It’s Good to Feel Stupid: 5 Thoughts on Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt

I was lifting with the owner of my gym. She was doing clean and jerks. I was squatting.

In between sets, I asked if she had ever competed in an Olympic weightlifting meet. “You should do one. They are a lot of fun and you’re definitely built to be a weightlifter.”

“That’s what everyone tells me, but I don’t know,” she responded. “Competitions make me kind of nervous. I just think: what if I miss this lift and all of these people see it?”

Let’s pause for a moment.

Remember, this is someone who OWNS a gym. She misses lifts every single week and sees hundreds of other people do the same. And yet here she is, letting her fear of being judged prevent her from doing something that she’d like to do.

This little conversation reminded me of why I hate “fear–based decision making” and got me thinking about the importance of overcoming fear. Let’s talk about how you can get past fear and self–doubt and do the things that you want to do.

Fear–Based Decision Making

Fear–based decision making is when you let your fears or worries dictate your actions (or, in most cases, your lack of action).

For example…

  • “I’d love to visit Africa, but what if something bad happens while I’m there? I’ll go somewhere else instead.”
  • “I’d love to write a book, but what if people hate it? Maybe I should read more before I start writing.”
  • “I’d love to get in shape, but what if I look stupid at the gym? I need to lose some weight before I go.”

The unfortunate result is that you don’t do the things that you say are important to you.

Just to be clear, I’ve made this mistake many times myself. In fact, for two years I came up with all sorts of reasons for why I shouldn’t start this very website. I’ve also come up with excuses for not building businesses, not starting projects, not applying to schools, not applying to jobs, and on and on.

In other words, this is a mistake that we all make. But, that doesn’t mean it’s alright to continue making it.

5 Thoughts on Overcoming Fear and Self–Doubt

After all of my mistakes, there are a few rules of thumb that I now try to keep in mind…

1. Don’t pick goals where the stakes are low.

When the gym owner chooses to avoid competition and only miss lifts in her home gym, it’s a way of keeping the stakes low. But failing in a safe zone is just a clever way of holding yourself back.

If you fail inside your comfort zone, it’s not really failure, it’s just maintaining the status quo. If you never feel uncomfortable, then you’re never trying anything new.

In other words, feeling stupid is a good thing.

2. Nobody is rooting for you to fail.

Maybe you’ll succeed. Maybe you’ll fail. For the most part, nobody cares one way or the other.

This is a good thing! The world is big and you are small, and that means you can chase your dreams with little worry for what people think.

3. Just because you don’t like where you have to start from doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get started.

I wish I was a better writer when I started writing. I wish I was a smarter entrepreneur when I started building businesses. I wish I was a better photographer when I picked up a camera. But more than anything, I’m glad I chose to start even though I wasn’t very good in the beginning.

Feelings of fear and uncertainty have a way of making you feel unprepared.

  • “I should learn more before I take this test.”
  • “I should practice more before I compete.”
  • “I should get this degree before I start this business.”

Here’s a tough question that forces you to consider the opposite side: How long will you put off what you’re capable of doing just to maintain what you’re currently doing?

4. Stop making uncertain things, certain.

Who says you’re going to fail? Just because someone else got rejected from that job doesn’t mean you will. Maybe the publisher hated your friend’s book, but that doesn’t mean they’ll hate yours. Maybe you tried to lose weight before, but that doesn’t mean you can’t lose it now.

You’re not destined to “miss that lift.” In fact, maybe you’re destined to succeed.

Stop acting like failure is certain. It’s not.

5. The only real failure is not taking any action in the first place.

We all deal with feelings of fear, uncertainty, and vulnerability. And unfortunately, most of us let those feelings dictate our actions. For this reason, the simple decision to act is often enough to separate you from most people. You don’t need to be great at what you do, you just need to be the one person who actually decides to do it.

You can enjoy a lot of success by doing the things that most people make excuses to avoid.

48 Comments

  1. Thanks for this post.

    I actually went through this situation this weekend: I am performing once a year at a small festival, and this year, I had a miss-out: I wanted to rap, but I have never done it before… I totally f*d up on that song, so much that I had to stop in the middle!

    I stopped, apologise to the audience, and asked if they would give me a second chance… They did, and the second time, I did it really well, and people will now remember the better version rather than the failed attempt.

    A friend later told me that a very famous band (Coldplay?) had done that during one of their gigs.

    Conclusion: Even if you fail, you can still try again.

  2. Right on!

    There’s a story in the annals of Alcoholics Anonymous that describes a lesson on capitalizing on one’s mistakes, referred to commonly as Rule 62. In summary, it relates to lessons learned about a failed venture, and admonishes “Don’t take yourself too seriously!”

    Viewing my life as a series of unending experiments, some of which work and others – well, you know – makes me human.

    A story: Stepping out of a dump truck into mud of unknown depth, I lit upon a stone about the dimensions of a baseball, which turned my ankle and landed me on my butt in about 8-10 inches of mud. The crew fixed their attention on me, whereupon I arose with all the dignity Stan Oliver would muster, and took several sweeping bows, displaying my muddy evidence for all to see and share. Spontaneous applause and laughter broke out. What else COULD one do?

    My trademark quote: “I’m making mistakes as fast as I can!”

  3. What a challenge for a Monday. I have been feeling that for awhile now. I am afraid of certain things about my job, and I try to avoid doing them. I’m also in training to start something new, with the potential of a new position if it goes well. It’s very hard to go ahead and do it anyway in spite of the fear. I will be keeping these things in mind over the next few weeks. Thank you James!

  4. James, this is a really important topic, so thanks for writing about it, and thanks for your suggestions to help people overcome their fear!

    If you haven’t read it yet, or if your readers haven’t, I highly recommend Carol Dweck’s “Mindset; The new psychology of success”. In this book Dweck discusses the difference between the fixed mindset – in which people are constantly judging both themselves and others, and are afraid of failure – and the growth mindset – in which people consider every failure an opportunity to learn and get better. The difference between the two mindsets is, quite frankly, life-changing. Anyone who resonates with your blogpost would do well to look into Dweck’s work for more details. I have even just been working on a series about the book myself: http://convergenceinthecommons.com/2013/08/12/what-messages-do-you-send-if-you-praise-the-wrong-things-you-could-contribute-to-failure/

    Again, thanks for this great post!

  5. Great motivation here, James. Number two is the best and that’s what does it for me. No one cares! No one is there hoping someone will fail so they can point a finger and laugh. The only thing that will happen is shock. They’re invested in you when you tell them about your goals and aspirations.

  6. James,

    A good read and reminder. Quite fundamental about not letting fear stop you from taking the first step, learning from your failures, and not making failure your fate so you can grow and build upon your successes. This was helpful.

    Jennifer

  7. Feeling ‘stupid’ means being vulnerable. I myself am working on leaning in to vulnerability. Brene Brown researches/writes/talks about Vulnerability – look her up if you have not already. The #1 Vulnerability Myth: vulnerability = weakness. But, truth is, vulnerability actually equals courage. Think of your own opinion of people you have seen being vulnerable and taking a risk on a big stage – is that weakness you see, or are you – like me – simply in awe of their courage.

  8. This reminds me of the saying “the greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it”. Take time to dream. Imagine what you are capable of and live that life.

    M

  9. Aug 12,2013

    My husband died in a head on collision with another semi the 1st of July.

    I am 41 yrs old and I have always wanted to act/model since ….. even I can’t remember.

    Well the 7 th of Aug I pawned my husband’s and my wedding rings and went to an audition on the 8th. I didn’t get it but I went to another on sat the 10th … I didn’t get it either!

    But I didn’t let fear stop me any longer … nearly 30 yrs has passed and fear stopped me for all those yrs!

    Well not ANYMORE!

    Karla Livingston

    • Wow! What an amazing show of courage and strength, Karla!

      I really, really admire the fact that you took the tragedy you went through and have made the decision to turn it into a wonderful opportunity for you to live your dreams, and even though you haven’t gotten a part yet, I LOVE that you are still pursuing your love for acting! Do you have a blog? I would love to check up on any new updates you post and offer encouragement as well. Amazing!! Keep going, Karla. Your story is amazing, and you never know who you might be inspiring!

  10. Imagined adversity as in a self-perceived “people are rooting for me to fail” used to be my Waterloo. But when fear is holding me back nowadays, I rationalize that life is like in an exercise class: you think all eyes are on you, but where are your eyes? Like you, each person is so focused on their own performance and intently staring at themselves in the floor-to-ceiling mirror, that they scarcely notice you! The ultimate fear-aversion reality check.

  11. This reminds me of a great quote by John Bingham (runner) “The miracle isn’t that I finished, the miracle is I had the courage the start” Overcoming fear to begin anything new in life takes courage. I LOVE this quote it inspires me…

    Thanks James for the reminder that decisions based on fear usually only serve to hold us back from experiencing so much in life…

    Maybe even finding a new passion! For me it is running! I thought I was to old (52), too fat, to unhealthy; I was all the above BUT really I was too scared to try!

    I read John Bingham’s book ‘Running for Mortals’ (three times) before I bought some runners and began running – 30 seconds at a time, cause I really was too fat and too unhealthy hahah.

    NOT NOW in just 18months I’ve lost 35kg I run 3 times a week and, have run in four 10k races and my first Half Marathon!

    I have also started a degree in Exercise and Sport Science;

    My whole world has changed! Isn’t it amazing!

    • Sharon,

      Let me just say WOW that you had the courage to not only start, but take up running, and find yourself losing 35KGs, that is phenomenal! Now that you see the world from a different angle, I am sure there will be so many more things you are doing and will continue to do. AMAZING!

    • OMG! You know his quote of the “Penguin” runner. I love that book, and that quote may be the only thing I remember from that book, but that quote is with me years later.

    • I receive the articles via email in the evening but always keep ‘em for the next morning. This way I get an extra boost in the morning since I feel like I can move mountains after reading an article (and can try to implement what I learned right away). =)

  12. Hi James — I really liked the article. There are so many things that I just miss out on because I am too scared to leave my comfort zone. I’m gonna try one thing outside my comfort zone today.

  13. Thank you James, as usual you have given me something to really think about.

    It was really funny I needed to have a blood test yesterday, and the lady in pathology said, “Now you must fast from 9:30pm until 9 tomorrow morning,” to which I replied “That’s not a problem, I don’t start eating until 2:pm anyhow.” to which she replied “Don’t forget to drink plenty of water, or you may feel faint without food.” I thought to myself, ‘why would I be so stupid to adhere to an eating program that made me feel faint?’ The next day when I fronted up for the blood test, the pathologist and his assistant, told me how dangerous it is not to eat breakfast which is the most important meal of the day. I do eat breakfast (which simply means to break the fast.) at 2:pm

  14. OMG — James, this blog is the best thing I have ever discovered! I love how you give simple straight solutions for everything! I’m living my life the Clear-way! Thank you for being awesome!

  15. I love how you can give a simple and clear explanation for the seemingly unexplainable habits common to us. “Maybe you’ll succeed. Maybe you’ll fail. For the most part, nobody cares…” – love it!

  16. I enjoyed this post. The only thing I would disagree with is #2. I think that for their own twisted reasons, people like to watch other people fail. It makes them think that for some reason that makes them better. That’s not true. If you fail, the only thing that it means is that you failed. It doesn’t mean you suck. It doesn’t mean anyone is better than you. It doesn’t mean anything. If you make it mean that you’re defeated, then you are. If you make it mean that you’re going to pick up, try again, and kick butt regardless, that’s what it will mean.

    I wrote this post more for myself than anything. I realize when I read articles like this it’s a great reminder for myself to keep pushing.

    :-D Thanks!

  17. I wish I had written this.

    I have really suffered from self-doubt all my life (I’m nearly 50) but I seem to have done reasonably well (nice house, loving family, good job etc) But what I really wanted to do was have my own business, or at least be in charge of my daily activities.

    I was recently very ill (depression etc) but now I seem to have recovered, and my thinking was that if I could get through depression then I can get through anything. So I have kicked off my little letting agency, and so far everything has fallen into place. I know things will go wrong at some point, but I have done as much preparation as I can and I keep reminding myself how much I want this. Also I use Richard Branson as my inspiration ( you know, beardy guy, head of Virgin) He and his team have made some monumentally bad decisions – imaging trying to make cola up against Coke and Pepsi. Imaging trying to make a competitor for the iPod. He did both, and failed.

    Hopefully I won’t make such big mistakes…

  18. Thanks James.

    I am really inspired by your writing. I have just started my morning walk as a daily start up with your motivation. I shall continue. Thank you.

  19. Thanks for this helpful article addressing fear head-on.

    Over the past decade I have worked with some of the most interesting and successful people in the world. You may be an entertainer taking home $35,000 per hour. You may be a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. You may be a Wall Street corporate merger guru. Still, you have to understand, quickly recognize, and know how to defeat the top 5 professional fears. They are:
    1. The fear of silence
    2. The fear of sharing
    3. The fear of selling
    4. The twin fears of rejection and failure
    5. The fear of success

    Not surprisingly, most (not all) successful individuals initially assume they are the exception to the rule. “Fear? Who me? No way.”

    “No fear” isn’t just a Millennial motto for the adventurous. It’s a way of life. I know all this, yet yesterday I got hit with 1 of the 5 professional fears and responded 180 degrees opposite of what I know to do in such situations.

    I still believe “No fear” is a way of life, but it’s an imperfect way. Every time we give into fear, we need to humbly acknowledge it, remind ourselves what to do next time, and then move toward that “next time” as quickly as possible.

    –David Sanford, http://www.LinkedIn.com/in/drsanford

  20. A brilliant speaker once said (to me and a large, astonished crowd of top execs right after he demonstrated that less than 5% of the audience dared stand up and answer a tough question):

    “ASK YOURSELF: DO YOU PLAY TO WIN, OR TO NOT LOSE?”

    I’ll never forget that moment.

    Sometimes, when I’m lucky, I remember those words in moments of hesitation.

  21. I came to work after 2 days of minor health problem and all of a sudden while on the way to work I started having that sinking feeling of negativity and pessimism of not being an achiever or what the hell am I doing at 38 or I’m at the wrong place and should not be wasting my life over something that I don’t really love doing.

    As I read your article James, its really as if a messenger of God wrote to me telling me directly in the face how inaccurate I am and its like an eye-opener.

    In fact there were 4 of your newsletters and each one was like a voice of God. Though my trivia still continues to exist, I feel somewhat relaxed and at ease.

    Thank You man. God Bless You.

  22. Thanks for sharing your experiences; especially, the one about writing. I love to write, but ________________. I am working on letting that go. :)

  23. Thank you for this.

    I have been paralyzed by my fear of failing and wanting so badly to try to go after the things I love, such as writing and photography. I have been thinking well if I do this first then… But I am unraveling that fear (which hurts like a mofo) so I can just start and be and allow myself to be a beginner.

    This is exactly what I needed to read today. :)

  24. A comment to thank you for this post that helped a great deal in my time of need.

    I don’t know if you will, or even want to read why and how was your article uselful, but if you do… here’s my little story.

    When I was a kid, I was different, doing everything with ease, except that I wasn’t able to socialize because of this difference. People kept telling me I wasn’t speaking their language. Hated me because they thought I did this on purpose. Thought it would pass. It didn’t, especially when my IQ results came back. The man said at least 165 but thought it was underated. It grew worse, and I wasn’t feeling particularily clever. Everything, excepted those social issues were fine.

    Then I went to high school. I was the first of my class in almost everything, without doing anything. I never revised, nor did my homework. But I was listening, and was fascinated by everything. I only needed to read or hear something once to remember it, and understand it. I was especially passionate about science. As a kid, I watched Star Trek, Stargate, and read Asimov, Douglas Adams, among others. I wanted to become a scientist. I was convinced then, and still am, that my purpose on this earth was to bring a contribution to science. Let’s do better than Einstein. He did stuff. Why couldn’t I, right? And they say I am supposed to be clever? It should help. I wanted to learn as much as I could, discover as much as I could, and teach what I had learned and discovered to anyone who would listen.

    Then, I had this math teacher. A nice young woman. Nothing to complain about. But then came that horrible day… she wrote a demonstration on the board of some theorem. From the first line I knew there was something wrong. Couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was a mistake that made the whole thing wrong. She didn’t notice it, and I kept looking for what gave me that feel. A moment before she was done, I whispered it was wrong. I think out loud a lot. When I write, I whisper what I am thinking. I talk to myself a lot to organize my thinking (alone of course – I don’t need that extra weirdness to be cast aside even more). But the thing is, I was seating right in front of her desk. And she heard it. She turned and gave me the chalk, challeging me to correct her.

    Well, let’s say I know I should have stayed seated at that precise moment. But I was still deep in thoughts. And mecanically it took the chalk, erased the whole thing and set it right before I returned to my seat. I wasn’t thinking about the consequence really (I rarely do, precisely because I am often deep in thoughts). But the demonstration I did was right. She acknowledged her mistake, and it was then I realized that I actually had written the whole thing on the board. She thought it amused me to mock her and… the nightmare started.

    Every math lesson for the two years that came after this event, was a marathon of mockery. Trying to undermine me. Every time I made a mistake (I am human, not a damn machine) that was the horror. And slowly, she reached her goal: She eventualy broke me. I wasn’t able to do anything anymore, because I was always in doubt. Couldn’t take decisions, couldn’t solve even the easiest of exercises, because I always doubted. My grades sank with my confidence. I don’t think I ever was overconfident. I just knew stuff and trusted my memory and logical mind.

    In the end, my grades were so low that I even thought I wouldn’t manage to pass my degree. And yes, for a boy who loved maths and physics, it was astounding to get such low grades. But still, I got it. Wasn’t satisfied though. No distinction.

    Then I went to college. Only to see that even with her gone, something had truly been shattered inside. I was doubting more than ever on everything. Couldn’t do anything right. Was stressed beyond imagining. Slowly, the situation went worse. Listening wasn’t enough to understand and master a subject any more. So… I did what I never did before: I worked my lessons. Before meeting that teacher, I used the time one would usually allocate for lessons and homework, for learning more. I always wanted more. But now, it had to stop. Because I wasn’t able to understand my lessons anymore. But why? I felt inside me it was still as easy as it ever was. A part of me still worked that way. I knew I had all the answers somewhere, but couldn’t reach them. I felt dumb because of that. Always thinking: “Come on, what’s taking so long, that’s easy! What are you stuck on?!”, “Why are you reading that lesson again? You already know everything about it! What part didn’t you understand?”. But it wasn’t working. I was unable to use my damn brain properly. So I had bad and worse grades. And with each bad grade, another voice in my head was speaking to me, each time stronger “You’re stupid. You’re an idiot. You’ll never succeed. You are a waste.” to the point when I started to believe that voice over the other one that was hinting me I could do it.

    I felt really bad, but on the other hand, people had grown up. I was in college, with a bunch of geeks, I managed to socialize for the first time in my life. The friends I made helped me through those hardships. Helped me in keeping me going. But that didn’t solve my problems with doubt, stress, lack of confidence. Until, one day, I found a book in the library of my campus about Fermat’s last theorem. Even if I couldn’t understand much anymore because of doubt, my hunger for knowledge, especially for maths and physics was still there. I read it, and started working on demonstrating it. This particular theorem wasn’t demonstrated before the 90’s by a mathematician named Andrew Wiles, who received the Field’s medal (equivalent of a nobel prize) for that, since it had remained unsolved for about three hundred years. Fermat wrote it on some book, saying he had a very good demonstration for it but had no time to write it. (The guy was a judge, and maths were his hobby. He had a ton of great ideas, had proofs for some of them, but didn’t take time to write them all down. His “last theorem” is one of those missing demonstrations).

    But, something bothered me. Wiles’ solution, like all the “simplified” versions that came after were using mathematical concepts that are very recent. Not even fantacised in the epoch of Fermat. And yet, he claimed to have a solution. So, I started looking for it on my free time, with a newly found enthusiasm (I love solving problems – I always thought of those as a game). The more the solution eluded me, the more exciting it became. It started showing in college, I was regaining confidence, and everyone thought I was under the influence, because I could finish great amounts of work in very little time, like before I met my high school math teacher. This change increased gradually, and peaked when I found the solution. Eureka and all that (I could write lines of how extatic that moment was). After checking multiple times, I contacted Andrew Wiles to have his opinion on the matter, thinking that after all he had devoted his life to this problem, if there is anyone I should talk to about that, it’s him. He mailed me back, enthusiastic. For a couple of weeks, i felt like I had wings. I regained full confidence in myself, thinking that I had to be good to have solved something that remained unsolved for so long. Not feeling clever still, but feeling like I am “confidenceworthy”. That I can trust my abilities, because I accomplished something that some great minds have failed on. (Though the “bad” voice kept saying it was luck. That an idiot with luck could have done it. This isn’t entirely false – but not true either – after all aren’t many discoveries made out of luck? A piece of the puzzle appearing differently in a given context that allows you to solve it?).

    But there’s a thing… publishing a mathematical demonstration is like writing a small thesis. It must be easily understandable, and everything must be justified by a proven theory. In my case, I thought it would be easy – the maths I used are as old as Euclid’s work. But there are two things wrong: Two things I thought to be proven, that are still unproven to this day (even though, those are conjectures, they check up in every known case, but there is no proper demonstration to those yet).

    So, until these two conjectures are properly demonstrated, I am stuck. It isn’t a big deal, right? I can wait for someone to publish the demonstrations, and then publish mine? I can even work on those, who knows, I could manage to demonstrate those? Even if my solution isn’t published yet because of that… I still have something that should check up. But that little uncertainty was enough to let everything break down in my mind again: Gone confidence, welcome back stress. Bye joy. Hello depressiveness.

    And from that point on, it started going down again. But at least I had the memory of this “great period” to confort me, and make me look up on occasions. But it wasn’t enough, and I started sinking again.

    But then I found this article. Combined with a close to infinite amount of talks with familiy, friends, psychiatrists, teachers… I was able to end this chapter thanks to this article, it found echo deep inside me and… things have been going better since then. This time it’s going to last though. Last time it was because of a particular event that I had that “boost”. But this time it’s the result of a long journey toward vanishing my fears – inner demons – whatever you call them. And for that, I am eternally grateful to you, sir.

    (P.S: Sorry for my bad english, but expressing all this was hard, finding the words, formulating… even in my native language I have trouble explaining that.)

  25. Thank you Karla for your message, please keep us updated on your progress. Amazing story.

    I recently divorced my husband and five years ago I filed for restraining order and divorce and he has since turned some truth into all out lies and has gained custody of my children. My son is now 21 and my daughter is going to be 12 tomorrow. I now see my daughter every other weekend and one day during the week. Since losing them I have felt hollow but crippled with fear of my ex (who always threatens that he holds the court card and can make changes anytime) and the anger I have for the whole family law justice system. I keep saying I am not going to give up on getting my daughter back so it is time that I stop letting a man or anyone else take away my hope to fight and take back what is mine. My dignity, self worth and a daughter who needs a strong mommy.

    Please keep me and my two children in your prayers.

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