self-confidence – how academic achievement isn’t always the answer

Coming from an ultra-humble background in East Germany – which had just emerged from the Soviet era – and my parents going through multiple unemployed periods when I was growing up, the thought of ever going to Harvard, Yale or Oxford seemed surreal.

If it could be achieved, though, it would hold limitless opportunities.

After a successful bachelors at University of Zurich and a summer school at Oxford, I was accepted at Oxford University in 2013 for my MSc. I was over the moon. My dad took a loan out to help me attend. It was exhilarating.

I completed my MSc by 2014 and then eventually went into the NHS, quickly reaching senior management.

Why am I sharing all of this? Because this all looks good on paper, right?

Whilst this has indeed been my life, the reality of living this life is a whole other story. I have long been plagued with a constant need for authenticity but I never had the self-confidence to back it up.

I was afraid of judgement, needed approval from others, and relied on praise and shoutouts to feel I had done a good job. The dipping in my performance at Oxford following high grades in Zurich made me feel like I was a failure. The huge ask of attending Oxford, and my average grades, gave me physical symptoms of anxiety – panic attacks, insomnia, and reliance on beta blockers to stay calm.

Our exam format of learning – by heart – 100+ references of academic papers and trying to retrieve them in two three-hour exams would determine whether £30,000 was worth it. It was not my learning style at all, which didn’t help. Not fitting in at all with my classmates at Oxford made me feel like an outcast. I felt lonely, and different – not the good kind. I felt a lot of FOMO.

“Not fitting in at all with my class mates at Oxford made me feel like an outcast”

Outside of the academic world, I had body image issues, worrying about my eating, my exercise, never quite feeling beautiful or happy in my own skin. My wonderful partner at the time was my main source of comfort as I was busy hiding from the world.

I didn’t fit in anywhere. Needless to say, all these challenges undermined my mental health; I had anxiety issues, and I felt depressed.

It was overwhelming to think that, in order to overcome all these challenges, I would need to tackle them individually at some point – “oh my gosh, that will be so much work”, I thought. I didn’t know where to start.

I went through the typical motions, tried to “fix my issues” through skills building. I went to therapy which, in my case, was endless, non-conclusive and involved relentless digging in my past with no solutions. Mentoring later in my career was helpful but really just added to my issues.

I stumbled over coaching; my colleague at the time was a certified coach. Six sessions, she said; that’s it. My goal at the time was to get ahead in my career. What I didn’t know was that these sessions were effectively an accelerator for myself, my personal development, and, ultimately, my self-confidence.

Until that point, I never consciously clocked self-confidence to be something to focus on. In fact, I had shied away from it thinking it was the same as arrogance, or that you could have “too much” self-confidence. I didn’t want that.

What happened next was that my now sustainable, high self-confidence helped me overcome all the issues above at once. Right there. No more symptom fighting, no more “feeling bad for feeling bad”, no more deficiency, thinking “why can’t I do that”. No.

New Nadine was born, and it was a day and night experience.

This was the beginning of what has eventually, several years later, become HopStair, a self-confidence building platform to help many other people develop their self-confidence effectively and efficiently – ideally in much less time than it took me.

self-confidence isn’t just a nice thing to have, and it’s not a by-product of something else – it’s the strength you need to build and we need to foster in others.

This will uniquely take care, to a large degree, of all of the following, and more – anxiety; depressive symptoms; believing in yourself; appreciating yourself; stress management; building strong relationships; FOMO; dealing with feedback; overcoming envy; craving praise and compliments; overthinking; beating yourself up and worrying about mistakes; and body image issues.

All of these stem, to a huge degree, from a lack of internal validation and a constant fear of judgement; what others think, what others will say, whether others will approve, whilst one is in constant pursuit of chasing the expectations – real or perceived – of others.

“It is important to note that self-confidence doesn’t mean being indifferent or ignorant”

This external focus undermines the critical focus on oneself, one’s own passions, strengths, motivators, ambitions, goals, timelines. It’s only when you identify these that you can really unlock personal fulfilment and happiness. But the key is self-confidence.

So what does self-confidence include?

True inner authentic self-confidence consists of: self belief; self respect; self love; self esteem; and self efficacy. Like the root of a tree, it’s your foundation; it’s what allows you to face and handle challenges, judgement, curveballs, and unapologetically be you – and live life how you want to live it, and with what matters to you.

Ultimately, feedback and thoughts and suggestions from around us are vital but there is a level that’s too little – i.e., we are unaware how we really come across – and too much – i.e., we let other people’s opinions distract us, we let it get us down or deter us, we don’t trust ourselves.

It is important to note that self-confidence doesn’t mean being indifferent or ignorant, but to work constructively with other people, their opinions and their judgements.

About the author: Nadine Pfeifer is the founder and CEO of HopStair, an app that uses behavioural science to help users build their own self-confidence. It is about to embark on a focused period of intense pilot work of its latest product version with several UK and US universities and other providers in the educational sector. Interested in piloting HopStair with your students, staff or clients? You can reach HopStair through or email Pfeifer at

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One Response

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