Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously — Lastly, we should give ourselves permission to be comfortable with not having all the answers. If we expect ourselves to know everything before we jump into an initiative, we would never take the plunge. It’s okay not to know something, as long as we recognize our knowledge gaps and seek to obtain the answers.
Starting something new is scary. Learning to believe in yourself can be a critical precursor to starting a new initiative. Why is it so important to learn to believe in yourself? How can someone work on gaining these skills? In this interview series, we are talking to business leaders, authors, writers, coaches, medical professionals, teachers, to share empowering insights about “How To Learn To Believe In Yourself.” As a part of this series we had the pleasure of interviewing Krikor Dzeronian.
Krikor Dzeronian is the co-founder and COO of Electives, an enterprise live learning platform. Prior to launching his career in entrepreneurship, he served as the VP of Engineering at Acadian Asset Management and held multiple engineering and engineering leadership roles at Eze Soft. Krikor grew up in Bulgaria and has a B.S. in Computer Science from St. John’s University. He also holds an MBA from MIT Sloan. Krikor is an avid sailor and triathlete.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I am Armenian by ethnicity but was born and raised in Bulgaria, where my family has lived for the last ~100 years. I was privileged to have been raised in a loving family, surrounded by my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and, of course, my sister. During high school, I started applying to colleges around NYC, as it was my childhood dream to study there. I had never left Bulgaria prior to that, and all my perceptions of NYC were naively based on movies. I was accepted at St. John’s University, and that’s what brought me to the U.S. After graduating, I moved to Boston and have been living here ever since. Outside of work, I like to sail and compete in triathlons.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
My biggest inspiration behind my career choices is my mom. Growing up in post-World War II Bulgaria, international travel was heavily restricted, but my mom was one of three students who earned the right to study in Germany after scoring the highest in a national competition. She majored in Cybernetics, which was the precursor to modern-day Computer Science. After graduating, she returned to Bulgaria, where she became one of the first computer scientists, working for a state-owned company that manufactured engines.
One day, a computer was brought into our home, and it became the centerpiece of our living room. It was an expensive item that required financial help from friends and family — similar to what some will call “angel investment” today. Little did I know, my mom was starting a software company. She always wanted to run it as a lifestyle company, and since my mom mostly worked from home, I was privileged to witness what entrepreneurship was — creativity, work ethic, resilience and hard work, but also the flexibility and feeling of being in the driver seat.
Entrepreneurship runs in my family, with my dad, grandparents, aunts and uncles all having started their own businesses. However, my mom was my biggest inspiration.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The first thing that comes to mind is when I brought down an entire company’s email server. I started my career as a software engineer at Eze Soft, where we were building trading platforms for the asset management industry. One of the projects I worked on was an alerting system that could send different types of notifications. Since performance was extremely important, I was running stress tests to analyze how the system would handle an increased volume of requests. During one of those tests, I misconfigured my environment to point to our production server. My test generated hundreds of thousands of emails in a very short period of time, and it was enough to take down the company’s email capabilities for over an hour.
I am sure a lot of people were upset, but I was not in trouble. Nobody blamed me; nobody lectured me on the importance of email for the company’s operations. People knew that I had made an honest mistake and appreciated that I quickly found my way to IT and described exactly what had happened and helped clear the mess.
The immediate lesson I learned was that my actions have downstream consequences, and I need to consider them first. This lesson extends beyond software systems and into all other aspects of business or life.
The second lesson did not hit me until later. Eze had a blameless culture that focused on outcomes and growth. This culture fostered an environment where individuals felt safe to take risks and make mistakes, knowing that they would not be punished or blamed. Instead, mistakes at Eze were viewed as opportunities for growth, and solutions were prioritized over assigning blame. This experience showed me the value of a blameless culture and how it can encourage innovation, collaboration and continuous improvement.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
In 2020, my co-founder (Jason Lavender) and I started Electives — a corporate live learning platform. The idea for Electives was born during business school, when Jason and I had the opportunity to learn management lessons from a mountaineer who had led multiple expeditions to Mount Everest. The energy and engagement during this learning experience were unlike anything we had experienced when learning at work. We realized that corporate training can often be boring and lack the human connection people crave. Furthermore, we found that the background of the instructors delivering corporate training is often limited to book knowledge, rather than real-life experiences. So, we decided to build a live learning platform that delivers learning through storytelling. Our goal is to enable business leaders to provide their teams with the best learning experiences by connecting them to instructors who can share lessons from their personal experiences.
When we look at the current state of corporate training, we see that companies are investing over $300 billion a year. However, most employees don’t find the experience of corporate training to be very valuable, and often they view training as a waste of time. At Electives, we are determined to change that. We provide training that is so engaging and impactful that people want to go home and share their experiences with their families. By doing this, we are helping organizations build strong learning cultures.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to believe in yourself? Can you share a story or give some examples?
Self-confidence is the foundation upon which we build our successes, both in our personal and professional lives. Without self-confidence, we risk being paralyzed by indecision and self-doubt. Instead of moving forward, without self-confidence, we may find ourselves stuck, unable to take action. Many people rely on us, and we owe it to ourselves and them to have faith in our abilities.
When we first started Electives, self-confidence was critical for a number of reasons. One example was tied specifically to the skill sets I brought to the table. Although I had a technical background, I hadn’t written code in years, because I had been leading technology teams. Regaining my coding skills took a small leap of faith in myself. But, I knew that, with the right mindset, I could overcome the challenge.
More recently, my co-founder and I were presented with a challenging situation when Silicon Valley Bank collapsed. Like many tech companies, our business was exposed, and we had to act quickly to keep our company running seamlessly. Amidst the chaos and uncertainty, we had to believe in ourselves to take appropriate action and mitigate the consequences of a bank collapse.
Ultimately, self-confidence is an essential ingredient for personal and professional success. When we lack self-confidence, we run the risk of playing it too safe and never realizing our true potential. By believing in ourselves, we can break through self-imposed limitations and achieve the greatness we’re capable of.
What exactly does it mean to believe in yourself? Can I believe that I can be a great artist even though I’m not very talented? Can I believe I can be a gold medal Olympic even if I’m not athletic? Can you please explain what you mean?
Believing in oneself comes from self-awareness. Experience and introspection allow us to understand our strengths and weaknesses. Equipped with that knowledge, we develop confidence that’s based on facts.
In terms of human potential, I subscribe to the notion that hard work trumps talent. As an example, during my high school years, I was perceived as having a talent for math. However, as soon as I stopped working on the subject, I fell behind those perceived as less talented but who worked harder. That said, it is important to acknowledge that there are limits to what we can achieve. After all, it is extremely improbable that I can become an Olympic athlete and set a world record in a particular discipline. Nonetheless, it’s still possible to set more attainable goals, like improving my 100m freestyle time by 2 seconds by working on my technique and physical conditioning. The latter goal is predicated on self-awareness.
Was there a time when you did not believe in yourself? How did this impact your choices?
Early in my career, I had an idea for a business that I shared with the CEO of the company where I was employed at the time. To my surprise, the CEO made me an incredible offer to support the launch of the business. However, I never acted on the offer, because I lacked confidence in myself. Looking back, I realize that my lack of self-belief prevented me from seizing a promising opportunity.
At what point did you realize that in order to get to the next level, it would be necessary to build up your belief in yourself? Can you share the story with us?
Continuing the story from the previous question — a few years later, I had a conversation with a former executive from the same company. He revealed that he knew of my entrepreneurial aspirations and had considered investing in my venture. At that moment, I realized that others had believed in me more than I had believed in myself.
Reflecting on this experience, I recognize that not taking the opportunity was a decision that I have regretted for a long time. While it is impossible to know what might have happened, the regret motivated me to make a promise to myself to stop playing it safe and start trusting (but verifying) my intuition. Ultimately, the experience of my missed opportunity taught me the importance of self-belief and the necessity of taking calculated risks in pursuit of one’s goals.
What are your top 5 strategies that will help someone learn to believe in themselves? Please share a story or example for each.
1 . Adopt a Growth Mindset — Rather than labeling oneself as “good” at some things and “bad” at others, it’s important to embrace the belief that abilities and skills can be developed with effort and practice. For example, as someone who was once extremely shy and introverted, I realized that my shyness was holding me back. I consciously made an effort to practice meeting new people, speaking in front of large groups, and having conversations that pushed me outside of my comfort zone. By gradually increasing my exposure to these situations, I trained myself to become more confident and outgoing. I believe that, with the right mindset, any skill can be developed over time.
2 . Visualize Success — One of the key differences between humans and animals is our ability to imagine the future. This ability enables us to work backward from that imaginary state and produce a step-by-step plan of how we are going to materialize the desired result. Equally importantly, visualizing success helps us get used to that state of success, and we subconsciously grow more confident in our abilities to get there. When I train for a triathlon, I visualize every little detail of the race — arriving on time, setting up my gear, getting into the wetsuit, and so on, all the way up to crossing the finish line and focusing on post-race rehydration and recovery. Mentally placing yourself in the desired state becomes easier with practice and helps us get comfortable with that target reality.
3 . Set Incremental Goals — Dreaming big is important. However, if we try to jump to the grand vision in one leap, we will most likely fail, which could lead to discouragement and self-doubt. That’s where setting incremental goals helps. First, incremental goals move us in the desired direction. Equally important, these smaller goals boost our self-confidence and help us see that, if we keep going, we can get to the end goal. Each time we reach one of our smaller goals, we should take a moment to recognize and celebrate our progress. This positive reinforcement can help build our confidence and keep us motivated for the next step.
4 . Find a Hobby — This one is a bit unorthodox. Working on a hobby gives us a low-pressure environment to practice strategies that help us gain confidence. For example, I didn’t start skiing until I was in my early 20s. It was quite embarrassing to be that 6’3″ person struggling on the bunny slopes where 5-year-olds were so elegantly maneuvering the course. But that experience helped me train my growth mindset, it forced me to come up with a learning plan, and it reminded me that it’s okay to fail from time to time if it leads to growth. The process of acquiring self-confidence is a skill we can train. Doing so with a hobby gives us a safe place to practice, and have fun along the way.
5 . Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously — Lastly, we should give ourselves permission to be comfortable with not having all the answers. If we expect ourselves to know everything before we jump into an initiative, we would never take the plunge. It’s okay not to know something, as long as we recognize our knowledge gaps and seek to obtain the answers.
Conversely, how can one stop the negative stream of self-criticism that often accompanies us as we try to grow?
In his work “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions,” Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky writes about an experience where he was challenged to not think about a white bear. He found that the more he tried to suppress the thought, the more that thought occurred in his mind. Dostoevsky is not alone; we all struggle to suppress thoughts.
Luckily for us, our conscious focus can be in only one place at a time. So, instead of trying to stop thinking about negative things, we should just spend more time thinking about positive ones. This will simply leave no room for our brains to dwell on the negative.
For example, even if we don’t achieve a goal we set for ourselves, there are always valuable lessons to be learned from the experience. We can focus on the fact that we were brave enough to try, became more resilient and learned more about ourselves in the process. And just like that, by consciously spending time seeking the positives, we’ve silenced the negative self-criticism.
Are there any misconceptions about self-confidence and believing in oneself that you would like to dispel?
No one has a crystal ball that predicts the future. Hence, we all have to operate in an environment of uncertainty. Self-confidence should be based on one’s ability to figure things out and make the most of the situation, not on having all the answers. Experience is a great teacher. People who have lived through difficult times and have maneuvered through obstacles have a track record to demonstrate their ability to stay grounded in reality and make necessary adjustments.
Turning to the subject of leadership, I strongly advise against following an overconfident leader. Although fear carries mostly negative connotations, I believe a healthy amount of fear is good, as it motivates us to predict and mitigate risks. Being overconfident (or fearless) can be a hindrance. A leader who is too self-assured may lack the necessary caution that fear provides, and make decisions that are misguided or dangerous. In short, a fearless leader is one who believes in themselves for the wrong reasons, and their leadership style may ultimately prove to be detrimental.
What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with imposter syndrome?
A few years ago, I was accepted into the MIT Sloan Executive MBA program, which had an impressive group of 126 individuals, including CEOs, entrepreneurs and other highly accomplished individuals. Despite my acceptance, I often felt like an imposter, questioning whether I truly belonged among such a distinguished group. As I got to know my classmates, I realized that I was not alone in experiencing these feelings of self-doubt. In fact, imposter syndrome was such a common feeling that it was a frequent topic of discussion around the campus.
For those struggling with imposter syndrome, my advice is to dig deep to understand where the feelings are coming from. Perhaps they stem from a subconscious desire to improve in a certain area and to learn from those around you. Similar to fear, a healthy dose of imposter syndrome can be beneficial. Firstly, it signals that you are surrounded by people from whom you can learn. Secondly, imposter syndrome can motivate you to keep improving. Although it can be uncomfortable, I encourage embracing the imposter syndrome and using it as a driving force to achieve your goals.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
The pace of scientific and technological progress is rapidly accelerating, while increasing life expectancy is creating the opportunity for people to change careers multiple times in their lives. Despite significant investments in reskilling and continuous education, the effectiveness of most corporate training programs still needs to improve.
I believe a key reason for corporate training falling short of needs is that people don’t have enough dedicated time for learning.
That is why I am advocating for a #DedicatedLearningTime movement that provides every employee with an hour per week specifically set aside for learning. Although many companies offer learning programs, they often fail to protect employees from meetings and other distractions that prevent focused learning. Through the dedicated learning time movement, we will give individuals greater career mobility, benefitting both themselves and their companies.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
There are many people that come to mind. I find Toto Wolf, Team Principal and CEO of the Mercedes Formula One team, to be in a very interesting position right now. Toto’s team has dominated the sport since 2014. However, they have struggled since the racing regulations changed a couple of years ago.
I would love to speak with Toto about:
- Building a culture of excellence
- Keeping people motivated to continuously improve, even when they are winning year after year
- Dealing with the failure of the last two F1 seasons
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Here is my LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/krikord/
I also encourage everyone to learn about Electives, an enterprise live learning platform with a mission of helping people grow and connect by bringing the world’s experts (the known and the unknown) into their lives.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.
Thank you for having me. I appreciate your time and the opportunity to share my thoughts on such an important subject.