If you follow the FRC blog, you may have seen the December 1 Mentor Monday post where I talked about some of my personal experiences overcoming obstacles on the road to becoming an engineer. I wanted to delve a little deeper into some of those issues, because interestingly, the vast majority of the obstacles I overcame were really just mental barriers I had created for myself. I think a lot of people can relate to these feelings and experiences, so let’s talk about not artificially limiting yourself.
One story I love to tell is about my high school robotics team’s path to success. As a student, I was a member of FRC 1124, The ÜberBots, from Avon, CT. Back in 2006, we competed at one event, the UTC New England Regional. On Saturday morning as we neared alliance selection, we were not ranked well - in fact we were ranked 40th out of the 42 teams at the event. We didn’t have high hopes for the rest of the competition, but we certainly hadn’t given up. We thought strategically. We had a consistent and strong autonomous mode and end game in a game where both of those were key, as well as good defense. So we worked on marketing our strengths to teams with strong offensive capability and trying to sell how we could fit into their strategy.
Ultimately, we were selected to join an alliance with two strong veteran teams, and our alliance went on to win the regional. Working with those powerhouse teams also opened our eyes to a lot of strategy we had never been aware of before. They were gracious enough to mentor us and share their knowledge with us, which set us up for a much stronger future. In 2007, we went on to win the Connecticut Regional and were finalists on our field at the Championship event. In 2008, we continued to win the Connecticut Regional for the third year in a row, won our field at the Championship event, and progressed onto the Einstein field. All this because we didn’t give up or limit ourselves, and because we weren’t afraid to ask for some help along the way.
But it’s one thing to sell your team or your friend - how come it can be so much harder to sell yourself? Most of the time, it is fear holding us back. Fear of how we are perceived - too self-promotional, too aggressive, too demanding - or fear of failure. The only real answer I know is to get over it. I suspect that people who know me will say something along the lines of “sure Ellen, that’s easy for you to say, you’re smart and successful”. I have a few different responses to that.
First, I would argue that it is only because I have been willing to push back against my fear of failure that I have been able to become relatively smart and successful. I almost didn’t go to MIT because I thought it would be too hard. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that MIT is indeed quite difficult, but because I was willing to challenge myself and push my limits, I was able to learn and grow so much beyond I ever expected. “Smartness” is definitely not static - you get back what you put in.
I would also say that sometimes, I don’t feel very smart or successful, and that is totally normal. We all have those moments. It can be easier to recognize other people’s strengths and successes than our own, which is how we end up building artificial limits for ourselves. Be willing to accept that other people have different strengths and talents, and they don’t invalidate or supersede your own. Don’t let not feeling good enough hold you back from trying things - you can never succeed at anything if you don’t even try.
I remember applying for a FIRST scholarship in high school, not expecting much. After I later updated my recommender that I had received the scholarship, he confided in me that he was just as surprised as I was - he thought “no one ever wins those things”. I’m glad he had still been willing to put in the effort for me, just in case it came through. There have certainly been awards and scholarships that didn’t work out for me in the end, but if I let fear hold me back every time, I never would have won the things that I did. I also made the mistake of not negotiating on my first job, since I thought the offer was fair, and didn’t want to come off as too demanding. Of course, not negotiating puts you at a disadvantage compared to everyone who does negotiate. I recently accepted a new position, but this time I decided to try my hand at negotiating. They came back and offered to turn my “engineer” position into a “senior engineer” position, which never would have been possible if I hadn’t tried.
Practice pushing back against your fears, it will get easier over time. There is no reason for us to create our own artificial barriers to success.
This blog post was written by Ellen McIsaac. If you are interested in being a guest blogger for FIRST Ladies, sign up on the schedule.
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