Everyone experiences self-doubt from time to time, but here are 3 things you can do about it.
I sent the following to a client who, in the midst a professional transition, was feeling lost. The facts seemed contradictory. Confused about which direction to take, she worried whether she'd ever come up with a solution. She wanted some encouragement, reassurance to know her efforts weren't in vain. This is what I told her. If you're going through some sort of transition, starting a business, moving across the country, pivoting your work or embarking on any sort of new adventure, I hope you find this useful.
In the beginning the possibilities are thrilling. Daydreaming about what your life will look like is exciting. You embark on the change, excited about the prospects. At some point on the horizon, reality hits. You have to make choices. You have to adjust your behavior. Even harder, you have to shift your beliefs.
Fear rises up.
You question why you're doing this. You wonder if you made a mistake.
You want to quit.
It seems like you're stuck in a never-ending maze. You feel like you're pushing an elephant up a hill...and you're in the elephant's butt. You wonder what you're doing. Maybe you made a mistake. It seems easier to stay in your current situation even if it's begun to feel like a cage, penning you in like an animal.
While it may be scary, you're not alone. This happens for pretty much everyone in the midst of transition. Some people run into that wall within a few weeks of their change effort. For others, the reaction is delayed reaction for a few months. Whenever it happens, it hits hard. Change is difficult, the path can be confusing, even perilous at times.
Complicated feelings are a part of the process. Change is full of ambiguity, especially before a road map for the future is created. Your inner protector hates the uncertainty. Better to be safe and sure than shaky and seeking. It will try to convince you to stay exactly where you are. It reasons that safe and bored is far better than being disillusioned and disappointed.
Though they don't feel great, these emotions are good news. I know, I know. You may be wondering how I can have this perspective.
It's counterintuitive to welcome scary emotions.
But the arrival of fear is a harbinger of good things to come. These feelings mean you're challenging yourself to want more, to expect more from your life. You're digging yourself out from a rut you may not have fully realized you were stuck in. Resistance is natural. So are feelings of fear, doubt, ambivalence and even abject terror. It's just part of the change process.
Of course you don't want to completely ignore those emotions but you also don't want to coddle them either. You're smart to recognize these fears before they burrow their way into mind, setting up a permanent home. In fact, creating strategies to handle these emotions is critically important. Make a plan for handling them. Expect scary emotions to appear. Tell a friend. Time boxing them will limit their ability to run wild inside your mind. Find a way to mute them so you can continue to move on.
Here's something else to consider.
We think that to make changes we have to push, push, push. And then push some more. We take on the phrase "No pain, no gain" as if we're pumping weights at the gym. We think the only thing between us and our goal is a relentless drive.
When climbing up a hill, sometimes stopping to catch your breath is just what's needed. Slowing down can let that tough protector inside you catch up. Pausing the incessant push for something better can help the tough protector shift from skeptical to trusting.
Thinking about the change, narrowing your path, or creating a plan can be incredibly stressful, especially if you also have perfectionist or control freak tendencies. When this happens its ok to slow the pace to a crawl.
Sometimes you need to rip up the to-do list or at least set it aside for a while in favor of just absorbing and observing. Take a week just to take good care of yourself, whatever that looks like for you. That's it. If you focus on what your body and minds needs right now, you can consider this week a success.
One last thing.
Somewhere inside you, you know. You actually have the answers. Maybe not all of them, but at least a hazy sketch and that's all you need to get started. You can pick up the rest of the plan along the way.
Sometimes you just have to dig through a few layers to get to those answers. But I promise. If you stick with it, if you trust yourself, you will figure it out.
You can do it. You've got this.
Last week I did something incredibly rare for me. I took a mental vacation.
It’s hard to step away. With a business that’s off-the-charts and a new-ish gig as a Fast Company contributor, my brain has been switched to the on position for months. I'm also a strategist by trade — and by nature, which means I think a lot. Actually it's more like I'm always thinking. And, it’s what I’m paid to do. As you can imagine, taking a break from thinking is not easy for me.
There are plenty of advantages to being small. I love being on my own. I have no desire to build a consulting company or have a tradition startup. However, there are some obstacles to navigate when working for yourself. One of the trickiest is taking mental breaks.
When you’re independent, you often wrestle with the direction of your business. There’s always something to do. A million little — and big — decisions to make. Even if you have support, you are the primary driver. It all comes down to you. When you work for yourself, thinking about your business all the time can become a default setting. If you’re not careful, burnout beckons. Taking mental breaks is essential. By the way, it’s also true when you work for someone else or have a side project.
On Friday of my mental vacation I had coffee with an independent writer friend. She’d recently returned from a two week trip to Russia. Before she left, she prepped her clients. She rarely thought about work. She admitted that her project-based work made this easier. She’s right. Even though breaks from project-based work requires effort, taking a mental break is more challenging when your work is ongoing or retainer-based. It also makes mental vacations even more necessary. If you don’t take them, it can lead you to the edge of the burnout cliff.
Because my work is ongoing rather than project based, I set expectations with my clients upfront so they don’t expect immediate responses. Still, they linger in my mind. Even if I take time away, I’m always thinking about them, plotting their next strategic decision, pondering how to overcome their current challenge. This brain drain can happen for other independents too like those who manage apps or the back-end of client software.
When you have ongoing clients, you may not be able to take an entire week off. For my mental vacation, I set a goal of not more than 10 hours, including thinking. I hadn’t planned on writing about this and I don’t have all the answers for sure, but I thought maybe one or two of you might relate.
This isn’t one of those posts.
As a recovering type A, I'll always be apt to push too hard. When it comes to taking mental breaks, I’m still learning. I’m not going to tell you that I cooked every day, meditated and went on a yoga retreat. This wasn’t a blissed out experience. It wasn’t even a party-til-you-drop sort of experience. I didn’t go to a single social event. It more of a do-whatever-I-want/sit-on-the-couch-with-no-expectations experience. And that’s what I did. I read three books. I went on a netflix binge. Cleaned out my t-shirt drawer. Deleted 6,000 photos from my phone. Researched a new mirrorless digital camera I hope to buy.
This wasn’t what the experts would say to do.
My mental vacation checklist
I'm not perfect at this. I’m still learning too. But in case it’s helpful, here’s what I did to take my mental vacation.
- Set expectations with my ongoing clients
- Worked only on urgent client priorities (and was strict about this)
- Made myself stop when my mind drifted to clients
- Let go of “shoulds” i.e. "you should be working, your business will suffer...”
- Used gmail “snooze” function so emails reappeared when back to work
- Had no plans, simply did what I wanted in the moment
- Cleared my schedule as much as possible
- Shut my computer
There are some things I’d do different. I’d turn on the tv less and read even more. I'd go to an afternoon matinee. I would do a daily 10 minute yoga practice, just to keep my body limber. Still, my mental vacation worked. My mind rarely wandered into client work or business planning.
As I write, it’s Sunday morning. I’m sitting at my desk writing to you. My stubborn cold is finally gone. My energy has rebounded. The creativity that had grown to a trickle is back. My grip on my phone loosened, I’m no longer incessantly checking my messages. The guilt has stopped. I feel more relaxed.
Taking a mental vacation was a smart decision. I intend to keep it up. I plan to do a mental break once a quarter, and take smaller, “mini” breaks more often. I can’t wait to see what happens as a result of more mental vacations.
I’ve been in the advice game a long time — well over 10 years. Before I had my own business, I worked in the consulting world, sometimes as a consultant, sometimes in support of those advising clients. You could even say that my entire career has involved advice.
Here’s what I rarely admit: I've had a love/hate relationship with advice.
My Facebook relationships status with advice would read: It’s complicated. I worry I’ll come off like a pompous ass. I worry my thoughts on a subject are wrong, that I’ve lead someone astray. I worry I don’t have enough expertise to share my knowledge. I worry that sometimes maybe it's just an ego trip.
This topic is wildly uncomfortable for me: like trying to keep your pants buttoned after a big plate of burritos, a margarita and a pile of those free chips and guacamole uncomfortable. I’m pushing through my discomfort because I’m sure some of you, even most of you, have wondered about giving advice. Advice often depends on having expertise.
You worry that you don’t know enough.
Maybe it’s what’s holding you back from packaging your work into a suite of services or from writing that book. Expertise is a funny thing. If we're self-taught, it's easy to feel like we don't know enough. Because we acquired our skills by doing the work, we doubt our knowledge. Our deepest fear is that our independent study outside the traditional educational system doesn't qualify us as experts. And only experts can give advice.
By not learning traditional ways many self-taught professionals come up with unique approaches. But unconventional approaches aren't always readily accepted. This can make us double down on our feelings of being a fraud. This can make your belief in your skills plummet.
Many of my clients have been software developers with truly novel approaches to the technical and people problems they've encountered. Even though he'd spent 5 years focused on a particular technical challenge, because he didn't have a C.S. degree, one client thought he needed to learn more before giving a talk on the subject. A programmer with 10 years of experience wrote prolific blog posts about a new approach, never sharing them fearing his lack of formal education beyond high school meant he'd be laughed at.
Both of these independents were stalled by the fear they weren't smart enough or educated enough to give counsel to others.
Giving advice can trigger the feeling of being an amateur that lies inside us.
You're not alone. I'm a member of the phony club too. Being asked for advice felt odd for many years. Even when the advice is in an area I know something about — transitioning from an employee to a business owner, being self-employed and marketing yourself — I still want to make sure that I’m being useful. On days when I feel like I don't know what I'm doing, I worry that I'm not enough of an expert yet.
Here's the rub.
In order to do the work and have the impact I want, offering advice is part of the deal. If you work for yourself (or want to), this is probably true for you too. To other help others, I couldn't stay stuck. I had to figure out a way around my complicated feelings about advice.
Getting comfortable with giving advice
I made peace with my inner phony because I truly want to help people — especially those who want to know how to be independent. It’s the reason Bet On Yourself exists. Giving people information about working for themselves is my reason for getting out of bed even when I want to stay snuggled in its warm covers. Focusing on what I want to accomplish in the world helps. So does focusing on helping others.
I also learned to recognize when feelings of incompetence began to form like storm clouds closing in on me. Instead of ignoring them, I dealt with them. I realized that they were just thoughts. That negative opinion about my skills wasn't a truth, but rather a thought. Finally, I reminded myself that I was in control of my thoughts. Rather than letting them become obstacles, I found ways to transform my thoughts. I looked objectively at all of my experience and let go of my idea of what an expert looked like. I even came to see my unconventional approach as an asset, rather than a limitation to overcome.
I get it. It's really hard.
We want to have all the facts. We don't want to look like an ignorant ass. We worry about how to respond when someone makes critical jabs at our opinion. We worry we're going to be one of those people - you know, the ones who have no idea what they're talking about but prattle on anyway. But to work for ourselves, we must push through these concerns.
Focusing on the people I want to support and transforming my thoughts has helped calm my fears of being a fake. These days my relationship with giving advice is far less complicated, even harmonious at times.
P.S. Around every Instagram corner or tweet is someone giving advice. We all know that person who took one course and are suddenly offer expensive coaching sessions. Or the one who read a book and now gives talks on it all over the world.
You are not this person. You didn't set out to become internet famous. You set out to help others. You have real experience. Don't let that person force you into hiding.
You might be surprised why you're not making more money as a solopreneur. The answer isn't on a spreadsheet, it's in your brain.
Our heroes disappoint us. I’m not even talking about movie stars or huge public figures.
I’m talking about people with a modicum of success in their craft. We idolize them. We put ideals on them. Somehow their life is perfect. Even when they write about their problems, we still think their life must be better than ours. We look to them for a formula for success. Deep inside we know everyone has problems.
Still, we think, not this person.
We want to believe things are better for them. We need to believe things are better for them. Believing that a better life is possible gives us hope. But when our heroes become human, they fall from the pedestal we created, crashing down to the earth. The fall, can be swift, stunning you along with it. The fall was always inevitable. Pedestals are really hard to stand on, especially for long periods of time.
When one of my heroes made the plunge, I spent days disillusioned. I shrank a little. I stopped going after my work as voraciously. I started to slink into a funk. I lost hope. It made me wonder why. I started thinking about hero worship. Heroes can inspire us. They give us hope. But idealizing people, making them a hero also makes them less human. This is not good for them. (It really isn’t.) It’s even worse for us. When we make someone else a hero, we make ourselves more like the extra in our own lives.
Hero worship is the worst sort of comparison.
When you worship a hero you compare your inner life to their outer one. You sabotage yourself by creating an imaginary person — you think is real. Pedestals leave you standing on the ground, looking up wondering why you aren’t up there. You’re stuck wondering what’s wrong with you. It makes room for self-sabotage.
Pedestals are dangerous. Respect is empowering.
The words hero and respect might seem the same. They’re actually quite different. Let me bring out the Merriam-Webster. (Yes, I’m bringing out the dictionary.) A hero is:
A mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability.
Being a myth or a legend seems pretty damn lofty. Divine, endowed, great strength? Those are some hard qualities to live up to. In contrast is Respect. Again, from Merriam-Webster:
A feeling of admiring someone or something that is good, valuable, important, etc.
When you respect, there are positive feelings about this person and their actions, but you don’t put the other person above ourselves. We can exist on the same plane as someone worthy of respect. We can see them as valuable without seeing them to have extraordinary abilities. Or, that we are less than because we don’t have extraordinary abilities often endowed in our heroes.
Respecting the way someone has built their career or handled a tough situation can inspire us to be better. We can respect them, and focus on ourselves. Respect inspires us rather than have daydreams about being a different person.
Respect your “heroes” but ditch the pedestal. Keep them firmly on the earth.
Put your hopes in yourself. Believing you can reach your potential is far more powerful than worshiping someone else.
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My hand lingered over the send button. Should I hit send?
It was just a Facebook post sharing the book I’d spent months on. I thought back to the time that an acquaintance ranted about people who constantly promoted themselves. Finally I hit send. I hit refresh over and over again. I wasn’t waiting for the Likes to pile up. I was waiting for that one person to Like it. When that person finally liked it, I felt validated. I breathed in deeply. Finally I realized that more than 100 people liked my post, writing encouraging comments. I hadn’t even noticed. I was so focused on that one person. A wave of nausea. Then, an understanding.
That one person on the internet was holding me back.
We all have them. That one person whose approval we care about more than anything. We might have met them, often we never have. They hold us back.
- We don’t say what we really think. What if they disagree?
- We try not to promote ourselves too much so they don’t think we’re evil.
- We don’t charge for our side project so they don’t think we’ve sold out.
- We don’t speak up, especially if we disagree with them.
- We worry they’ll think we’re vain if we post that selfie.
Is that one selfie really going to promote you well? Or hurt you if you don’t post it? Probably not. The underlying issue is all the ways you hold yourself back. The way you shrink. The way you look for approval from others, rather than from yourself.
Maybe you think this doesn’t apply to you.
It probably does.
Maybe that person is in your office. The 10x person your company hired for prestige. You don’t want to care what they think. But deep down, you do. You quietly compare yourself to them — so quietly you don’t even recognize it yourself.
Maybe that person is on Twitter. They post all sorts of things focused on social good. They seem to be championing one cause after another. You worry you’re shallow and vain when you talk about your “silly” app or latest food obsession.
You’ll never get anywhere when you focus on what others think.
OK, you might get somewhere but it might not make you want to look headfirst in the mirror in the morning. I know because I had this person. Actually, there were 3 or 4 of them. They drove me mad. Actually, me caring what they thought did.
There’s a misnomer about what IDGAF actually means. IDGAF doesn’t mean you’re heartless, cruel, trolling or lacking empathy. It’s a radical way to free yourself. It’s a powerful way to let go of comparison, of putting others’ opinion over your own opinion. When you hold back, you end up with a tentatively lived life, doubt, and a whole heap of regret. IDGAF is the antidote. Not giving a f*ck is a way of inhabiting yourself more deeply.
It means you focus on yourself.
You focus on what you think. What you feel. What you want. Letting go of others’ imagined opinions propelled me forward. I started writing voraciously. And publishing voraciously. I shared what I created without abandon. I stopped constantly checking to see if they Liked my Instagram post, shared my latest writing or Favorited my tweet.
I liked myself more.
Let go of that one person on the internet. Just focus on what you think about you today. Embrace who you are, in all your unconventional glory. Bring out the freaky or geeky side of yourself. Stop comparing someone else’s journey to your own. Stop comparing someone’s outer journey to your inner one.
Stop giving a f*ck.
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High school was not pleasant for me. Regular teenage angst was definitely a culprit. There was a bigger one, at home. My dad.
It’s not that my dad was a bad guy. (He wasn’t and still isn’t.) My teenage years were tough because he was relentlessly focused on mindset. Or, I should say, he was focused on my mindset. He didn’t see problems, he saw opportunities. That’s how he wanted me to see the world too. Dinner was always fraught. I worried about talking about my day, especially if it was a bad one. I knew what his response would be, that my mindset was the real problem rather than whatever I was facing. I used to joke that my dad's response to my teenage angst was, "Don't worry. Be happy." like he was a damn Bobby McFerrin song.
He spouted his own aphorisms like:
- Good decisions get better. Bad decisions get worse.
- It's not what happens. It's how you react to it.
Teenage me hated it. I felt like I had no control over my grades or whether someone liked me. I just wanted to wallow. To just be angry or dejected for as long as I wanted, even if it meant my whole senior year of high school. But he wouldn't let me. He lectured me and my siblings on the importance of mind over matter. He taught us that what happened was far less important than our reaction to what happened.
It was like a dang Tony Robbins seminar in my house every night.
I spent most of my high school days and college resenting my father, wishing he just understood my problems. That changed in my third year of college. My best friend got into a car accident. She'd been drinking. Luckily she only hit a parked car and no one was seriously injured. Still, she was hauled off to jail, charged with a DUI. I found out the next day when her sister bailed her out.
I was distraught over the thought of my friend being in jail and worse -- that she'd have to go back. I was paralyzed with fear. I was sure it was a tragedy. Finals were coming up the next week. I needed to find a way to deal with the situation without letting it drag me into a morass of emotions. I decided to time box my feelings. I told myself I could be upset all day but when I woke up the next day I needed to move on or transform my feelings. A few hours later the anxiety passed.
I finally began to understand my father's wisdom. It wasn’t about being relentlessly positive. He wanted me to use my mindset to my advantage during challenging times. I could let an event break me or I could shift my perception of it.
It turns out my dad was right.
Your perception of an event is more important than what happened.
Being able to quickly bounce back from a negative event is what's known as resilience. The popular belief was that you were either born with the ability to persevere — or you weren’t. We saw those who overcame enormous odds as invincible, nearly super human. Resilience was seen as extraordinary. Since then, psychology research has demonstrated that we all actually have the ability to self-right when under strain. It turns out we all have the innate ability to bounce back and — it’s something you can develop.
My dad didn’t study psychology. He learned to manage his mindset through life experience. Growing up in the Great Depression, he lived in 10 houses by the age of 16, moving every time another company closed, his father’s employment ending along with it. They had enough to eat, barely. When the Depression started to ease, his dad opened a business, also not an easy path. Instability was a constant in the first 16 years of my father’s life. It taught him how to persevere through challenging times. Later this attitude was helpful in his work as a design engineer, building prototypes for GM. His ability to see opportunities, rather be stopped by problems in building, was essential to finding his way around obstacles inherent in building innovative products. He learned to use his tough upbringing to become resilient, a skill he wanted so badly for his children.
I was broke, recently laid off and had just moved 1800 miles across the country when I first started working for myself.
There were plenty of business challenges too: not only was I introducing my business, I was also introducing it in a brand new industry. Oh, and it was the middle of a severe economic downturn. Having my own business showed me that I too had developed resilience, and — that it was one of the most important skills needed.
The biggest key to being resilient is your perception. Longitudinal studies showed many factors for resilience in children with hard childhoods. One factor in particular though, stood out: locus of control. A locus of control is a belief about whether the outcome of a situation is based on what we do (internal locus of control) vs what happens to us (external locus of control). Children who were more resilient to childhood trouble had a higher belief that their actions could influence what happened in their life. Here’s a great chart of the difference between the internal and external locus of control mindsets.
It’s how we explain an event to ourselves that matters.
We can see something as traumatic, becoming helpless to outside circumstances or we can see it as a chance to grow. Now I’m not telling you to set intentions or to just think positive. Or that everything will be sunny skies if you just 'see every challenge as an opportunity!’ Ugh. I hate that crap.
I’m also not saying that all you need to be successful in your business is to be resilient. There are far too many factors that influence this. What I am saying is being resilient is one of the most important skills you can develop. And — you won’t build a long-term, sustainable business without resilience. Running a business is a wild obstacle course, not a leisurely 3k sprint. Resilience is everything.
Be resilient when working for yourself
Working for yourself, offers plenty of opportunities to exercise your resilience muscles. When you view a negative event as a challenge rather than a horrible setback, you’re more likely to recover quickly. You also strengthen your ability to persevere. Resilience is highly correlated with stress. The more stressors you encounter, the more your resilience is tested. Stress can help your competency with it — or break you down. Since there will always be stressors when you work for yourself, making resilience critical.
There will always be challenges:
- Tense contract negotiations
- Delays you can't foresee
- Proposals will be rejected
- Clients want more work for less money
- You get sick, or someone in your family does
There will likely be stress around the financial aspects of your business. Though most think the financial stressors are the worst, as my friend Andy describes, the emotional rollercoaster can be just as tough. Challenges just come along with being in business. They're just part of the deal.
You can manage your business — and these challenges better, but you can never eliminate them completely. Not only will there be challenges but you will fail. Probably many times. Your product doesn't sell. A client project is a disaster. You lose money on an engagement.
You can’t prevent failure. No matter how in control you think you are, zero failure isn't a realistic goal. Believing you can escape it is silly and will become an obstacle to developing resilience.
Accept failure as part of having your own business.
Once you accept that you will fail, you have a few options.
- Don't allow failure to seep into you like a toxic mold. Failing, especially in something as challenging as having your own business, doesn't mean you're a bad person, or that you won't succeed. See the failure as an opportunity to learn rather than a chance to give up.
- A counter-intuitive option from the world of space is to engage in negative thinking. More accurately, this method uses worst case scenarios to prepare you. The benefit of this approach is that you’ll anesthetize yourself from being paralyzed when bad things happen, so you can take action.
- On the other hand, sometimes things fall apart in unexpected ways that you just can't predict. Use the situation as a chance to step back and assess. Perhaps there’s a larger issue at play. Maybe you need to make radical changes. Being resilient doesn’t just mean pushing forward no matter the resistance. Resilience is about being tough, able to recover from difficulties.
- Really, being resilient is all your self-belief. Having confidence in yourself or favorable thoughts about your abilities is highly associated with building resilience. It's essential to build the belief that you have what it takes to make good decisions, get creative or whatever else it takes to run your business.
Trust yourself to figure it out.
The freelance, solopreneur, self-employed, business owner, whatever-you-call-it, life isn’t for everyone. If you’re thinking about working for yourself, begin building mental toughness now.
P.S. In addition to psychology research, I read a whole bunch about resilience engineering while writing this post. I might write about how it relates later but in the meantime, here’s an interesting article about resilience engineering.