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New Year Doubts? How To Overcome Self Doubt

Updated: Jun 21

It’s so hard to get started on something new, or worse, something uncertain. Maybe you have been thinking about that idea, project, or initiative at work or home, but just can’t bring yourself to get started. You may doubt yourself, your skills, or your qualifications. You aren’t alone. Most of us do. Research suggests that 85% of people never speak up about their most important idea! It’s time to stop doubting yourself and just get started. My coauthor Susannah Harmon Furr and I wrote about how to overcome the self-doubt that accompanies uncertainty in our book, “The Upside of Uncertainty” (Harvard Business Review Press).

Self-Doubt Is An Unreliable Compass

Here’s the trick about self-doubt. It is an inevitable part of doing something new. In our research, we found that even the boldest innovators and creatives, even Nobel Prize winners, all doubted themselves along the way. We all harbor a nagging worry that we may not be smart, clever, charismatic, or daring enough, our ideas may not be good enough, and trying might reveal this fact for all to see. But what makes the innovators different is that they continue on through self-doubt.

Long before Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize in physics, he was assailed by self-doubt. Burnt out after the exhaustion of Los Alamos and losing his wife to tuberculosis, he struggled to do research in his first job as a professor, instead finding himself reading Arabian Nights and “and feeling depressed about myself.”

Despite his struggle to produce, Feynman started receiving job offers. “Each time I got something like that I would get a little more depressed. … they expect me to accomplish something, and I can’t accomplish anything! I have no ideas.” When Feynman received an offer from the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, led by Einstein himself, Feynman balked: “This offer was so ridiculous, so impossible for me ever to live up to, so ridiculously out of proportion.”

Feynman recounts: “I thought to myself, ‘You know, what they think of you is so fantastic, it’s impossible to live up to it. You have no responsibility to live up to it!’ He decided to quit trying to do “important” research and just spend time having fun with physics. A few days later in the dining hall at Cornell, someone tossed a plate in the air. Feynman noticed that the Cornell medallion on the plate went around faster than the plate wobbled. Feynman developed a series of equations to calculate the ratio of the spins.

Although it seemed unimportant, as he followed his curiosity this simple work started to transform. “Before I knew it (it was a very short time) I was ‘playing’—working, really with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I had stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos: my thesis type problems; all those old fashioned, wonderful things. It was effortless. … There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.”

Feynman isn’t alone. John Steinbeck also won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Grapes of Wrath, but while writing it he experienced overwhelming self-doubt daily. His journal is full of questions like, “I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were.” Even when he manages to encourage himself to keep going, his journal documents a continual struggle to maintain hope that it would be good: “Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity.”

The point is that everyone has self-doubt. The difference between achieving something or not is whether you listen to the doubt or not.

Let Go of the Outcome

Often self-doubt is tied to our worry about how others will respond. In a telling exchange on the Huberman Lab, Andrew Huberman asks creativity guru Rick Rubin, “how does one convince themselves that what they are doing and working on is worth it?” Rubin’s response is telling: “The question of worth it is reliant on an outcome. We don’t make these things for an outcome. It is not the mindset to make something great. The outcome happens. You are making the best thing you can make. It’s a devotional practice. Whatever happens after that happens, and that part that happens after it is completely out of your control. Putting any energy into that part that is out of your control is a waste of time. All it does is undermine your work. Your work is to make the best thing you can.” We couldn’t agree more. When it comes to doing something new or uncertain, although we all crave to know whether it is worth it, you simply can’t know. Your task is to do your best.

Let Go of Setbacks

On the journey into something new, there is a good chance we make a mistake or experience a setback. Rather than let it eat at our self-confidence, it’s best to let it go. Nigel Owens, widely considered one of the greatest Rugby referees of all time, underscores this as crucial to his success. Owens recently recounted at a London event how when refereeing the 2015 Rugby World Cup Final, one of the players—Dan Carter—made a pass that looked illegal. He glanced at his assistant referee who was in line, but the assistant referee signaled to play on. Quickly thereafter, a foul led to a penalty kick for Carter’s team. While Carter was lining up, they replayed the forward pass in question. The 85,000 people in the stadium and the millions watching confirmed what Owens suspected, it had been an illegal forward pass. New Zealand made the penalty which meant if New Zealand won by just a few points, it would all come back to the bad call.

How did Owens deal with his mistake? “The rest of that game, for 62 minutes, in a World Cup Final, I have to forget that it. I’ve got to pack it. Because if I let that play on my mind, it is going to affect my decision making, it will affect my performance. … it’s much better to referee that game having made that one mistake than referring the rest of the game worrying about it and making another four mistakes. … There is no way you can go through life being perfect. … It’s not achievable. If you try to be perfect, then the perfect will become the enemy of the good. What is achievable is to be a good person.”

In similar, spirit we would see, what is achievable when it comes to uncertainty, is to do your best! That is enough. Let go of the outcome and the mistakes.


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