Misplaced but believable self-confidence

Foreword: I don't really know what this post is about. It started with me trying to make a point about having a very biased point of view about freedom of choosing your job, but it ended up in a recap of my professional life. Weird.

"The world is your playground", you will hear me say on this blog. I am very confident in that, but I should point out that the way I've gained my confidence was by way of ridiculous unrealistic self-confirmation. I've had a lot of lucky instances that happened to reaffirm my confidence in myself over and over again, and I think I may have made it an art to avoid situations that would get my confidence down.

For four and a half years I worked at the same company in Japan. It was the first company I ever worked at after graduating. I only ever applied for another job in Japan once. It was some average tech company in Tokyo that seemed reasonably up-to-date with modern dev practices. I didn't get the job. They gave me a tech interview that I borderline failed, so they told me to brush up on a couple of topics and come back in a few weeks. If I could prove that I had learned the stuff they wanted, they'd hire me right then and there.

I never went back there. For one thing, the job didn't appeal to me enough, but perhaps the job interview was all I needed. The truth is: I was already happy in Japan at my then-current job, there was no need to change. But I had no job interviewing experience, so I needed to confirm for myself that I could do an interview that would end up in a company hiring me. The original interview that got me to Japan doesn't really count because the main questions they asked me were "Do you speak Dutch" (it was a speech recognition company), "Do you like sushi", and "Can you cook for yourself". My first company's low barrier to entry got me into a fantastic company with brilliant minds. I learned a lot there.

But after four and a half years almost everyone I knew had moved on. At this point in my life there was no doubt in my mind that I would be able to get a job in Tokyo, yet I was not confident that I could get a 'real' job back in Europe or in the US. I was fairly indecisive about staying in Japan or going back, and the final decision to return to Europe was purely a gut feeling. I quit my job and started a cycling trip without knowing if I wanted to go back to Europe. While cycling my situation slowly started to sink in and I finally felt it was better for me to return to Europe, at least for a while. I wasted some time in the Netherlands trying to do startups without being motivated enough and eventually ended up at a company in London that wrote Java software for hedge fund management.

The interview for that job was exactly what I expected it to be: a half-day interview with various people, solving real-life technical problems on the whiteboard and also doing a bit of pair programming. It went really well, and I should credit my university for that, since I was taught a lot of the things in the interview by the one or two uni teachers that were actually good at what they did. In retrospect I wonder if I had become a bit blinded by my success that I forgot one of my golden rules: always think about the other party's perspective.

As a hedge fund company you have a pretty negative reputation. You're not just doing banking, you're actively participating in something that many people find morally questionable. So, as employees and managers of such a company, what do you do to get rid of that image? You hire fresh new people, and what could be more fresh than super agile web 2.0 software developers? To be honest I'm still not sure if they needed me there or not. Their code was the most perfect code I have ever seen in my life. It was extremely well-formatted, well documented and tested in every way imaginable. There was nothing for me to do. I was just there to stroke the manager's egos. Perhaps they didn't see it that way but that's what it felt like to me.

I quit that job after one month. I was about to commit to a 6-month rental contract on a new apartment, but bailed out in the nick of time. I think just like in Japan, all I had to do to gain confidence was prove to myself that I was able to land a well-paying job in Europe. But I didn't want the actual job, so I left and tried another failed startup.

Just after finishing the interview for the hedge fund job, and just before starting it, I had an interview with Google. At the time Google was one of the companies I greatly admired and would have loved to work for. I felt flattered that they would even consider me for a role, but that meant having to go through all their technical interviews. I had five of them in Mountain View, after which I was on the fence, so they gave me three more in London. Needless to say, I did not get hired. I'm sad about that. It would have come at the right time in my life, and I'm arrogant enough to believe that I could have contributed to Google's greatness. But too much caffeine and the shock of actually caring about a job interview enough to be nervous got the better of me, and I did not make the best impression that I could have made.

Here's a completely different boost of self-confidence though: getting a girlfriend! It's what brought me back to London six months later. I had yet another chance at bootstrapping my life, and this time I chose to skip Java and try out some Python jobs. Having a girlfriend gave me the general feeling of "everything is going great in my life!" that I needed to pass two job interviews. I pretty much had a choice between being head of a small division writing software that was not too technically interesting, versus the pressure of being a cog in a much larger project for high profile clients. I chose the latter and have been working for Potato London ever since. I have no doubt in my mind that this was by far the better of the two options. The mindset of the people at Potato matches my own. It's a genuinely good place to be.

But I have to admit that, when I accepted the Potato London job, one of the founders warned me "You will be working in an environment that can be pretty high-stress at times, and your work will be seen by people all over the world. Are you sure you can handle that"? Naturally I answered with supreme confidence that I could handle it, but inside I really didn't know. It was the first job I had of this level, and I had no idea how things would turn out. In the end though, everything turned out to be way less scary than I thought, and nothing has come my way yet that I can't handle. The experiences that I've had in my life teach me that it's ok to bullshit my way into things because I'll be able to deal with crunch time when (and IF) needed.

And that's the point I'm trying to make. I would not say that I have a lot of experience in life with finding jobs. But I have no choice but to let the experiences that I do have shape my self-confidence. And in my small set of job-seeking experiences, I've always had success. I know I am biased. I know the sample size is small. I know that I was lucky enough to know someone who put me in Google's spotlight. I know that I would've been less confident about the job market if I had chosen a city with less jobs than London. I know that I would've been less likely to consider other countries if I had first tried to emigrate to a country with a strict immigration policy, or if I had visited more countries that I ended up not liking before choosing London. But things happened the way they did, and that's why I am the person that I am.

So, now that I've proved to myself that I can handle high-profile jobs in a tech capital such as London, what do I do next? Applying to Google has changed from the thing that I always wanted in life to the thing I would do just because I can't think of anything better. Note that this way of thinking is preventing me from taking a self-confidence hit because I can't be rejected for a second time.

To be perfectly honest, I don't know what to do next. Whenever I really go for something, I go by a gut feeling. I don't have one. So perhaps I will do what worked for me before: quit my job, go on a cycling trip and keep pedaling until I get a gut feeling. A job is good for earning money but I've seldom obtained clarity in life from one. Don't be afraid of a change in perspective. You may find something you didn't even know you were looking for.

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