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Practical advice on self-doubt

What follows is a modified copy of a recent exchange where I was asked to provide my thoughts on my correspondent’s self-doubt about a leadership position at a new job of theirs.

I am editing some parts to omit potentially identifying information. I am sharing this upon the request of my correspondent who thought my reply could be helpful for others. As always with this section of my website, I am not divulging private data.

The quoted parts, which appear indented on my website, are from my correspondent’s message. Where you see a regular word in all capital letters, like CITY, it is a placeholder that I added in the interest of privacy.


TOWN is a beautiful small city with lots of trees. As soon as I stepped out of the train station, I knew that TOWN is the right place for me.

Must be nice! I think the smaller scale is closer to our natural rhythms and keeps us calm.

But TOWN cannot attract talents because most NATIONALITY people prefer mega cities like CITY.

This is true for practically everything. People go to big cities because they think it is better for them.

Though I do not know if your statement here is as absolute as it sounds. It really “cannot attract talents” or is it “more difficult”?

My point is that there may be an implicit value judgement there and you are being too pessimistic. I understand why you may feel that way: it is because you care. You do, however, need to check this statement in scientific terms:

  • Does the evidence support the conclusion?
  • Does the conclusion really preclude future possibilities?

The people at INSTITUTE were very nice to me today. Clearly they have high hopes for me.

Very well!

However, I am having self-doubt. What if I turn out to be a disappointment to them and the government?

Some self-doubt will always be there, no matter what you are doing. It is inherent to how we operate when we care about something and know it does not depend strictly on our good will.

As I wrote somewhere else, the “fear of fear” is the problem. Let’s then consider your question: what if you turn out to be a disappointment?

Every endeavour comes with the latent risk that it fails. If those who are offering the contract do not recognise this fact, they are simply naive.

Every shrewd contractor/employer has factored in that risk. They have a plan for the worst case scenario. More importantly though, they offered you the contract because their cost-benefit analysis concluded that you are good enough for their purposes.

So “disappointment” is the wrong word here. Again, consider whether you are making implicit value judgements and what you call “self-doubt” is a “fear of fear”. If you do not deliver, it simply means that things did not work out for a number of reasons, not all of which are specific to your performance.

But let’s take the word at face value: what if you are a disappointment? Will something terrible happen to COUNTRY? No. Will the STAKEHOLDERS have no alternatives? No.

What does this disappointment truly amount to? Simply, it is the outcome that a cost-benefit calculation should have accounted for.

I forsee trouble with recruiting good people to my lab, which has been a big problem for the Director of INSTITUTE. So, I am uncertain whether I can generate good scientific findings in a timely fashion.

What you mention here links to what I covered above about not all factors being contingent on your performance. If it is inherently difficult to attract people to the lab, it is something the contractors are aware of.

Instead of worrying, you should recognise that they offered you the contract despite this reality: they have faith in you.

About being uncertain on generating findings in a timely fashion: consider whether you are over-thinking it. Focus on what is within your immediate control. What happens afterwards is not your problem and there is nothing you can do about it. And whatever happens should not count as “disappointment”, anyway.

Prot, how can I overcome my self-doubt? I will meet with a STAKEHOLDER REPRESENTATIVE tomorrow, and I want to appear confident. I’d appreciate your advice.

They picked you because they see the value in what you have to offer. They are not fools. They also understand what the situation is and that mega-cities will always be more attractive. They are not naive.

Through our email exchange I have understood that you are an intelligent and competent person. And you haven’t even talked about the specifics of your passion: SPECIFICS! So I can only imagine that you are good at SPECIFICS. Others see value in you. I see value in you. You may not be seeing it clearly because your focus is not on the here-and-now. Too many “what ifs” will ruin even the greatest moment.

There is no magic way to appear confident. I think what we describe as “confidence” is the phenomenon where someone is so focused on the present that they do not think about it. Your immediate priority, then, is to get into the job with a positive mindset. Show how much you care, speak your mind but also listen to what others have to say, and try for the best. But “what if…”, you may be thinking. Whatever it is, don’t worry about it and don’t let your mind wonder away in the world of imaginary scenaria. You need it for the here-and-now.

I wish you best of luck, PERSON!

[ Prot addendum: for the record, it all went well. ]