My journey to zero and back – how to recover your self-confidence after setbacks

In 1991, I entered the IIT Kanpur campus loaded with confidence and zest. And then, we had our first quiz in which I got a big zero. That too, in Physics – my favorite subject. 

Sadly, that zero also summarizes my four years at IIT. 😊 

By the time I was in my final year, all the ‘C’ grades I received had decimated the self-confidence that I had walked in with. Before college, I had been at the top of my class all my life and I thought that I was very good academically. 

But after 4 years in college, I was now a certified “average guy.” I had forgotten all the things I had done prior to that. In my heart of hearts, I felt I wasn’t good enough. 

However, after that, when I joined the Civil Services, I got lucky – I got some highly challenging assignments, and I was handling one crisis after another. And with luck, I sailed through. Soon, my confidence had soared so much that when I applied for an MBA, I told people that I was leaving the Services even before I had an admission offer.  

As you can see, my self-confidence was swinging up and down, but I was the same person. And you also might have experienced the same thing. 

That brings me to our key takeaway for today: 

We think our self-confidence comes from our competence. But much more than that, it comes from our most recent life experiences

If you have had a string of successes in the last 6-12 months, you will feel unstoppable. But, if in the last few months, you have faced heavy criticism or failure, your mind will forget all your life accomplishments and dwell on the negatives. You will tell yourself, “I am no good.” 

Now, why does confidence matter? It’s not just about feeling good—although that’s important too. When you are confident, you take more risks, think creatively, and perform better. In turn, people appreciate you more, and it creates a positive spiral of success and appreciation. 

On the other hand, when your confidence is low, you become defensive and go into a shell. You are less likely to take risks and perform well. And this becomes a negative spiral. 

So if you find yourself in a negative spiral, how do you recover? 

Let me suggest a set of tangible actions, which I have divided into two buckets: primary (or high impact)  actions and secondary actions:

Primary Actions

  1. Create a confidence-boosting experience: Since the recency of experience determines our confidence level, here is an easy hack –  create a short-term win that will give you a sense of accomplishment and boost your confidence. 

You can do that by taking up a challenge – it could be a challenging project at work, a personal goal, or even a learning objective. Put your heart into it and over-deliver. Once you crush it, your confidence will automatically soar.

  1. Reverse your “recency bias”: Since our mind is disproportionately affected by recent outcomes, deliberately expand your time horizon to look upon all your life experiences, not just the recent ones. 

Journal about your achievements, the struggles you’ve overcome and the positives you’ve achieved (even if they are seemingly minor). E.g., a mother who manages a job with a young kid is doing something extremely hard but would not give herself credit for that normally. 

  1. Choose people around you carefully: When people unfairly criticize us or start nit-picking, we become defensive. On the other hand, when people are supportive or appreciative, we gain confidence and flourish. Deliberately surround yourself with positive people, and as much as possible, minimize interactions with the ones pulling you down. 

I am not saying isolate yourself with a coterie but allow your supportive friends to energize you and give you confidence. 

Secondary Actions

  1. Improve how you talk and articulate: A lot of times, even simple things like people listening to us and valuing what we say boosts our confidence. On the other hand, if people ignore or cut us off when we are talking – it weakens our confidence. 

So whenever you have opportunities to make presentations or articulate your thoughts, go well prepared and try to do it thoughtfully. It might not even be a bad idea to practice before a mirror for formal presentations. 

Once your articulation improves, you will feel more comfortable even in informal settings.

  1. Help others and show your talent: Use your strengths to assist your team members. When you are seen as someone who helps and is competent, people will appreciate and recognize you, boosting your confidence.
  2. Spend time with family and well-wishers: No matter what happens, often, our family and close friends support us unconditionally. When we are feeling low, we need a non-judgmental environment that our family can provide – don’t underestimate the emotional nourishment we get from them.

These simple but practical steps can help you recover your confidence despite external setbacks. 

Whenever life puts you down, you have a path to recovery. Walk that path, and you’ll regain your confidence and thrive.

Thank you for reading this. Please hit reply and share your experiences and struggles.


PS: In case you are wondering how I got a zero in that quiz, it had two questions – an easy one for 3 marks, and a tough one for 7 marks. I thought that since everyone will do the easy one, I picked up the tough one and got stuck. So most of the class got 3 but I got a zero. 😂

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