In a few days, I get to move into my new office. Next to the whiteboard, there’s a large blank area that would be perfect for a painting. I have a concept of what I’d like to paint. It’s a composite of these two pictures which happened years ago. We were in Colorado. Christy and I were busy packing some final items for our trip back to Phoenix when the sun began to rise. The kids were eerily quiet, which usually meant trouble. But when we turned around, they were looking at the sunrise and holding hands.
The problem is I’m reluctant to get started. Although I love to draw doodles and make sketch videos, painting is different. I’m not sure where to start or what style to do. But it’s deeper than uncertainty. The real barrier is fear. Every time I begin sketching out an idea, I set the paper down and find something else to work on.
This isn’t a new experience. As a brand new teacher, I faced constant uncertainty. I often hedged my bets and played it safe. Although I dreamed of doing creative projects, I didn’t get started with project-based learning until my second year because of my own insecurity. On a more serious note, I wrestled with self-doubt as a new teacher when I yelled at my class and wondered if maybe they’d be better off with a different teacher. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this gig.
I struggled with self-doubt when I was a new dad. The moment I changed a diaper and my son peed on my face (yes, it’s possible) I thought, “Maybe I’m not cut out for this.” I faced similar self-doubts more recently as my oldest two have become teenagers.
My first ever sketch video took 16 hours to make because I second-guessed my every move. Now, sketch videos are a fun side hobby I do as a way to relieve stress. I almost didn’t send in my first book proposal because of self-doubt about my ability to write. Now, I feel confident about my ability to craft a book. It was about eight years ago when I did my first keynote and I got no sleep the night before because I was terrified of going up on stage. Now, I get excited when I get to go up on stage and share a message.
On some level, I realize that self-doubt is a natural stage in any work. I was doubtful as a writer and eventually, I found my voice and got past the doubt. I was doubtful as a teacher and, over time, I grew into self-confidence. Self-doubt is a part of doing something really difficult that you care about deeply.
And yet . . .
Self-doubt can crush confidence. I spent years hiding my art because I was way too doubtful of myself. I’ve given up on projects that seemed challenging because I wasn’t confident in my ability to master a skill. I see the same trend with my students. Teaching is an inherently creative act but some of my students really struggle with self-doubt. They have a vision of what student-centered teaching might look like but they are reluctant to take the leap.
Seven Ways to Tackle Self-Doubt
I don’t have this figured out entirely. On some level, I will always battle self-doubt. And I’ve learned that the existence of self-doubt is often a sign that I’m pushing myself to learn a new skill or try a new approach. If I experience no self-doubt, there’s a high likelihood I’ve become complacent and risk-averse. The goal then isn’t to avoid self-doubt. Rather, it’s to face the self-doubt and continue to hone your craft. Here are a few strategies that have helped me get past my self-doubt when it creeps in.
1. Don’t Compare Yourself to Others
If I am dealing with intense self-doubt, I find myself most tempted to try and compare myself to others. In these moments, I want to feel like I’m slightly above average (like a Lake Wobegon kid). It’s like I shrink back all of a sudden and I’m back in the fourth grade, standing at the back of the line, knowing that I might be picked last for dodge ball. It’s simple. I don’t want to suck at what I’m doing and it’s way too easy to find validation by comparing myself to the crowd.
But here’s the thing: in just about every case, comparing myself to others is actually the culprit and not the solution to self-doubt. When I was new to blogging, I looked at the stats of other bloggers but as I saw other bloggers win awards (remember Edublog Awards and Bammies?) and get speaking engagements, I started to doubt myself. I laugh about this now, but I went through a phase where I viewed it as a competition.
What sucks about this comparison trap is that you lose sight of the community. You forget about what matters. You start seeing others as competition rather than community. You get jealous when other people get opportunities you didn’t get. You grow risk-averse. But when you let that go, you end up taking chances, reaching out to people, and doing something you love simply because you love it.
2. Abandon Perfectionism
I’ve met authors who never attempted to publish their work because they continued to mess with the novel indefinitely. It wasn’t simply a matter of improvement. It was a fear of imperfection. It was a false belief that the world doesn’t need to see a creative work unless it’s absolutely perfect.
I’ve met teachers who work an ungodly amount hours and burn out and everyone says, “It’s because they didn’t take care of themselves” or “It’s because they worked too many hours” or even “They just couldn’t figure out balance.” But that wasn’t it. These teachers worked insane hours because of perfectionism. They never experienced the joy of teaching because they operated out of an illusion that they had to be perfect. They bought into the myth that teachers need to be superheroes. For this reason, my friend Trevor and I created a sketch video about the need to let go of the superhero story.
This perfectionism drives self-doubt. When you believe that you have to be perfect, you are never able to view yourself as measuring up. You will always feel like an imposter. In some cases, this can drive people to gossip about others or to embellish their own accomplishments.
3. Be Vulnerable to a Trusted Community.
If I could hand out any non-education book to new teachers, it would be Brené Brown Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection. If you haven’t seen Brown’s TEDx Talk on shame and vulnerability, it’s certainly worth a listen. I am convinced that there is this disarming element to vulnerability. There’s this power in being who you are, sharing how you are actually doing, and leaning on trusted friends to remind you that you will make it as a teacher. I find that whenever I am dealing with self-doubt in creative work (whether it is writing or teaching or illustrating), vulnerability is the avenue toward getting past it.
I’ve found it helpful to work with a mastermind group. Here’s a quick snapshot of the concept:
We focus mostly on our creative endeavors. It’s almost entirely unstructured, with random conversations about creativity hacking and productivity ideas. But last year, we did a “hot seat” meet-up where we each shared our goals, our struggles, and our dreams, and then invited each other to give feedback to one another. It was a powerful day and a reminder where I had several creative breakthroughs. But it was also one of the many ways my mastermind group has impacted my creative work.
4. Embrace a Growth Mindset
Carol Dweck has shared the two different mindsets that shape how we approach tasks. In a fixed mindset, people believe that talent is fixed and that failure is proof that you simply don’t have the right natural talent. In a growth mindset, people see mistakes as a natural part of the process and view talent as something malleable.
There’s a quote from Dweck in Mindset that I think fits in well with creativity, doubt and positive risk-taking. “Everyone is born with an intense drive to learn. Infants stretch their skills daily. Not just ordinary skills, but the most difficult tasks of a lifetime, like learning to walk and talk. They never decide it’s too hard or not worth the effort. Babies don’t worry about making mistakes or humiliating themselves. They walk, they fall, they get up. They just barge forward. What could put an end to this exuberant learning? The fixed mindset. As soon as children become able to evaluate themselves, some of them become afraid of challenges. They become afraid of not being smart.” I think the same thing happens with creativity. Kids start saying things like “I’m just not artistic” or “I’m just not good at programming.”
This idea relates to the last two concepts. If I have a fixed mindset, I will believe that I have to be perfect. I will hide how I am really doing. I will give up before I even start. However, if I see mistakes as a natural part of the growth process, I am more likely to get past perfectionism and embrace vulnerability.
5. Set Goals that are within your control.
There are so many things that you can’t control. Will that book make it into the top spot on Amazon? Will people love the art you created? Will your students have the highest test scores in the building? When you set goals based upon things that are outside of your control, you are more likely to get mired in self-doubt. Small “failures” that are outside of your control end up derailing your view of success. This is why self-assessment and self-reflection are so critical. When you are determining the measure of success, you are ultimately in control of the outcomes.
Jon Acuff provides some great advice in Finish. He mentions setting multiple, attainable goals that gradually build up to something bigger. It’s less of an issue of whether goals are SMART or not and more about helping us see our own progress so that we don’t give up hope.
6. Treat Your Work Like an Experiment.
One of the ideas I love in the start-up world (Lean Startupin particular) is the concept of pivoting. It’s the idea that you have something that remains steady (your goals, your vision, your core product) but that you pivot around that in order to figure out what works. Everything is an experiment. It’s the notion of teaching in perpetual beta.
So, instead of being mired in self-doubt, you get to treat your work as an experiment. If it didn’t work, it’s not a failure. It’s a chance to figure out what doesn’t work. In this view, the biggest risk isn’t failing. The biggest risk is doing nothing. This is admittedly difficult in the high-stakes environment of standardized testing. You are often placed in a situation where mistakes are not okay and where experimentation is frowned upon. I don’t have an easy answer. However, I think this is where courage plays a role in creativity and innovation. Being different is risky. Experimenting can be humbling when your school culture doesn’t embrace it.
7. Trust Yourself
When I first started teaching, I tried to be all these things I thought I was supposed to be: super professional, serious, etc. I wasn’t goofy. I wasn’t creative. It was awful. However, when I gave myself permission to teach out of my identity, I was able to thrive. Ultimately, this sense of self-trust is what eventually led to self-confidence. I had to be okay with myself first, though.
The same has been true of all of my creative work. Somebody referred to me as a “slow talker” and I began to wonder if I should do keynotes at a faster pace. But I eventually realized that a slower, laidback, story-based approach fit who I was. I had to be myself, which meant a slower delivery with more humor. It took me a while to get comfortable using my sketches in my books, slides, and blog posts. But that’s who I am. It’s not my brand. It’s my style.
So, give yourself the permission to be wildly and unabashedly different.
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