Why success won’t eliminate self-doubt

A few weeks ago, a dear friend got the middle-of-the-night call she’d been dreaming of for the better part of a decade.

She’d finally secured a two-book deal with a leading New York publisher. She was also a finalist for a prestigious writing prize to be presented at a conference in New York later this year.

For a couple of days she floated around, trying to absorb the momentous news. She waited anxiously for the paper work to pop into her inbox, offering incontrovertible proof that she had not been dreaming and was indeed, about to become a published novelist. When it finally arrived, she shared the news of her achievement on social media and bathed for a moment in all the well wishes and high fives.

Until she sat down to fine-tune her manuscript. Suddenly all those self-doubts came flooding back. What was the publisher expecting – and where on earth should she start? She began viewing her work through a hyper-critical lens, seeing only what she perceived as its flaws, rather than the brilliant story construction and lyrical writing that had caught her publisher’s attention.

As for that second book? She had the plot figured out, but how would she find the time to get stuck in around parenting and other commitments?

From the outside, it seemed like her incredible achievement should provide all the validation she needed. A big New York publisher loved her work! But now she had to live up to the expectations she had set with her first breathtaking manuscript – and it felt daunting.

Many of us pin our ideas of success to a certain milestone. If we could just get that book published, or hit the bestseller list, or make this amount of money, or be interviewed by Oprah, then we would feel successful.

The reality is that the moment of success is fleeting. As soon as we meet that milestone there will be another and then another – or a thousand ways to discount our achievement (I had a lot of help, it wasn’t really my idea, I secured it through a contact: subtext, not on my own merits).

If you are creating from the heart – whether through your business or with writing, painting, photography or any other form of self-expression – self doubt is part of the equation. It’s a nerve-wracking thing to share your creativity with the world. External validation can be uplifting when it comes and crushing if it doesn’t.

Self-doubt can be a good thing – it helps keep us humble and recognise when we are pushing beyond our comfort zone.

So when we achieve our goals, we need to celebrate what we have achieved, while not getting too caught up in its trappings.  Recognise the accomplishment as an acknowledgement that you are on the right track. Be grateful for it and allow it to fuel your determination to reach higher still. Then get back to work.

Shortly after my friend’s big win, I attended a publishing industry event, where the topic of writerly self-doubt came up. Many of the guests had worked with world-famous writers and novelists and all agreed that self-doubt is part of the deal. ‘It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of thousands of books they’ve sold, or how many times they’ve hit the bestseller list,’ said one. ‘If you tell them you loved their work they will gasp and say “Did you really?” Nothing is as vulnerable as a bestselling writer’s ego.’

Looks like my friend is in good company. Even when she hits that bestselling list – and I have no doubt she will – she won’t necessarily feel like a big-shot successful novelist. That old self-doubt gremlin will most likely perch on her shoulder once again.

The trick is to notice it for what it is – her inner critic, keeping her on her toes. Know that it goes with the territory of being a creative artist. Pay attention, observe the thoughts as they arise – and then let it go.

‘Hello old friend. Thanks for your input. I’m going to get back to work now.’

The truth is, she was a magnificent writer long before she got the book deal.

If you – like me – struggle with self-doubt, try keeping a notebook in which you record all your positive feedback and testimonials. Write down every lovely thing someone says, writes or tweets about your work. Pay special attention to how your work impacted on them and the difference you made in their lives.

Then, when that old self-doubt gremlin comes calling, or if you’re struggling with haters or feedback you know in your bones is unfair, sit for a moment and read through the comments. Absorb all the love. Feel it and know it to be true. Know that your work makes a difference to others.

Then get right back to work.

Do you struggle with self doubt? What’s your favourite strategy for keeping those gremlins at bay?

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