So many people I know are loathe to talk about themselves, particularly about things they’re good at. They will hasten to deflect compliments and deny endorsements like they’re warding off demons, lest even accepting praise mark them as a braggart, that most terrible of labels. We’ve accepted this as standard, even praised it as “humility”, without realizing that our underestimation of ourselves limits both us and the people around us.
I’ve seen people oscillate between wanting to be recognized for their achievements and not wanting to call attention to themselves, even when it’s warranted. I’ve seen people overlook other people because they don’t realize what their skills are. I’ve known people for years without realizing what they’re capable of, because we’re so trained to avoid talking about ourselves.
When we see people who do talk about themselves, and we see their success, we’re often resentful. I’ve been there, and silently raged at someone whose self-aggrandizement got them attention and praise while my silent, hard work went ignored.
We can’t know what everyone around us is good at, unless we see them at it or they tell us. By extension, everyone around us can’t know what we’re good at unless we tell them. It’s not just okay, but important that people know what we’re good at, because that helps us all solve problems more efficiently and effectively. Communication is important, quite possibly the most important thing, and part of that communication is allowing others the opportunity to know what we can be relied upon to do.
I poured a ton of work into perfecting a prototype at one point, submitted it to my boss, and proceeded to have it ignored for years. I didn’t want to come off as arrogant or pushy, so I left my initial pitch and left it without further comment. This frustrated me, and festered, and when, years later, I was told that I should demonstrate building something unique and interesting, I was livid– I’d done exactly that and was completely ignored. In not communicating this thing that I had done and done well, I had simultaneously absolved myself of responsibility for recognizing it.
Here’s the thing: no one knew that prototype better than I did. No one knew that it had survived, stable and without problems, through more than a hundred codebase iterations. No one knew that it was implementable from scratch in less than an hour, and was modular enough that every implementation could easily be unique. All of these things were valuable, but in expecting other people to notice the work that I’d done, in being “humble” about my work and not self-promoting, I had pushed the responsibility for recognizing the strengths of my work on people who weren’t in a position to realize them.
A few friends of mine, after reading my post on Impostor Syndrome, suggested that impostor syndrome could be called “humility” elsewhere, and implied that it was a good thing to be, as one person put it, “realistic about your shortcomings”. I don’t disagree that being realistic about one’s own shortcomings is valuable, but recognizing shortcomings without also recognizing one’s strengths is very problematic. It dooms us to laboring unseen and unrecognized, and to resent those around us for not magically realizing how awesome we are. It can be very damaging, as that lack of external recognition (through a simple lack of knowledge) turns inward, making us disbelieve our own skills and making us worse at what we do.
It doesn’t take a lot to find scientific studies that support that we are capable of much more when we believe ourselves capable, and much less when we don’t. When we put ourselves in a downward spiral, where we don’t believe in our own skills, we actually get worse at those skills. When we believe in our skills, we measurably become better at them. It’s why positive feedback is vitally important for any manager, and why specific recognition is crucial. Those things fuel a fire of productivity and capability for us, but we need to start that fire with a spark. That spark is communication– letting people know that there is ample space and material to start a fire.
It’s okay to be good at things. Everyone I know is good at things, and many of them know it, even if they refuse to admit it. Accepting that you’re good at something is a key step in becoming great at them.