Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one.
Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise.
Every time I try something new, expand my comfort zone, or take on unfamiliar responsibilities, I am nagged with self-doubt. Sometimes it’s a whisper on the wind, sometimes it’s a big sweaty man screaming in my face, but it’s always there.
Self-doubt can be a rational dose of reality, or it can be an irrational, paralyzing nightmare. But in either case, I try, with varying degrees of success, to keep the helpful aspects and leave the rest behind.
Throughout each of our lives, we will periodically be faced with situations in which we are asked to do things that we are not necessarily comfortable with. We may not be confident that we have what it takes to get the job done, handle the decisions that need to be made, or even to understand the issues we will face.
In my professional life, this seems to come in waves. Some need will arise that I can address, and I’ll recognize it as an opportunity and pursue it. I’ll get heavily into it before I come to the realization that “I’ve never done this before!” I’ll start to have thoughts like, “They’re going to realize I’m faking this!” or “I have no idea what I’m doing!” — usually in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. The big sweaty man is a regular visitor.
Dwelling on these thoughts can definitely make it hard to sleep, and this can decrease our performance, or can cause us to freeze up when we need to hit the ground running. We may even go through periods of thinking that the whole thing was a mistake or that we really can’t handle it. The stress may be so bad that we come to hate the new role that we’re in (I’ve definitely been there).
On the other hand, there may be positive effects from finding ourselves in new circumstances. Being wary of having to fulfill a new set of responsibilities may make us more alert to the nuances of our new position, or more focused on what we are doing. It may give us that extra shot of adrenaline needed to overcome a learning curve or impress new colleagues.
Ultimately, I try to tell myself not to dwell on what might go wrong, or what the worst-case scenario might be. It is better to think about potential solutions, or who we might talk to for advice or help. Once we have a plan — or even the first few steps of a plan — we often will feel like a weight has been lifted off our shoulders.
Another solution is bouncing ideas off of people. These don’t have to be experts or even people who can help with the problem. Sometimes talking about our problem to a fresh set of ears will result in good general advice, which might allow us to think about the problem from a new angle. In any case, we will have had the opportunity to get it off of our chest, and that usually will help, even if we haven’t gotten any closer to a solution.
One of the worst things we can do is to constantly dwell on negative consequences. Understanding consequences can help dictate the direction we go to address issues or make decisions, but only as an input of information. Once we have examined the potential actions we might take and the resulting consequences, they do not need any more thought.
Agonizing over the worst-case scenario doesn’t help resolve an issue, so redirect that obsession to figuring out ways to minimize the chances for that eventuality — then don’t give it another thought.
Put your doubt in an envelope and give it to the big sweaty man, while politely telling him that his advice will no longer be needed.