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Being a student at CDS taught me a lot about trusting myself

Thinking back on my eight months as a student at the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), I have come to learn that empowerment is about trust; trust from your leaders and most importantly trust in yourself.

From the moment I started at CDS, I never felt like I was relegated to the sidelines of my team’s work. I had much to learn, yet I was able to contribute to my team. I clearly recall my former colleague, Dave Toeg, apologizing for calling me a student saying, “you are a full-fledged member of the team.” I later realized that being treated like a full member of the team came with a lot of important implications, most importantly the notion of having trust in myself.

As both a student and young professional in government, I’m often scared to share my ideas. I often second guess myself, confusing hope for naivety, dismissing my own opinions under the guise of, “you don’t know all the details.” It was like this for me for a long time as I was in a process of absorbing everything around me. I thought to myself, somewhere down the road, there would come a moment where everything would click — Eureka! That moment did come, but in a different way than I had expected.

A big part of my role on the Partnerships team consisted of assessing potential opportunities for partnering with other federal government departments and agencies. This meant having many meetings and initial chats to discuss opportunities for collaboration. I had been corresponding with a Director General (DG) for a couple of days, and we had agreed to meet in person. When I came to greet him and introduce myself, a 5’ 4” 19-year-old with way too many colourful stickers on his laptop, I could tell he was visibly surprised. I don’t think he realized that I was the one he’d been corresponding with.

During the meeting, while my expectation was to sit back and quietly take notes, he engaged and recognized me. I was not just a fly on the wall, but rather a person with a seat at the table. After that meeting, I felt confident enough in myself to ask questions, to share my opinion, and go talk to people. Most importantly, I was confident enough in what I had to contribute, and wanted to do more for my team. This all happened because a DG decided to look me in the eye while speaking to me. While it may seem like a small gesture, this was indicative of something larger to me. The fact that I was being treated in the same manner as my colleagues, who were much more senior and knowledgeable than I was, gave me the confidence to trust myself. I had realized that indeed, I had a place in that room.

A picture of Ernest Hemingway, American author, journalist and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature accompanied by his quote “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

Upon reflection, that experience taught me two valuable lessons:

  1. Give people permission to trust themselves. I think this is especially true for managers and their employees. The only reason I grew both in my confidence and in regards to what I was capable of contributing was because I had support from my senior management. Give people — especially those learning — your trust, so that they may find it in them to trust themselves. You hired them for a reason after all ;)
  2. Always be a student. For me being a student is a state of being, where you are always constantly absorbing, being critical of your notions, and looking for ways to share that knowledge. We all grow as people when we are receptive to new ideas.

Students are always striving to learn, but that does not mean we’re unable to fully contribute to our teams. By trusting someone to put their knowledge into practice, they are able to learn, make mistakes and learn again, becoming better members of your team. Give young people permission to trust themselves, and they will ultimately grow more confident, both personally and professionally.