A week before starting college, I came across a quote that said, “Going to Harvard convinces everyone that you’re special, and you that you’re not.” When I read it, I wasn’t nervous because I had the hubris of a girl who didn’t apply to any safety schools and graduated at the top of her class. Less than two months later, I got my first midterm test grade, a D in Linguistics, and called home crying. I had been knocked down several pegs and my confidence took a significant hit. In the 10+ years since, my confidence has slowly returned, and I was curious to see how other women have dealt with losing confidence and gaining it back. I asked three of my closest friends from Harvard about the different ways they’re regaining their confidence since college and how it can apply to your careers.
HOW DID ATTENDING HARVARD ERODE YOUR CONFIDENCE?
Going to Harvard was a truly humbling experience. As one friend put it, “Harvard reinforced the ‘impostor syndrome’ that many women suffer from.” She asked herself questions such as, “Did I get in because I'm Hispanic? Did I really take full advantage of everything Harvard had to offer?” Beyond these feelings were the daily difficulties that came with trying to succeed in such a rigorous environment. One friend described the high expectations as, “Succeeding was the baseline. There were fewer opportunities to excel and do something praiseworthy.” My friend, Allyson, felt that no matter how hard she worked and how much she studied, she couldn’t catch up. She likened it to feeling as if some people were starting ten meters ahead of her in a race based on the higher levels of preparation they had received in high school.
HOW HAVE YOU REGAINED YOUR CONFIDENCE?
Many of these situations translate to the workplace, and are well documented in articles on women’s confidence. However, I am more interested in how we can continue to improve our self-assurance when faced with demanding environments.
Allyson is an eternal optimist and adventure seeker who has done business development at Disney Parks and Resorts and is now a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group. She is also the co-founder and CEO of easyBiodata, an online dating platform for the Indian community. She says she felt emboldened in college when she was successful in areas where other people weren’t. She says she “didn’t even know about Wall Street before college,” but she heard speakers such as Carla Harris and was inspired to try to enter the industry. She was hungry to get internships as early as her sophomore year. Her professional success with securing great internships much earlier than most people brought back some of the confidence that was rattled in her freshman year.
Another friend is an opera aficionado, fishing fanatic, and startup and technology ninja with 10 years of experience in ecommerce and pet tech. She has found ways to build her confidence in everyday life. She feels powerful when she “uses critical thinking in areas that are not her expertise.” This could be anything from managing her own finances to making medical decisions for her parents. She knows she can find the information she needs and pull together the right people and resources to get the best possible outcomes. She stresses that it is important to “take a step back to get perspective on how far you’ve climbed, and give yourself credit for victories. Maybe your professor [or boss] won’t give you a pat on the back, but you can sure give yourself one!”
"Take a step back to get perspective on how far you’ve climbed, and give yourself credit for victories."
My third friend is a tri-lingual artist, soccer player, and new mother who has worked in the consulting, public health, and software industries. Her confidence is influenced by both her professional and everyday life. She says her confidence changes based on the people she is surrounded by, including when she has a boss who believes in her and her abilities. It also improves when she participates in activities that make her feel strong and excited.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR WOMEN IN HIGH PRESSURE JOBS?
What I found most encouraging in my conversations with these three women is that they never suggested shying away from tough situations. Two of them went back to Harvard for their MBAs, even knowing how difficult it would be. The other friend left a successful career in retail ecommerce to join a startup with a whole new set of obstacles to overcome. Their advice for women in high pressure environments boiled down to three things:
1. Continue to step up and take on challenging roles. “Heading into unknown territory lets you test your wings. Don’t be afraid to step out into scary places because you never know what you can do. Don’t be discouraged from trying, even if you don’t succeed at first.”
2. “Form relationships with everyone you can at your company from the mailroom worker to the CEO. People respect the effort and it will make you more efficient and productive.” Having that full perspective of your business will empower you even when you feel like you may not have all the answers on your own.
3. “Seek out mentors and supervisors who believe in you and want to give you opportunities.” During those times when your self-assurance may wane, it helps to have someone you admire to remind you that you’re great, and create opportunities for you to stretch yourself and grow.
I am excited to put their advice into action, and look forward to showing off some of that pre-Harvard swagger at the earliest opportunity!
Florence Evina-Ze is a business strategist with experience at McKinsey, DevaCurl, and Deloitte. She is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School and likes writing about the intersection of beauty and business on her blog, beautyflo.co.