3 steps that saved my confidence and my career

I rely heavily on the knowledge that I’m pretty smart. When I feel like I’m over my head, I know that I’ll eventually figure it out. I’m pretty certain that’s what convinced me I could work as a systems administrator with absolutely no training at all. And I was right…but not right away.

I had spent the greater part of my adult years working in sales or sales support. I started before PCs became ubiquitous, no one had a cellular phone, and Al Gore hadn’t invented the internet yet. You know, old school.

Then the 1990s rolled around and technology slowly made its way into our lives. Nothing like we have today, but light years ahead of where it was 10 years prior. That’s when I decided to respond to a three-line ad looking for a sales manager of a small internet service provider on the East Coast.

It was a bit of a leap, going from hard goods to a technology service, but it was still sales. I’d long been fascinated by the ins and outs of technology ever since a friend who sold computers the size of a truck explained what they could do. And I had a feeling this was a good direction to go in. It was a calculated risk.

I got the job, and the transition was smooth for the most part. I was still in sales. I became intrigued by the digital languages and the power they harnessed, so in my downtime, I learned rudimentary technical skills from the staff.

Six years later, the company had grown to 500+ employees. I realized I’m far more comfortable in a smaller company, helping it go somewhere rather than dealing with red tape for eight hours a day. I also realized that I wanted to make stuff work rather than sell the end result. So when I received an email looking for a referral for a junior systems administrator at another company I decided to throw my hat in the ring.

I had just enough experience, and proven ability to learn, to land this entry-level position. It probably helped that I was mature (in years, at least) compared with the average 19- to 23-year-old applicants. And I was willing to take a two-thirds pay cut.

Three days into the job, I knew I was in over my head. I hadn’t jumped into the deep end of a pool, I’d dumped my future in the middle of the ocean.

On my plate: Learning the intricacies of all the hardware (some 100+ servers, switches, routers, storage systems) and all their unique operating systems. I had to master new languages (perl, java, C+) to automate manual tasks and fix the application when it hit a bump. I also had to maneuver all the processes of the company as well as my department. I was way, way, way out of my comfort zone. And the belief that I’d somehow figure it all out was a distant memory.

Every night for the first three months, I’d get home and vow to quit. I told myself things like “I’m not cut out for this.” “My mind doesn’t work in the technical way.” “This isn’t natural for me.” It didn’t help that my group consisted of three people, and the other two didn’t have time to hold my hand. We were always busy. I felt doomed.

That’s when I knew I had to actively turn this thing around.

1. To keep myself from actually quitting, I started to tell myself some truths rather than dwell on inevitable failure. For instance:

My coworkers were not all smarter than me, as I had convinced myself. Some were, but not all.

I had never failed in a career change before, why would I now?

2. These thoughts helped get me in the door each morning. Once at my desk, I started to create simple systems to make sure I wouldn’t fail.

Each day I would review what I had learned the day before. You would be surprised at how large that pile gets.

I documented everything. If I had relied on my memory, especially in such a new field, I would have spent countless hours doing the same thing over and over.

Before asking for help, I tried to solve the problem myself. If I did go home without a solution, I usually found fresh perspective the next morning as I sat at my kitchen table with my first cup of coffee. A good night’s rest and a clear head go a long way toward lucid thinking. And solving my own problems helped build confidence in my abilities.

3. I also gave myself an attitude adjustment by trying to approach work as a learning experience, not a do-or-die scenario.

Initially, if I asked someone for help, I’d get mad at myself because I felt I should have figured it out myself. But after a while, I started looking at my requests for help as a way to learn how to fish, not be given a fish. My coworkers obliged. Encouraging!

Soon, I started asking for their feedback on projects before they launched. For me, it was something like “Hey, Joe, I just wrote a program that will make your toast, start your car, and straighten out the healthcare industry. Would you mind taking a look and giving me some thoughts?” I consciously tried to key in on the suggestions, but occasionally I’d take it personally. That’s when I’d remind myself that I’d asked Joe because I respect his opinion — and he was helping, not condemning me.

One of the hardest shifts was giving myself a pat on the back. Usually, I gloss over success and zero in on anticipated failure. That’s helpful when planning a project, but it can shatter your ego when it’s all about your own performance. To counter that impulse, I made a point of recognizing when I’d done a good job rather than beating myself up for all the things ahead of me that would pose a challenge.

Within four years, my department grew from three to 11 people — and I became manager. Victory! Hard-earned, deliberate victory. I was genuinely proud of myself, and confident enough to keep looking for new challenges. My latest was leaving urban life for the wild beauty of Montana. My technical skills enable me to work remotely as a database engineer, and I devote my free time to mastering the artistic aspects of photography. Someday, I hope to make a living at it.

Editor update: In 2016, Aaron switched careers again. He is now a professional photographer, specializing in real estate and architectural photography in Montana. You can see his photos on Facebook.com/MontanaHomePhotos.

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Photo: “After the Storm” by Aaron Burnett. Emigrant Peak, Montana. You can see more of Aaron’s work at aaronburnettphotography.com

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