Most people don't realize this, but the number one thing that keeps them from pursuing their dreams and ambitions is their self-doubt—their lack of confidence in their own abilities. While positive thinking alone cannot make us successful, getting rid of the negative self-talk can make the road to accomplishment easier to navigate.
A tale of two personalities
Leonardo DaVinci and Salvador Dali, two people who made exceptional contributions to the world of arts, viewed their work in starkly different ways.
Renowned for some of the world's most famous paintings, Leonardo DaVinci was also an exemplary polymath. In addition to being a painter, he was a sculptor, an explorer of human anatomy, and was way ahead of his time when he conceptualized flying machines. His Achilles heel, though? Leaving things undone. He had the reputation of someone who couldn't quite finish what he started.
Case in point: DaVinci already had multiple projects underway when the Duke of Milan commissioned him to paint The Last Supper as part of a plan to renovate the church. One of those projects was DaVinci's desire to create the world's largest bronze horse statue as a tribute to the duke's father, Francesco Sforza.
Tell me if I ever did a thing
As we now know, Leonardo's grand and well-publicized horse statue did not materialize—at least not in his lifetime. He had barely managed to construct a clay equestrian model before the city's priorities changed. Milan was soon invaded by the French, forcing DaVinci and others to flee the city. To add insult to injury, the French archers used the horse statue for target practice, reducing it to a mound of clay!
The failed horse project added to DaVinci's reputation as someone whose career was littered with abandoned work. DaVinci wasn't immune from the criticism. He blamed himself. In his journal, he writes,
Tell me if ever I did a thing
This was from the man who painted the Mona Lisa!
Four centuries later, a Spanish surrealist artist walked the earth, espousing a philosophy that was in stark contrast to DaVinci's. His name was Dali.
Dali, too, like DaVinci, was a gifted polymath with varied interests. A versatile artist, he dabbled in photography, fashion and contributed to the theater and other arts.
Unlike DaVinci, though, Dali didn't grapple with any sort of self-doubt. On the contrary, he was too self-assured. He courted controversy. His eccentric and ostentatious behavior in public often detracted attention from his artwork.
The key difference between Dali and DaVinci was in their personalities. DaVinci copiously maintained reflective journals throughout his life, often wondering what could be. Dali, on the other hand, was a little too sure of his place in the world.
He famously boasted in 1953
Every morning upon awakening I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dalí, and I ask myself, wonderstruck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dalí.
(Yes, for real.)
I'm going to live forever. Geniuses don't die.
Dali used his supreme self-confidence to great effect too. He would avoid paying for meals by doodling on checks he presented to the restaurants after a meal. Dali believed, to his credit, rightly so, that restaurants wouldn't be foolish to exchange something valuable (his drawings) for mere cash!
It isn't surprising that Dali said, "I'm going to live forever. Geniuses don't die." He was clearly a man with not an iota of self-doubt.
DaVinci or Dali
Both Dali and DaVinci were geniuses in their own ways. But while DaVinci was introspective and self-doubting, Dali was someone for whom the word diffidence never existed.
So, who do you identify with?
Do you believe in yourself and are the confident (quietly or loudly) type like Dali, or are you plagued by self-doubt and wondering when people will be "on to you?"
The reality is that it's rarely cut and dried. Very few of us fall into the extremes or stay there. Most of us vacillate between the two, sometimes exuding irrational overconfidence but mostly doubting ourselves.
While it's hard to define any element of personality strictly, self-doubt refers to the condition when there is hesitancy or uncertainty in our minds about our own thoughts or actions. Even when we seem to project an air of assertive confidence, on the inside, we engage in negative self-talk. We constantly question our abilities and knowledge.
Here are the kinds of questions that can stem from self-doubt:
- Am I doing this correctly?
- Will this action make me look like a fool?
- Do I have what it takes to manage a team of this size?
- Will I ever be able to get anything done in my life?
Self-doubt does not necessarily mean a case of low self-esteem. It relates more to a measure of competence—whether or not we feel capable of doing the thought or action in front of us.
While some measure of self-doubt can be helpful (more on that later,) constantly living in analysis-paralysis can keep us from making any progress.
Here are five tips on how to overcome self-doubt.
1. Recognize Impostor syndrome
Sherly Sandberg, Facebook's CEO, says in her book Lean In
Every time I was called on in class, I was sure that I was about to embarrass myself. Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn't embarrass myself — or even excelled — I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up … This phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt has a name — the impostor syndrome.
Impostor syndrome is real. You feel like an impostor in your chosen field. You believe you know very little compared to others, and you think it's just a matter of time before you're exposed as a fraud. This is not to be confused with humility or modesty. It's a feeling of inadequacy you create for yourself. And, in the process, you self-sabotage yourself from getting too successful.
2. Quit waiting for the right time
Shrewd stock market investors give the following advice: "Have more time in the market instead of trying to time the market."
This applies not just to money but to life in general. We tend to fall prey to analysis-paralysis on when to begin something. We wait for ideal circumstances: having the proper education, making sure the kids are at the right age, having the right hair/makeup/clothes, or waiting to start until after we finish watching all episodes of Succession. All this waiting in the meantime agitates and increases our self-doubt to the point where the task begins to look monumental.
The workaround: Quit waiting for the right time. Start before you are ready. The ideal time was yesterday. The next best time is now.
The road of life is paved with flat squirrels who couldn't decide on time.
3. Embrace your inner David
I have no dearth of wishes. I wish I were taller or didn't have grey hair. It would also be nice if I could hold a tune or run faster. None of that is going to happen, though, not in this lifetime. I've come to accept that I'm never going to make it to a basketball team or crank out lilting melodies.
Learning to be comfortable in my own shoes hasn't been easy in many ways. For one, I had to stop wearing heels.
To get rid of self-doubt, it is important to understand your strengths and weaknesses.
David, the world's best-known underdog, wins against Goliath by using surprising and unusual tools and techniques. Battles in life are won by playing to your strengths instead of blindly following others.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it can reek of duplicity. Being a people-pleaser is hard work and never worth the trouble. On the other hand, being authentic is a more natural state, and I bet, easier. You don't have to keep reminding yourself of what you are supposed to do at any given time. That said, authenticity is not an excuse for being a schmuck.
4. Don't self-handicap
Self-handicapping is a term used in psychology to describe behaviors where people avoid taking on challenging assignments simply to protect their self-esteem. Procrastination, for instance, is a classic self-handicapping strategy. If you can put off doing it over and over again, then you'll never risk finding out that you can't do it at all. Right?
Obviously, self-handicapping keeps us spinning on our axis and in our comfort zones. Ask yourself what your go-to self-handicapping strategy is. And then, work on remedying that.
5. Adopt a growth mindset
Carol Dweck's mindset research studies have shown that when people believe that their basic qualities such as talent or intelligence are fixed and don't change, they stay within their comfort zones. This is called a fixed mindset. Here are some classic examples of a fixed mindset.
- I'm not good at Math
- I'm not the creative type
On the other hand, individuals with the growth mindset believe they can develop and change their abilities through learning and perseverance.
Self-doubt reeks of the fixed mindset. When you find yourself doubting whether you have the talent, energy, or capability, stop to remind yourself that you're in fixed mindset territory. Recognizing the issue is the first step to solving the problem.
When self-doubt can be good
On the other end of the spectrum, too much self-assuredness can be a recipe for disaster too. Take the Aristotelian complex, for example.
Named after the ancient philosopher, Aristotle complex is an exaggerated opinion of one's intellectual prowess. People with this complex intend to prove their intellectual mettle to everyone else through ceaseless (and often pointless) arguments. Through this process, neither do they convince others of anything nor do they learn anything new themselves.
Confidence is knowing you can get through the day without messing things up. Overconfidence is thinking you can do the same tomorrow—Internet sarcasm
The overconfident individuals are easy to spot because they have a way of announcing themselves (and their greatness.) They have egos the size of football fields and firmly believe they are better than everyone else. Such self-aggrandizing behavior can be very off-putting.
There comes a moment in every person's life when they realize they adore me—Salvador Dali
Both self-doubt and overconfidence have their pitfalls.
Ideally, if it isn't apparent already, we'd exist in the middle—the Goldilocks zone—not afflicted by insecurity and diffidence but not irrationally self-assured either. Confident but equally aware that we may not have all the answers.
That said, most of us err on the side of self-doubt. We spend a lifetime questioning our talents, creativity, abilities, and place in the world when we could be better off adopting a growth mindset.
Four be the things I'd been better without: Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt - Dorothy Parker