The Doubt Decoder Ring: How to Understand What Your Inner Voice is Really Telling You

by | Oct 30, 2012 | Building Courage | 24 comments

“Dream big.”

I t’s good advice, and you hear it a lot.  But is not dreaming big enough really your problem?

Or is it doubt?

Maybe you’ve started a side gig to test out your entrepreneurial chops and no one’s buying.  Or you’re going back to school at night and the lack of downtime is wearing you down.  Or maybe your spouse and friends are tired of your whining and are urging you to give up and settle down.

And that’s when the voice in your head pipes up with annoying questions like: Am I good enough to do this?  Is my dream really worth the pain?  Would I be better off doing something else?

One of the biggest misconceptions career changers have is that once you get started on the right path, that the doubt will go away.

In fact, it’s just the opposite.

The more you invest in your passions, the more you’ll doubt your ability and dedication to achieve it.

If the solution were “just ignore that voice,” it would be easy.  But often there’s an element of truth to the troubling questions you’re wrestling with.

The issue for a lot of people isn’t tuning in to their “inner voice,” it’s decoding what it’s saying.  Click to tweet

And if you want to have any hope at all of succeeding in those big dreams, you’re going to have to get really good at translating that inner voice into positive action.

In this post, I’m giving you your very own Doubt Decoder Ring.  Use it wisely and often.

When the only way is through

I used to do a lot of road trips from the East Coast of the U.S. to Colorado.  Invariably, this involved driving through Kansas, where dull scenery and long, straight roads are temptations to bang your head against the wheel.  Seriously, it’s not a fun road trip.

Here’s the thing: I never got halfway and decided to cancel  my vacation because driving through Kansas was unpleasant. I bet you wouldn’t either.

The reason I was willing to keep going was that I knew how great my destination was and how much longer it would take me to get there.  Knowing the unpleasant part of the trip won’t last forever makes it a lot easier to hang tough for the promised reward.

If this is the source of doubt in your career, the solution may be as simple as making a map.

  • Step 1: Get a clear picture of the “destination”.  For some this might mean specifying a job title.  For others, where lifestyle is more important, it may mean coming up with your own definition of success.
  • Step 2: Design a rough path to get there.  You can’t anticipate everything, so don’t feel like it has to be perfect.  But figure out some milestones that indicate you’re getting closer to your dream.
  • Step 3: When the doubt resurfaces, check in with your map.  How far have you come?  How much longer to get to where you want to go?  Then you can make a rational decision about whether you should hang in there or turn around.

Remember, if you’re trying to do something hard, like start a business or design a job that meshes together multiple passions, you should fully expect to do the equivalent of driving through Kansas, maybe for the first couple of years.  Some dreams are hard.  The good news is that doing hard things will ultimately make you proud.

One other big point to consider: you might be tempted to “take a different route.”  In this analogy, the other route is through Texas, which it turns out is equally boring and unpleasant.  So if you decide your doubt is right and you should pick a different dream, just make sure the other path really is a better alternative.

When to dream bigger (no, way bigger)

One of the worst sources of doubt has its roots in envy.  You’re constantly comparing yourself to others in your field and always coming up short.

If this sounds like you, the solution may be to set a goal so big, you can’t possibly achieve it in your lifetime.  Think world peace, ending poverty, or enlightenment.

Setting a goal this big allows you to see the value in the journey itself instead of the destination.  When you focus on the journey, the time component also goes away–there is no arriving, so you can stop asking how long it’s going to take.

It also helps you see the other people you’ve been fretting over as part of the solution, not the competition.

Focus on your contribution to the bigger outcome, not the size or speed of your contribution.

When to take off the training wheels

I’m a cautious person by nature.  I like to think through possible pitfalls and design safety nets and fall back plans.

Most of the time, that trait serves me well.

But there comes a time when the only way to answer “Can I really do this?” is to take off the training wheels.

Let me give you an example.  When I left my career as a scientist, I took a part time job while I built up my blog.  For months I talked about starting a business, but I never had enough time to get it off the ground.  And because we were making enough money to pay the bills, I had little incentive to take a real risk.

Instead of serving as training wheels until I launched my business, my part-time job became a handicap.

I admit, it’s really hard to know when to make this transition.  I did it when we were stable enough financially that I knew we’d be okay if my business failed to live up to my dreams.

I also drew a pretty hard line: the business had to pay for itself from the get go.  That forced me to get much more creative, which in the long run saved me a lot of time and money.

There’s a wonderful quote by William Shedd

A ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.

The same is true of life.  If you’re not making as much progress on your dream as you’d like, think about what it would take to go all in.  Then commit to making it happen within a set of boundaries you can live with.

When to quit

In his book Secrets of Power Negotiating, Roger Dawson advises you should never be afraid to pull the plug when the deal doesn’t make sense any more.  He tells this great story to illustrate his point.

[Donald Trump] spent $100 million to acquire the site for Television City on the West Side of Manhattan. He spent millions more designing plans for the project that would include a 150-story tower, the world’s tallest, and a magnificent television studio to which he hoped to attract NBC. However, when he couldn’t negotiate the right tax concessions from the city, he shelved the entire project.

Sometimes your doubt has a point.

The truth is, maybe you’ve bitten off more than you chew.  Maybe the reality of your career doesn’t match up with the life you imagined.  Maybe the sacrifices required are really more than you’re willing to pay.

And that’s okay.

The answer is not to hang your head and admit defeat.

You just need to find a new dream.

Doubting yourself and your decisions doesn’t mean you’re a failure.  If you’re at this point in the post, hopefully you understand doubt isn’t even necessarily a bad thing.

Instead, imagine your inner voice, having watched way too many spy thrillers, has sent you a secret message.

Your challenge is to unravel the message and create a plan of action … before it’s too late.