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, but during that time I felt far from confident.

That’s because I was also a perfectionist. I wanted things to go right the first time, so I spent too much time preparing and doing homework before taking any real 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 or if my views and opinions differed from those of others. To avoid criticism, I would turn down opportunities to share my work, even though I knew that in academia, presenting and publishing your research are crucial to advancement.

Since becoming a coach, however, I’ve helped many clients overcome perfectionism and feel more confident by thinking like scientists. In turn, I’ve benefited greatly from working with my clients and witnessing how they get things done. Now, I love sharing our work—what we’ve learned from our collaborations.

Using the research of renowned psychologist Carol Dweck as my guide, I encourage my clients to do the following:

  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?, How could it work better?, What else could work?, and, What might prevent it from working? In other words, develop your hypotheses.
  2. Become an inquirer. Rather than worry about saying the right thing at a social event or networking opportunity. Ask questions. Have the other person tell his/her story. See how much you can learn. For example, “How does this person operate?” “How does she think?” “What are his assumptions?” Rather than assume you have someone figured out in the first 2 minutes of meeting him/her see if he/she surprises 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. Like an experimenter, try and try again. 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, but the process is still valuable because it can be informative.

Perhaps because I’m a recovering perfectionist, I still get horribly nervous before I submit my writing or begin a presentation. But I always draw courage from my clients’ perseverance—the way they’ve worked to overcome their challenges—and successes—how they’ve entered new careers or found the time and energy to do the things they truly enjoy. And I tell myself, They’ve worked so hard that I can’t keep this information to myself. I’m excited to be able to help more people by sharing what my clients and I have learned together.