On self-doubt


It can be a real killer – in many different senses. A killer of ideas. Of motivation. Of hope, or joy. In extreme cases, even of people themselves.

For once, I’m very glad to say, it’s not me that’s in the throes of self-doubt here. But I’ve been watching several other colleagues go through it this week, in several different domains: narrative-enquiry, archaeology and enterprise-architecture, to name just a few of their respective work-contexts.

Not fun at all, for any of them. Not easy to help them, either: almost by definition, self-doubt is a very personal struggle…

Yet in some ways it seems an oddly necessary stage in the development of new ideas, or whatever: in the labyrinth, it’s the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ (also known as the ‘”Oh, sod it…” point’ 😐 ), where we either have to face the darkness or throw away everything that we’ve gained.

It’s called the ‘dark night’ for a very good reason, because it can be real dark in there, real lonely… Oftentimes in ideas-development we’re assailed by others’ doubts, others’ over-certainties, but here it’s our own doubts that assail us:

  • Is this idea any good?
  • Will it ever be useful?
  • Will it ever make sense to anyone else?
  • Will it ever make sense to me?
  • Am I just wasting everyone’s time with this?
  • Am I just wasting my time with this?
  • Am I just a waste of time?

…at which point it tends to go darker still… Yes, not fun…

What’s interesting here is that those who never have to face this space – or who shy away from it – are unlikely to ever create anything new. The ‘best’ that they can do is prevent others from creating anything, developing anything – a ‘skill’ that’s of questionable value in the broader scheme of things, perhaps?

So yes, sure, there are plenty of people who are always certain of themselves (or who are careful, perhaps, never to show their uncertainty in public…). Yet in many ways that certainty can perhaps be best understood as a peculiar kind of cowardice, because it takes real courage to face the unknown; it takes real courage to face the dark pain of self-doubt, and keep going through to the other side.

One way to deal with those doubts is to note that often it’s not about us at all: it’s about the idea that we’re working on, trying to find some means to express that idea in a meaningful way. What the labyrinth-model tells us is that that ‘dark night’ is a normal part of the process – an unavoidable stage that we must pass through in order to bring that idea to fruition. The way to break out of the ‘dark night’ is to care for the idea for its own sake – not for what it might bring us. The more we focus on ourselves in the ‘dark night’, the longer we’ll be stuck there.

Self-doubt is an occupational hazard for anyone creating anything new, whether for ourselves alone – such as in development of new understanding, or a new skill – or to be shared with others – such as a new product or process. For those of us whose work revolves around innovation, chronic self-doubt is often our common condition. It’s often made worse by a concomitant feeling that we’re ‘the Outsider’ – yet that ‘Outsider’ is exactly what we are whenever we’re developing something new. But that’s the nature of the work: painful as it is, there’s nothing wrong with self-doubt – in fact if we don’t experience self-doubt in this kind of work, that’s when the alarm-bells should sound.

What helps most, perhaps, is knowing that everyone who creates anything will suffer the same pangs, the same pain, the same inner struggles against a seemingly all-pervasive inner panic. That’s why and where a supportive peer-group will help so much: not just with whom to explore and test ideas, but to remind us that we’re not alone in this.

Self-doubt is hard; yet self-doubt is also good. We need self-doubt in order to create well. When the doubt hits hard again – as it always does, from time to time – it can help a lot to remember this! 🙂

[Update: a friend reminded me about Derek Sivers’ great TED video, Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy, which seems particularly pertinent here. (The full transcript is on that link, too: well worth reading.) The ‘lone nut’ who started dancing on the hill-slope probably suffered a few pangs of self-doubt (if perhaps masked for a while by a sufficient overload of alcohol? 🙂 ) – but kept on dancing anyway, for the joy of the dance itself. Sometimes – as in this example – we gain a ‘first follower’ who helps us past the self-doubt, sometimes even moving on, as here, to a landslide of response; but sometimes it doesn’t – sometimes (often?) there’s no response at all. Either way is fine, in the larger scheme of  things: after all, once the dance ends, we’re right back where we started (though perhaps a little happier, we’d hope? 🙂 ). And since either way is fine, self-doubt is fine too – it’s a necessary part of doing anything in depth, doing anything worthwhile. Rather than trying to fight against self-doubt, learning to work with it will certainly prove more useful – and probably less painful, too. Enjoy the dance! 🙂 ]

7 Comments on “On self-doubt

  1. As you know, I’m very familiar with this state of mind, and I agree wholeheartedly that it’s worth pushing through. For the Markeroni rewrite, the task is so overwhelming and prone to a snakes-and-ladders-esque process (slide to the bottom! Start over again! whee…bah!) that this was a timely piece to read.

    Btw, if you put a “share this” widget at the bottom of the post, I wouldn’t need to manually tiny-url the link and “share” (blah, media-speak!) on Twitter manually.

    Here’s a nice open source one:

    Gotta go. I’m feeding goats and horses this morning.

  2. Hi Linda – many thanks for joining in on this!

    Yes, we’ve talked about this a lot in the past: all of us do struggle with it, far too often, yet it does seem to be a ‘requirement’ of the work. (Best wishes with the Markeroni rewrite, by the way – and whence the “goats and horses”? Looks like I need to catch up with you guys as a matter of urgency… been too long out of touch, my apologies for that…)

    Thanks also for the tip about OpenLike – will follow through on that Real Soon Now, I promise, though I’m horribly out-of-date on WordPress hacks… 🙁

    Best etc to all, anyways. 🙂

  3. I actually mis-spoke, because OpenLike is a widget for “liking” a piece on social media, rather than “sharing.” I also use a paste-in widget for “sharing” but I don’t think it’s open source. Neither are WP-specific; you just need to whomp them into your template.

    Sometimes I feed the neighbors’ animals if they need a hand. It’s a refreshing change from computers. I’m blogging the transition from static parking to full-time-on-the-road at the link above. You can see both widgets in place at the base of various posts.


  4. Nice post. Couldn’t agree with you more. It is a very real feeling. Seth Godin calls it Lizard brain. When you are in it, it feels powerful the key is to keep it in its place.

    Lord only knows how much time I have wasted in these dark nights. But hanging in there, moving along, crawling rather inch-by-inch! Do tell your friends they are not alone. A lot of us are going through the same. It is, as you said, important to keep going. Tell them “Hang in there mates”

  5. This post reminded me of one of the best motivational speeches from a movie called “on any given Sunday” all about an inch. Seems quite apt for a blog on small changes and particularly when you are also an architect who has faced years of doubters across organizations. I have enclosed the link should you wish to watch.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *