Friday is a good day for life lessons, is it not?
At my day job, we get interns every summer. Young, fresh-faced 18- to 21-year-olds who are refreshingly not bogged down in the adult world and just excited to be out of the classroom and in an office.
I was one of these youngsters myself, many moons ago. I remember my first internship, at an NYC PR firm. I had no idea what I was doing, and I was absolutely terrified of messing up. I barely spoke to anyone the first whole week I was there.
I managed, the way I usually do, by using my brains and the life skills I’d acquired up to that point to eventually worm my way out of my shell, so much so that the head of the company actually asked me to stay on as his assistant at the end of the summer. (I declined; I had to go back to college.)
But what sticks with me in that first internship is how totally lacking in confidence I was the whole summer. Who am I to do any of this stuff? I would ask myself. Why are they entrusting me with actual business?
This is a feeling that’s followed me throughout my career. Even now sometimes I’ll ask myself why anyone would ever listen to me. What makes me think I know what I’m talking about?
Enter my new marketing intern; I’ll call him Joe. He’s 18, fresh off his first year of college, has never had an internship before, and is working under me this summer. And the first thing that struck me about Joe is the insane amount of confidence he has.
I explain a project to him, and he immediately tells me how he thinks he can improve upon it. I ask him to do research on some brands, and he tells me I shouldn’t be researching those brands, I should be researching these ones. He walks up to me with unsolicited advice, ideas, opinions, all day long.
Does this get a little annoying? At times, yes, being told what to do by someone over a decade my junior with no experience to back up his assertions can be irritating. But most of the time I’m just so interested in the way this kid talks to me (and everyone): with utter confidence that he’s right. You’d think he’s been working in marketing for years, with the way he just spouts off his ideas on what we should be doing.
He has way more confidence than me, and I have years of experience on him, and I ask myself why that is.
I’m reminded of this quote from Big Magic:
Too many women still seem to believe that they are not allowed to put themselves forward at all, until both they and their work are perfect and beyond criticism. Meanwhile, putting forth work that is far from perfect rarely stops men from participating in the global cultural conversation. Just sayin’. And I don’t say this as a criticism of men, by the way. I like that feature in men—their absurd overconfidence, the way they will casually decide, “Well, I’m 41 percent qualified for this task, so give me the job!” Yes, sometimes the results are ridiculous and disastrous, but sometimes, strangely enough, it works—a man who seems not ready for the task, not good enough for the task, somehow grows immediately into his potential through the wild leap of faith itself. I only wish more women would risk these same kinds of wild leaps. But I’ve watched too many women do the opposite. I’ve watched far too many brilliant and gifted female creators say, “I am 99.8 percent qualified for this task, but until I master that last smidgen of ability, I will hold myself back, just to be on the safe side.” Now, I cannot imagine where women ever got the idea that they must be perfect in order to be loved or successful. (Ha ha ha! Just kidding! I can totally imagine: We got it from every single message society has ever sent us! Thanks, all of human history!) But we women must break this habit in ourselves—and we are the only ones who can break it.
Look, I know it’s not all women who are lacking in confidence, or all men who have it in spades. But it’s a pattern I’ve seen over and over again, especially with regards to myself. I let my doubts get in the way of all the other stuff. And that probably comes through to other people, too.
So I’m going to try and remember to take more cues from Joe, the 18-year-old overeager intern. I will tell people with years more experience than me how to do things. I will suggests improvements on all processes, even when unasked for them. I will speak as though I am the utmost authority on any subject under the sun.
Kidding. That kid has some learning to do. But he’s unknowingly taught me some stuff, too.