe my work personality back then as an odd combination of insecure and bossy. Upon leaving three years later for a career change, I thought I had ill-served the reporters who had been on my team.

Just a few months ago I had occasion to talk with one of those reporters, who had gone on to a long and successful newspaper career. During a lengthy and pleasant phone call he mentioned how much he had enjoyed working with me, and allowed that I was the editor who really taught him how to write well: “My time with you was when things fell into place.”

Who knew? My perception was that I had made excessive changes to his stories without bothering to explain what I was doing and why. He saw things in a completely different light and felt I had helped put his career on track.

Serious struggles

Later, after a promotion to account supervisor at an advertising and public relations agency, I was so sure I was failing that I asked my boss to demote me to a role as a copywriter or editor. He refused, and I floundered on.

Well, over the years, three of the people who worked with me back then made a point to reach out. One who had gone on to a career in business communication overseas called me on a visit back to the states and invited me to lunch.

Another, just a few years ago, mentioned me in a blog post as someone who had been a good influence in his early career. And the third, after an exchange of messages on LinkedIn, which he initiated, said he still remembered a two-minute lesson I gave him on parallelism in writing sentences.

If asked, I would have guessed all three of those men would give me at best neutral and more likely negative evaluations as a boss. What did they see in me that I failed to see in myself?

False limitations

I would suggest based on experience and observation that self-deprecation is a more common trait than arrogance. How much more fulfilling would our careers and lives be if we could look with fairness at our abilities. How much more good could we do if we gave ourselves the credit we deserved; if we carried the appropriate level of self-confidence?

A quote attributed to Henry Ford provides a good note on which to end: “Whether you think you can’t or think you can, you’re right.”



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