Overcoming Doubt: Reframe it and Focus on the Data

We all face self-doubt, from elite athletes and performers to successful executives, entrepreneurs, community leaders, and even military special forces. It’s part of human nature that doubt will creep in from time to time for even the most confident among us.

But what really is doubt? One way to think about doubt is as a haziness in the path ahead of you…Whether it is a choice you are making between two alternatives or some inkling of skepticism about the feasibility of achieving what you have set out to do.

In my experience as an executive coach and in interviewing leaders from all walks of life for my new book The Savage Leader, I have heard stories about doubts both large and small that had the potential to torpedo peak performance and success. Below are some useful tips that I have learned along the way that can be helpful in tackling doubt.

  • Separate the Facts from the Data: The first step to crush doubt is to separate the facts from the myriad of subjective opinions you may hear from friends and foes (or even the thoughts in your own head). As I was personally experiencing doubt about a new business initiative recently, a wise mentor of mine asked me, “What data do you have to support the doubt that you have in this moment?” Upon hearing that, I realized that all of the uncertainty was rooted in subjective opinions and not hard data. In fact, the numbers (e.g. market sizing data, lack of established competitors) all supported the new initiative and its success. Further, in looking to the past, I used the data from previous, similar successes to erase the doubt around this new initiative. And guess what? The new initiative was a resounding success, though it wouldn’t have been so if I had held onto that doubt throughout the process.
  • Anchor onto Something Familiar: Another method to find clarity in the haze is to seek out an element of familiarity to help push aside the doubt. A Navy SEAL I spoke to recently related to me a technique used to tackle seemingly impossible tasks during BUDS training as well as in deployments. Anchoring onto something familiar that you have done in the past is helpful in tackling doubt as well as staring down fear. As you experience doubt heading into a tough customer negotiation or in the launch of a new business, look for and anchor to something familiar (e.g. a past successful negotiation or previous product/business launch) to help stabilize your confidence and squelch the doubt that exists.
  • Reframe Doubt as Uncertainty: Another way to deal with doubt is to reframe it as uncertainty. Doubt is an emotion and cognitive state that is unproductive; it prevents you from confidently bounding into a situation or conversation and otherwise hinders peak performance. On the other hand, uncertainty is having less than a 100% chance of achieving a particular task or outcome. In life and in business, nothing is truly a guaranteed success. In fact, fans of basketball know that a “slam dunk” is not 100% either despite the athletic prowess of the player going up for the dunk. Likewise, despite the best plans or teams, the success of a new business or initiative launch is not certain – it is uncertain due to external factors such as macroeconomic headwinds and competitive actions. Uncertainty, as opposed to doubt, tends to be more fact-based and can be managed through contingency planning. As a result, it becomes less of a drag on your actions and ultimately performance. The next time you experience doubt, try reframing that doubt as uncertainty and see if that unsticks the mental e-break and allows you to confidently move forward and take action.

If you are committed to ongoing personal growth as a leader and game changing growth for your company, doubt is likely to creep in along the way. When it does, try some of the tips above to erase the doubt and get back on the path to success.