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Handling Self Doubt

I’m an engineer. Always have been. I cronically worry about small flaws which could spiral into unsalvagable disaster,  and spend a great deal of time focusing on risk mitigation. I can thus completely identify with Riyad’s “cronic almost-achievement” issue because I felt like a raging victim of self-imposed mediocrity up until several years ago. I realize I can be harsh in self-judgement, but nevertheless came to several conclusions..

  1. I have tons of great ideas that aren’t going anywhere. (..or worse, are getting somewhere but at a pace slower than the end goal is moving.)
  2. I really don’t like being told I suck.

Any leader that says they can completely shrug off even the most meaningless criticism is full of crap. Putting yourself on the line by saying, “I did something. Check it out.”, dangles your ego over a boiling pot of water. You know the potential for greatest is there–you wouldn’t have done it in the first place if you thought it was a bad idea–but your heart still sinks when you’re about to demonstrate your competence level to the public at large and have absolutely no guarantees on the outcome. Ego roulette is clearly not an engineers game.

…but then, I decided to change.

  1. If I have a great idea and the time/resources to pull it off well, I’m going to look fear straight in the eyes and tell him to STFU.
  2. I’m done with looking back and saying “I should have done more.” Whether it’s writing about a controversial opinion or pulling people out of a car wreck, no more inaction. Maybe I’ll collect an inbox full of hate mail or painfully burn to death in a firey explosion. So be it. At least I tried to change the world and did my part to the best of my ability. “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” –Mahatma Gandhi.

Now, I still have the same self doubt and self confidence issues at the next guy, but I finally feel like I’m doing something about it. And doing something is an engineers mantra. I’ve you’ve really got a great idea, it’s infinitely more important than your fragile ego. Here’s a couple of thoughts that may help entrepreneurial pessimists like myself..

  • If you screw up on project XYZ, no one is going to care in 5 years. Take the small wins and build on them. It’ll feel good.
  • What’s the worst that can happen? ..people will laugh at you? …you’ll loose your investment? …you’ll have to go back to your day job?  Are those the best reasons you can come up with? Really!?  *Please* … If you’re reading this you’ve got food, water, shelter, internet access and probably some good folks to lean on should things get tough. That’s more than most of the worlds population, so quit whining on the $10K it’ll take to do that new project and take a calculated risk. Even failure can feel good when you know you did all you could. You’re going to regret it if you don’t.
  • Criticism is the easiest form of feedback, so there will always be haters and sometimes more negative commentary than positive. Learn to extract the meaning from the negative feedback, remember that those with the loudest voices don’t necessarily represent the population, and make it an opportunity to hone your game rather than pity yourself.

10 replies on “Handling Self Doubt”

Thanks for posting this. I think doubt and confidence are critical elements of the software development process that are too often ignored. When getting started on a project with other engineers who have often been working on it for multiple years, it can be easy to doubt your abilities or capacity to live up to expectations. Providing meaningful ways of confronting that fear is something that should be part of every engineer’s training.


Definitely. Fear of failure is a big factor which many would-be entrepreneurs don’t fess up too, and oft seems to be the case when you’re talking to a bright individual with a great, potentially disruptive idea running “on the side”, but just won’t commit to it.

Excellent post Preston.

The last thing you said in this post is one of the most important, and one I *constantly* forget. That criticism is actually good.

I heard a quote from someone recently (I believe it was that instructor at CM that gave his last talk before dying of cancer a few months later?) that said the worst thing that can ever happen is to stop hearing criticism, because it means no one cares anymore (About you, or what you are doing).

I forget this a lot, and like what you said, hate hearing criticism, but at the same time… the prospect of never hearing criticism, and everyone around me smiling at me and then turning back to what they were doing and not caring is about 100x more scary.

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