revjim.net

October 27th, 2003:

Going nowhere

self-esteem

I find myself at odds with my own criticism. I’m critical enough of my own work and abilities to mentally exaggerate my flaws. Yet, at the same time, I realize that my work and my ability to improve is substantially greater than many. This leaves me perpetually in that pivotal position of deciding to try again or give up. As an extension of this same sword I find that, oftentimes, as I learn and relearn in an effort to improve, the end result is only a more learned rendition of my first attempts. My first thought process is usually correct. Yet, my own criticism causes me to rework until I arrive right back where I started. The only difference between the beginning and the end is the knowledge that I can’t do it any better. This is pleasing and empowering in some ways, and very discouraging in others.

It’s interesting, after the fact, to see this play out in the various areas of my life. From my social abilities, to photography, to computer programming it can be seen. Socially, I constantly doubt the validity of the relationships I’ve made and it takes me quite some time to realize that what I was looking for in a particular friendship was actually there long before I realized it. In photography, I’ll take the same type of shot day after day only to find that I prefer one of my first attempts. In programming, I almost always dismiss my initial design as amateur and rework until I end up in the exact same spot.

More often than not, the work that I am most proud of tends to be those things that I created quickly, on a whim, without over thinking — just letting my instincts guide me. Yet, even with this knowledge, in a twisted application of this very principal I continue to doubt my instincts and only rely on them when I’m not thinking about it.

As I get older and the analysis of my own life has more data to work with I realize that a lot of these problems stem from self-esteem issues. There are two ends of the spectrum when it comes to self-esteem. On one side there are those like me who constantly doubt themselves and therefore work towards improvement, even when it isn’t really necessary. Then there are those who believe that everything they do is great. They show off simple, flash-laden shots of their family and praise their own photography. They produce horrible code and refuse to budge from their initial designs because they know how good it is. They make statements like, "my apartment kicks" when, in reality, it’s just a square divided into a few rooms just like most everyone else’s.

The odd thing about people with an over-inflated self-esteem is that their beliefs are sometimes contagious. That confidence and perceived success leads them to bigger and greater things, regardless of how well they can produce what they claim they can. It doesn’t usually lead them to the top because, eventually, the higher they go the more they will find themselves surrounded by people who share the same trade. But these people are actually talented, know their abilities, know their weaknesses, and improve themselves constantly.

Those with the low self-esteem sometimes make it, provided they actually have the required skills. If they get noticed or if, by chance, they are asked to do something that falls into one of these areas that they know very well, yet don’t trust their own abilities, they will sometimes find their way higher.

That’s how I got where I am today. I’ve been programming since age 6. I knew what I was capable of by age 12. But I also assumed that there were people in the world that could do a much better job than I could and that, while my skills were good, they weren’t good enough to take the place of those who have been doing it for years and years. I enjoyed working with computers, so I took an entry level job in a computer related field. Eventually, a task came up that needed to be completed and no one could do it. I knew I could and figured I may as well volunteer since no one else was. I did it. I succeeded. I moved forward slowly. Eventually, I got here.

But even today, I’m reluctant to even attempt to move forward because I assume that I won’t be capable of performing the level and quality of work required in that next stage. I assume that there are already people in those positions that are more proficient than I am and that they would run circles around me.

All of these self-doubts play out in every area of my life. But, even with this knowledge, I’ve never been able to correct my thought process for fear of acquiring too much self-esteem. I don’t want to be proud of a piece of work or of an ability that isn’t as good as I think it is. But doubting my own abilities and forcing myself to work and rework everything I do is really holding me back and leaving me unmotivated and unwilling to take the next big step forward.