The 1998 Academy Awards featured one of pop culture’s most memorable moments. After accepting the Best Director prize for Titanic, filmmaker James Cameron lifted the gold statue over his head and yelled, “I’m the king of the world!” It was a cringe-worthy display of hubris that many critics mocked and most viewers still remember.
However you feel about Cameron’s exclamation, it challenged an unspoken rule of humility in the face of victory. It also defied our cultural archetype of the creative genius wracked with self-doubt. From sports to entertainment to literature and business, generations of creators have described their battle for confidence.
“I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now,’” the late poet and activist Maya Angelou once said. “I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” David Bowie claimed he felt “utterly inadequate” in the early years of his career. Even boorish author Charles Bukowski told an interviewer: “Bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt.”
Founders and entrepreneurs also face these struggles. The first thing to know about self-doubt is that it’s incredibly common and utterly normal. Second, you can harness it to propel yourself forward. Once you begin to question your own thought patterns, you can tap into a rich vein of knowledge, instinct and power.
The Price of Expansion
Despite what your search engine might turn up, it’s worth noting that self-doubt is not the same as low self-esteem. Self-doubt often triggers questions, such as “Am I doing this right?” or, “Is this the best approach for my business?” Low self-esteem is a negative evaluation of your personal worth. It often provokes thoughts like, “I’m a failure” or, “I don’t deserve this.”
Self-doubt was a constant companion when I started my company, JotForm. I was working full-time at a New York media firm and building my business on the side. Friends often advised me to quit my job and follow my dream. Resigning would have made my life easier — and often more fun — but I had serious doubts.
I needed a regular paycheck to support myself. I was also determined to bootstrap my business. For five years, I questioned all the details. Without the pressure of VC money, I could take my time. I polished and refined the product, and then polished it again. I also wore every different hat, from customer support to marketing, which gave me a leg up once it was time to hire. When I finally made the leap, I was ready. I had dealt with my doubts and felt confident about what I was building.
As author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss wrote, “Expanding your sphere of comfort and abilities comes with a cost: repeated self-doubt.” The questions I faced early in my business came from pushing my limits. And those doubts still pop up. Anytime you’re stretching and growing, you’ll pay that price. It’s not always comfortable, but it can work to your advantage.
Four Reasons to Embrace Self-Doubt
Assuming your worries don’t balloon into a full-blown crisis of confidence, you can use those feelings of self-doubt as fuel. Here are four reasons why your questions can lead to breakthroughs.
1. You’ll produce better work.
Doubts typically send us back to the drawing board — or the spreadsheet. Assessing our work through a clear, objective eye will inevitably strengthen the finished product. It’s good to poke holes in a concept or to approach an idea from a new angle. Just be sure to create parameters. Set a deadline or a threshold and stick to it. For example, once you’ve done five revisions on your business plan, it’s time to share it with someone you trust.
As psychologist Alice Boyes wrote in The Healthy Mind Toolkit: “I need both periods of self-confidence and self-doubt to create my best work. Both of these states help me in different ways. Sometimes I need confidence to crank out work or take charge of a situation. On the flipside, sometimes I need self-doubt to propel me to examine where might have blind spots and to motivate the effort involved in correcting these.”
2. You’ll know when to seek help.
Great work is rarely produced in a vacuum, and doubt often leads us to ask for help, advice or support. Other people can ease our worries or offer an alternative we hadn’t considered. Of course, there’s a fine line between seeking constant validation and consulting with someone whose perspective you value. Assess why you’re asking, and if the answer has little to do with your personal worth, asking for help is probably the right call.
3. You’ll pursue concrete goals.
The doubts I faced while building my company pushed me to create real targets. I knew the business wouldn’t thrive until I could focus all my time and energy on it. So, I set a “quit by” date. I pushed it out a few times, but I always knew I’d get there. Even though it might feel counterintuitive, questions and doubts can propel us to the finish line. The flipside of doubt is belief, and doing the work to quash your doubts will reinforce your belief that a big goal is achievable.
4. You’ll consider Plan B — and C, D and E.
Asking good questions is the only way to find alternatives. If you’re concerned a marketing strategy won’t cut it, that nagging worry will inspire you to find more options. Doubt can stoke our creative fires, as long as we make sure the blaze doesn’t get out of control. Again, establish limits. Whether it’s a timeline, a specific number of alternatives or an objective data threshold, find ways to ensure your doubt can’t climb into the driver’s seat.
From Self-Doubt to Self-Awareness
Success requires that we repeatedly ask questions of ourselves. When we harness the best elements of self-doubt, it becomes a powerful tool for self-awareness. Bill Gates famously established Think Weeks: seven days when he stepped away from the chaos of running Microsoft and took time to dream, read, plan and, most importantly, think. I highly recommend this approach. It’s an amazing way for founders and entrepreneurs to go deep into their ideas and, yes, their doubts.
Every year, I spend at least a week helping my family harvest olives in Turkey. It’s one of the only times I can truly tune out the noise of daily life. And as I’m up on a ladder, reaching deep into the trees, I always ask myself questions like: Where am I compromising? What doubts am I afraid to face? What could be possible if we had no fear? The answers often surprise me. “At the end of the day,” writes Leo Babauta, “the questions we ask of ourselves determine the type of people we will become.”