We often assume that in order to achieve our goals, we need to become more confident. We need to work through our deep-seated self-doubts and then take action. Because then we’ll be ready. Then we’ll be able to achieve what we want to achieve. We’ll feel more secure with ourselves. We’ll actually believe in ourselves.
While learning ways to be more confident can be valuable, you don’t need to put your goals on hold until you do.
In fact, according to Tara Mohr in Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message, “Self-doubt will always be a part of what we each work with as we take steps to play bigger.”
Successful people deal with self-doubt all the time. The people who write bestselling books, give brilliant talks, hold high positions and make breakthroughs in all sorts of ways still feel insecure. They still worry they don’t measure up.
Mohr shares the example of Dani Shapiro, a bestselling author whose work has appeared in prestigious publications and who’s taught writing programs at Columbia University and New York University. (I’ve written about her latest book here on Psych Central.)
According to Shapiro, self-doubt still stalks her any time she starts something new.
I was looking at my computer one day at my list of everything I had written in the last few years — essays, stories, books, blog posts, everything. I had realized that every single one of these pieces had begun with the words running through my mind, “Here goes nothing. Here goes nothing. It’s not going to work this time…I know it’s worked before, but this time somehow I’m in over my head. I’m not going to get it right, I’m not going to be able to figure it out…”
However, Shapiro doesn’t listen to her “inner censor.” Instead, she does whatever she’s doing anyway. She moves forward despite the anxiety.
Mohr shares another example: Cherry Murray is the dean of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Before that she was an executive at Bell Laboratories and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. She’s won awards and published over 70 papers in peer-reviewed journals, among achieving other great accomplishments.
“Do I ever think I’m not qualified?” Murray tells Nature.
“All the time.”
As Mohr writes, “If women like these, women at the very top of their fields who have every reason to feel confident, continue to grapple with regular and serious self-doubt, you and I probably will too.”
In fact, she adds, the reason why these women struggle with self-doubt is because they’re showing up. They’re putting themselves out there. They’re “regularly exposing themselves to criticism and visible failures and expressing their unique ideas and leadership in the world.”
In The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear Ralph Keyes opens the book by exploring E.B. White’s unrelenting self-doubt:
E.B. White was the most graceful of writers. A generation of imitators tried, but seldom succeeded, to match his casual self-assurance. We like to imagine White on his New England farm dashing off lighthearted essays and charming books for children when he wasn’t slopping hogs or chopping wood. In fact, White worried over every word. He rewrote pieces twenty times or more and sometimes pleaded with his postmaster of North Brooklin, Maine, to return a just-mailed manuscript so he could punch up its ending or rewrite the lead.
So the bad news is that no matter how successful we get, we’re still likely going to doubt ourselves. No matter the accolades we receive or the achievements we realize, we’re still going to wonder if this time we’ll fail. And maybe we will. But we won’t know until we actually go there.
But the good news is that we don’t need to wait until we’ve become more confident to do good work. Big work. Because often that confidence doesn’t show up, anyway. Often what shows up instead are insecurities and second-guesses and what-ifs.
And that’s OK. Because you can learn to walk alongside your self-doubt. You can learn to communicate with it. You can learn to turn down the volume on your blaring inner critic. And you can do it — the dream, the dissertation, the project, the research, the work of art — anyway.