You probably underestimate yourself

· by Steve · Read in about 4 min · (811 Words)

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that the reader is a relatively normal person, and not a raging egomaniac, or a nihilistic sociopath - investment bankers, you might want to stop reading now ;).

Still with me? OK. So, I don’t know precisely what you do for a living; given my usual readership you’re quite likely to be a software developer, but I believe this applies pretty universally. I’m willing to bet that you probably assume that other people in your industry are way better than you are. That you look at the big company names, and big celebrities in your industry, and are a bit intimidated by their position, their expertise, and their track record. You might have the impression that because of the resources and experience these people / companies have, and perhaps the infinitely more ‘suitable’ location they live in, there’s no chance you could ever compete with them.

If so, I’m pleased to be able to tell you: you’re wrong.

Here’s a personal story. I grew up on a tiny island that in my early youth was based largely on horticulture, and then later morphed into a financial services centre. Neither of these professions interested me in the slightest. Software companies just don’t come from here, unless they service the local finance industry, or so the wisdom goes. The assumption regularly made by people both within the island and outside it, is that the only way to obtain real expertise is to bring it in from outside, because what expertise could you possibly expect to find in a small population in the back-end of nowhere anyway?

In this environment, a few of us grew up and found we wanted to be software developers, but we generally assumed we weren’t that good, at least in the grand scheme of things. Maybe we could impress each other, but surely that wouldn’t wash outside the island. Some of us tried to address that by working twice as hard, and learning as much as we could, from anywhere that we could, assuming all the time that we were basically regional hillbillies struggling to catch up with the far more sophisticated outside world. Maybe if we worked really hard, we might just be good enough to get an entry-level position or something, and then learn all the really smart stuff that everyone in the rest of the world must be doing that we had no idea about.

As time went on, through one means or another we started to interact more with the outside world. There were joint projects with global teams, the Internet opened things up and open source projects were joined and even started, and some even worked with/for these big-named companies in fabled places like Silicon Valley. And guess what we found, much to our surprise?

The range of ability was exactly the same in these places as it was in our tiny ‘backwards’ ┬áisland. Sure, there were more people, leading to more companies and more positions, but the ability scale was occupied in broadly the same proportions. The people we thought were great developers just in the context of our island were still great developers on the world stage, even in centres of excellence. Projects we worked on ended up being highly respected by people far outside these shores. We competed, and were surprised to win sometimes. And yet we came from the middle of nowhere, in tech industry terms.

We made the classic mistake of assuming that we were worse than the competition, just because we weren’t based in these larger, more famous places. That assumption had some positive effects - making us work harder for it - but also some negative effects too, such as making us rule out a lot of options unnecessarily. In fact the playing field was a lot more level than we thought it was.

There are other examples too. I spotted a quote from Dame Mary Perkins of local company Specsavers in our local paper a few days ago, when she talked about their experience of setting up in Melbourne. She said that they’d thought there would be 4 million people’s worth of skills and qualifications, but in fact the people were no better than the people they found back home in Guernsey. Scale really doesn’t matter very much.

And again, in a recent interview Bradley Wiggins, current favourite of the Tour de France, he illustrated his surprise at his position: “kids from Kilburn are expected to be postmen, milkmen or work in Ladbrokes”.

So, you almost certainly underestimate yourself, and you probably overestimate other people / companies too. Often the hardest thing about doing something outside the norm (for your environment) is believing that it’s possible in the first place. Get over that, and pretty much anything is achievable if you put your mind to it.