On Self-Doubt

Sooner or later, you’ll feel like you’re not up to the task required of you—maybe because you don’t think you’re qualified for a new role or responsibility, or because you don’t think you have enough experience to handle it. In short, there will be times when you doubt yourself.

This might make you feel better. When I get to know a C-level executive well enough, at some point, I will grab their arm and ask them, “How long do you think it will be before people realize you have no idea what you’re doing?”

I wouldn’t recommend leading with that question in your first conversation with a C-level executive or another decision-maker. You need to have very high rapport and already know how the other person will respond. But so far, the reply has almost always been the same: “I have no idea why they haven’t figured it already!”

Often, executives will tell me something like “There is no CEO school, and I didn’t expect I’d be in this role.” That last part isn’t entirely true, as every one of them knew what they wanted to and worked hard to get there, but trust me: you’re not the only one facing imposter syndrome.

The Task at Hand

There is nothing wrong with feeling a little bit of fear when you need to do something that seems way too big for you to even attempt. That kind of fear is harmful if it keeps you from trying in the first place, but it’s actually healthy when it causes you to look inside yourself and find the courage to give it a go. Fear, when it helps you make your best effort, is beneficial.

Think back to your childhood fears. Maybe your self-doubt kicked in five minutes before opening night, or when the coach put the ball in your hands for the big game. You were probably terrified of making a mistake or letting your team down, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. No matter the outcome, though you grew from that experience, making it easier to try again later when the opportunity presented itself.

Your entire life, in fact, has involved dealing with the task at hand, often before you had the competence or confidence—and then securing both competence and confidence through the very thing you thought you couldn’t do.

Exercising the Linchpin Competency

Of all of the gifts you have been given, resourcefulness is the linchpin for many of the others. Think of the word itself: it contains the word resource, but it’s actually about figuring things out when you’re rather short on resources. Resourcefulness is better than resources, as resources can be depleted but your resourcefulness is infinite, even if you believe otherwise.

You have been endowed by your creator with imagination, creativity, and the ability to innovate— finding a way where there isn’t one easily available. The long arc of human history is the story of individuals and groups with the pluck to work creatively to accomplish something with long odds.

So when you feel that twinge of self-doubt, you’re in good company. Like everyone else who’s had to push themselves past what they thought they were capable of, you’ll have the gift of challenges, opportunities to learn from failure, and the opportunity to persist in trying again, gaining confidence along the way. Even if you aren’t MacGyver, your resourcefulness will be there when you need it.

Fear Failing to Try More Than You Fear Failure

You are better off failing, learning, and trying again than simply failing to try. Failing to try is still a form of failure, but one without the many benefits that accrue to those who fail at first. You can gain from every experience, even bad ones, by recognizing your missteps and adjusting your approach.

Besides, you weren’t really prepared enough for the challenges you’ve already faced, but you still willed yourself to take action in spite of your doubt or fear. After a couple times through a challenge, you will no longer fear it and you’ll feel no self-doubt. Sometimes, you may even ask yourself what you were so worried about in the first place.

When you feel self-doubt, acknowledge it, explore why you might feel it, and find the will to step into the fear— knowing that one way or another you are going to succeed, even if you need help, even if you need a second try, and even if you have to learn from missing the mark on your first try.

In a number of posts here, you will find the idea that you should “be more,” which is another way of saying “you need to grow.” Growth requires that you do something beyond what you are already capable of doing. It also means risking the chance that you might indeed fail, confident that it won’t be fatal.

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