Executive Director's Blog: On Self-Doubt

In the course of my career I’ve encountered many professionals who struggle with self-doubt.  Peers, direct reports, mentees, friends in other fields.  Over time I noticed that the brighter and more talented the individual, the more that individual doubted him or herself.  Initially I simply added this to my running list of life’s ironies, but then I began to think about what made these individuals talented in the first place.  In most cases it wasn’t a manifestation of genius or “natural ability” that set them apart.  Rather, what made them talented was the same thing that caused them to chew their fingernails and struggle through sleepless nights:  Self-doubt. 

If you struggle with self-doubt, congratulations:  You possess a quality that, if wielded properly, will help you be incredibly confident.  Sound crazy?  Read on.

Let’s start with some working definitions:

Bravado - asserting a position with conviction without having conducted a thorough analysis.

Confidence - asserting a position with conviction because you’ve conducted a thorough analysis.

Self-doubt - what separates the two. 

Every scenario demands analysis, from the everyday, like navigating traffic on your way to work, to the life-altering, like choosing a spouse.  At a traffic light you assess whether it’s legal to turn right on red, then whether or not it’s safe.  Then you weigh the risk against the reward.  If you wait a few seconds the light will turn green and you won’t have to worry about getting up to speed in time to avoid onrushing traffic.  But, then again, the driver behind you is glaring.  Nobody enjoys getting honked at.  And let’s not forget the deeper, metaphysical question:  “If I wait for a green light, does it mean I’m getting old?  Am I becoming my mother?”

Our minds analyze and analyze like this all day, every day, about scenarios both simple and complex, benign and dangerous.  At work, we face the same spectrum of scenarios, from how to prioritize today’s To-Do list to what organizational strategy we will recommend to our Board of Directors.

In my traffic light example I listed five factors that required analysis.  Imagine how many factors must be considered to arrive at a strategy for your library, determine how best to reorganize your staff, or how to manage this year’s budget.  There is no denying that analyzing complex, often emotionally charged scenarios can be daunting.  It is tempting to make a choice quickly, often on gut-feel, and move on to other, less complex decisions.  Sometimes it’s difficult to recognize that you’ve shortchanged your analysis.  That is, until you’re standing in front of an audience.  Or your boss.  Or the Board.

Posture versus Posturing

To illustrate self-doubt at work, consider giving a presentation.  We have been taught to present an idea or a position with confidence.  Stand up straight; speak clearly and loud enough to be heard in the back; look the audience in the eye.  This is all sound advice.  But there is something missing, something critically important:  Presenting with confidence is not the result of mastering a set of rhetorical best-practices.  Presenting with confidence is the end-product of a long process of analysis fueled by - you guessed it - self-doubt.

To walk into a room, say your boss’s office, and present a position with conviction without having thoroughly thought it through is a sham and, more often than not, one that will be exposed.  You straighten your posture, use your most authoritative tone, and look the audience in the eye.  But inside you are a bubbling lava flow of nerves.  You dread the questions you know are coming because you don’t have answers.  You feel lightheaded because you realize you’ve been holding your breath.  Literally.  When you’re asked for data to support your recommendation you demur, saying you’ll need to follow-up with that.  At moments like these you swear you’ll never again be so unprepared.

To be legitimately confident, you must first be filled with doubt.

Self-doubt can be a powerful source of energy if harnessed early enough in the process of analysis.  In the weeks leading up to an important presentation or a critical work meeting, self-doubt is your best friend.  Self-doubt is self-analysis.  It is the act of challenging your tentative position, your logic, your assumptions.  It is based on the principle that your first idea is unlikely to be your best.  And, even if your first idea is your best, how can you know it unless you test it against other ideas?  In philosophy Hegel called this dialectics.  In Science it is the scientific method.  In writing it is the nub of an eraser or the struck through sentence.

The beauty of self-doubt at an early state of analysis is that you are working out the kinks in the safety and privacy of your own company, or with a trusted confidant.  You can try out wild ideas, arrive at absurd conclusions, and make blunders of astounding proportions.  It’s your time to make an intellectual mess without judgment.  By the time you are in front of your audience, you will have weighed every pro against every con, considered every implication, and wrestled every potential rebuttal to the ground.  If you’ve put yourself through this type of rigorous self-analysis, nothing your audience can say will surprise you; you’ve already travelled the mental roads they are just now walking down and you know where they lead.

When you are standing there and realize, despite whatever intimidating titles or outsized egos might be in your audience, that you are the most knowledgeable person in the room on this topic because you have done your homework by harnessing the power of self-doubt, the feeling of centeredness and calm that washes over you and lends your voice gravitas and your recommendations the weight of wisdom - that is genuine confidence.  And you owe it all to your self-doubt.

Note:  My initial title for this piece was “On Confidence,” but then I second-guessed myself.

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