Build Confidence by Thinking Like a Scientist

It’s ironic that I’m suggesting that women can build confidence by thinking like a scientist. I was a research scientist for most of my career. During that time, my confidence fell to an all-time low.

Perfectionism and confidence

Looking back, it was because I was a perfectionist working in academia. Academics are very good at critiquing. They are nitpickers and rewarded (rightly) for being detail-oriented and constructing good arguments for their opinions.

Academia is not a healthy setting for young perfectionists who are plagued with high expectations and fixated on outcomes. Those who, like me, are not aware that having a growth mindset and focusing on effort and process not only helps you be more successful but can also be liberating.

I wanted my tasks to work out right the first time, thinking that would somehow prove I belonged among the brilliance that surrounded me. I spent too much time preparing before taking any action. As a result, I often didn’t accomplish as much as I could have for fear of making mistakes. I avoided speaking up unless I had all the facts. I didn’t share my views and opinions if they differed from those of others. To avoid criticism, I would turn down opportunities to share my research, even though I knew that in academia, presenting and publishing are crucial to advancement.

At that time, I didn’t realize how much my perfectionistic tendencies were getting in my way and eating at my confidence. It was only when I became a coach. I witnessed how perfectionism hurt my clients’ confidence and held them back and I could see similar patterns in me.

Using the research on different mindsets of renowned psychologist Carol Dweck as my guide and the names of the different groupings from my daughters’ science camp, I encourage my clients build confidence by thinking like a scientist.

Steps to build confidence by thinking like a scientist

  1. Be curious like an explorer. Rather than trying to figure out the “best” way to solve a problem, ask yourself: “How does this work?” Or, “How could it work better?” and, “What else could work?” or “What might prevent it from working?” In other words, develop your hypotheses.
  2. Ask questions like an inquirer. Instead of worrying about saying the right thing at a social event or networking opportunity, ask questions. Have the other person tell their story. See how much you can learn. For example, wonder “How does this person operate?” Or, “How does she think?” “What are his assumptions?” Rather than assume you have someone figured out in the first 2 minutes of meeting someone new see if they surprise you by being open to new information.
  3. Conjecture like an investigator. When you have trouble getting started on something new or hard, try to break down the activity or challenge. Scientists may have grand theories, but they conduct their investigations on smaller pieces of the puzzle. They break larger processes into manageable steps.
  4. Repeat trials like an experimenter. Know that things won’t always go the way you had planned, and assume that you need more trials (and errors). Scientists are expected to repeat their tests or get larger sample sizes. Otherwise, their findings would be neither reliable nor valid. Likewise, when you make a mistake, don’t immediately assume it denotes a character flaw. Make sure you know what conditions could have influenced your results. Run the test again to see if the error was an anomaly.
  5. Collaborate with other innovators. Scientists rarely work alone; they have co-investigators, labs, and research assistants. Find people with similar goals but different knowledge and skill sets. Maybe finding someone who has a different work style can help you do your work. Finding partnerships that work isn’t easy. You may find you need to adjust your search or look for someone else. The process, however, is still valuable because it can be informative.

Recovering from perfectionism

I now call myself a recovering perfectionist. I still get nervous before I submit proposals or just before I begin a workshop or webinar. But I then draw courage from my clients’ perseverance—the way they’ve worked to overcome their challenges—and successes. They entered new careers. They found the time and energy to do the things they truly enjoy and be with people they love.

I remind myself to share the results of our collaboration and help more people. I want to recruit as many recovering perfectionists as I can. We can all have the confidence to do interesting work and nurture deep relationships with fewer hesitations.

Won’t you join our science lab?

An older version of this article was first published in July 2016.