Losing myself: an experiment in finding confidence
Early parenthood had taken its toll on my confidence as a designer and I was fed up with feeling that way. It was nearly a new year and I was ready to feel differently. I made a 30 day plan to reclaim my confidence and began by boldly, publicly, asking people I knew to join and support me as I embarrassed myself in front of peers and strangers.
Over the course of 23 days (I didn’t make it to day 30 and have not an ounce of regret), I discovered that asking for help was not an embarrassment but a source of strength. I remembered what I had even when I felt like I’d lost so much. And I discovered that being personal online is still a radical act.
I also picked up useful new tools from smart friends who had not been suffering from multiple postpartum issues (by those I mean my 2 and 5 year olds). And afterward I developed a condensed plan that I could return to and that could potentially be useful to others too. That plan is now the 5 day confidence booster, or if you’re a masochist like I am the full 30 day plan is still online in spreadsheet form. I sincerely hope it helps someone!
Here are the thoughts that helped me.
Community is real and lasting.
I told the world that I was struggling, and people showed up for me.
In a matter of days I had 50+ people in a FB group and 40 in a slack channel. Not a lot by “audience” measurements, but by community measures that’s an amazing support group. I appreciate every one of them. And what was interesting to me was that people showed up from all walks of the past – my alma mater from the UF graphic design program, my boss from my very first job in the UK, colleagues from Mozilla and hacking-health comrades from my time at the hospital.
Many of these people I haven’t spoken to in years. So even though a part of me felt like I’d abandoned my design people several years ago first by moving from England to Toronto, then from Toronto to rural Ontario, I was reminded that ultimately the Internet is a small place and it’s easy to find people again. This gave me confidence as I struggled with my ongoing deliberations around the morality of supporting platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Even if the platforms go away (or if I alter the way I use or even leave the platforms), the community doesn’t. Facebook is not the arbiter of community; humanity is.
I’m grateful to my peers who were brave enough to admit that they too were struggling with confidence. Many were new parents, moms and dads like me, or just people with too much on their plates.
It isn’t trite to know you’re not alone. For those like me who have suffered a deep depression in the past, this can mean everything, and I think I can honestly say it helped me from slipping into a darker place.
I appreciate everyone from Slack and FB and Twitter who in turn appreciated what I was doing and said so. It truly helped.
Scattered lists, scattered mind
I’ve always had infinite curiosity and (mostly) capable skills, leading me to believe I could try almost anything and find some kind of success at it. In my career this has served me well as I’ve traversed the landscapes of different cultures, industries, job titles and changing technology. But when I had kids, and when I left my role as Design Director at Mozilla Foundation, and when I started a studio with Mark – all of which happened during a relatively condensed period of time – for the first time in my life this scattered focus seemed to be more of a hindrance than a help.
Perhaps it’s that the world has changed too. With so much distraction at our fingertips, greater discipline is a necessary skill for being able to get anything done.
“Shipping” is something I’ve also always valued, perhaps even more so than infinite curiosity, so I decided I needed to make some changes and edit the number of tasks I currently had on my plate. Of course I could not cut out what helps me take care of my family, but I realized I could limit nearly everything else which would in fact help me do the former better.
A renewed, limited focus
The most significant change in my daily life came from this realization: Outside of paid work I did not need to take on any other task other than getting our house in order. We recently bought a 1925 house in Florida built by Alan Shepherd’s grandparents and are bringing it back to life (follow along here), a gargantuan task that is more than enough of a side project.
This meant that I should discard my other ideas, at least temporarily. I should not:
- Write a design book
- Start a meetup group of central FL transplants
- Design a cookbook of family recipes
- Make a new anachronistic stationary startup (still in awe at how Rifle Paper Co. stays relevant)
- Create any new brands for product ideas — this one hurts, I really wanted to do this one!
- Look into fostering children. Someday.
- Illustrate a feminist coloring book for little girls, or any of the other dozen children’s book ideas I have
- Get out my oil paints and canvases and become a successful painter
- Clean out Grandma’s egg room or trim her podocarpuses
- Chase fellowships around the theme of Internet health
- Imagine and plan a life of travel blogging and nomadic exploration of the world
- Deliver Meals on Wheels or volunteer for Voting Works or fundraise for Yemeni children or any of the other causes that hurt my heart
Reading that list, can’t you just feel my inner chaos and confusion? Of course, there is so much beauty in all these interests and ideas, but given I have so little free time at this point in my life when my kids are young, mostly what that list does is set unrealistic expectations and insurmountable goals. Not at all a space in which I can succeed in the ways I want to succeed.
I also realized that focus is not a true limitation. I can still heed my curiosity, but within bounds. I can still:
- Explore my interests: Plan my garden, grow things, learn about plants, draw the house and reno plans, collect inspiration, learn about design
- Interact socially: Read blogs (reno-focused), ask for advice, document my thinking, and write about the house
- Make things with my hands: paint, draw, chop, build, think, configure, improve
- Plan & organize: budgets, expenses, savings plans, contracts, etc.
- Volunteer & be active in the community: attend skill-based workshops, have people over if it helps me figure out spaces or get rid of things, be a good neighbor
By limiting my focus to the house renos, a single ambitious project, I recognize I’m setting myself up for success — one day it will actually be finished, and it will be so glorious with every ounce of my creative energy channeled into it. I will be proud of myself for facing my biggest challenge head-on.
This was my most important realization:
Directly facing what challenges me most will be the biggest indicator of having grown my confidence.
Time is finite, and it is forgiving
Saying you’ll be focused is one thing but actually doing it is another. I realized that with only so many hours in the day, I had to cut some habits that would be painful to me and overcome years of behaviour that I wanted to change. (Note that I don’t say bad habits. These habits weren’t bad, just ones I didn’t want anymore.)
Habits such as: Constantly opening email. Starting too many things and never finishing them. Promising people I’d do things when I wouldn’t. Letting distraction impede the time I was spending with people. Letting my mind wander while someone was talking to me. Not making time for important things like healthy cooking and exercise. Some people will certainly think these habits are bad, but I just wanted to let them go without any judgement.
I encountered the above insight recently and wondered if I was going about the whole thing wrong. If discipline was unnecessary, was I focusing on it as a magic talisman to address a surface problem rather than the core issue? Was my determination to be focused really just a distraction?
In fact I think I was both right and wrong. I needed to clarify my goals and cut the fluff so that I was able to be more disciplined. Until I had done that, I simply wasn’t capable of being as productive as I wanted to be.
To that end, I realized a few things about my goals and priorities. I realized I could not selflessly build community as I have done in the past. Doing this is so fulfilling to me, but it is not directly related to my primary goal, which is renovating our house. I cannot help every person who’s moved to Florida and feels isolated (I hear you, sister); I cannot directly help other designers who struggle with confidence on an ongoing basis. I have only one life – and two young, demanding children – and I need to be more selfish with my time right now.
I also told my mom I could not walk with her every day. This was a big deal because we moved from Canada to Florida specifically to be able to walk with her more regularly, which ideally helps her manage her Parkinsons. But I decided she had enough of a support network in other parts of her life that I should be able to take back some of this time for myself. We’ve committed to walking together twice a week.
Professionally, I realized I wanted to appear online as focused as I felt inside. But I also realized that none of this really mattered. People still remembered me whether I’d posted recently or not, and they showed up for this endeavour for reasons other than my social profiles. So when it came to my online life, I audited the platforms I used (as I seem to do every couple of years) and I still cleaned up house, but I did it for me — not because of how it looked to other people. The anxiety of knowing whether or not my community would be there if I decided to take some ‘time off’ disappeared with the knowledge that many people struggled in the exact same way that I was struggling. People get it.
Which led me to my next insight.
Disappear in order to appear; let go in order to hold on
On a recent walk with my mom, whose priority these days is in being able to lift her feet one after the other, I told her I was going dark on social media. “I’ve noticed,” she said, in response to me visibly changing my Facebook profile photo to a set of six geometric, Paul Rand-inspired graphic eyes. (Unfortunately there is no way to invisibly change your profile image on Facebook.)
What led me to ‘going dark’ was that I realized my long history with the web was making me feel weighed down. I felt so encumbered by 1000s of previous posts on FB and Twitter and Instagram, not even knowing what they were or if I would feel proud of those posts today (and of course times have changed – what I would have posted then is not what I would post now). So even though I don’t have the kind of profile where random people would trawl my social archives looking for things to hold against me, I deleted much of it anyway, simply because a clean slate made me feel better. I deleted or untagged bad pictures of me and my kids. I deleted old comments and likes. In fact, I deleted my entire Twitter post history. It made me feel as fresh as a new haircut might. (Of course nothing you post ever really goes away, but at least it was a semblance of a clean slate). Although Marie Kondo appeared a little later in my life, this was 100% konmari philosophy: Surround yourself (even online) with things that give you joy; everything else has already served its purpose and can be let go.
It’s an interesting paradox that going dark on social was actually a way for me to appear rather than disappear, wherein anonymity gives me a feeling of confidence. Without ties to who I think I was on social media, I can be free to be who I am. Deleting past content was also rooted in some other thoughts about privacy and security, but it was predominantly my number one way to find myself again.
An abrupt ending
I’ve deleted the FB group and Slack channel I created for this purpose; it served me well. I would like to extend an immense amount of gratitude to everyone who was there for me last month. From people who joined me in the groups, to those who struggled alongside me, and to those who cheered me on from the sidelines, I truly appreciate it. I hope that someone else finds this post a supportive pillar in the shifting sands of confidence, career, and parenthood.
If you can relate to any of the struggles I outlined here, and you are up for the challenge, try the 5 Day Confidence Booster. I would love to know how you feel afterward!