Operating Instructions

Neil sat opposite me in my office. The hollowed-out stare and chewed-to-the-quick fingernails told me this was a man who probably hadn’t slept or eaten much in days. As the 29-year-old CEO of a highly successful tech firm, he was at his wits end. The company he helped to create was undergoing explosive growth that had caught him by surprise, requiring a new infusion of venture capital, dozens of new hires and a major company restructuring. He missed the good old days, he told me, when it was just him and his partner working from his Brooklyn apartment. “I don’t get it,” he confessed. “This is what I always wanted. I just wish I knew what the hell I was doing!”

Lots of very successful and accomplished people feel this way some of the time. Or maybe all of the time. They are troubled with high levels of self-doubt and anxiety about their own abilities. Some even believe they are “faking it” and live in terror of actually being “found out.” I remember reading an interview with Jodi Foster some years ago. She had been acting in movies since she was nine, and had just won an Oscar for her role in The Accused. And yet she couldn’t shake the feeling of fraudulence. “I felt like an impostor,” she said. “I kept thinking that some day they would find out I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t. And I still don’t.”

Look, it’s okay to not know what you’re doing sometimes. We all, to some degree, feel uncertain at work. A lot of our time is spent developing workarounds and elaborate coping mechanisms to pretend that we do in fact, know what we’re doing. (Wall Street has developed this to a fine art. Too big to fail? Yeah, right!) Yet most people, if they’re honest, will probably tell you it’s about fine-tuning your instincts, a good deal of luck and educated guess work. The fact is that we cannot avoid not knowing, because life is full of surprises. But what we can do is learn to quiet the impostor that lurks within.

Relax

Worry makes you tense and uptight. You make lousy decisions (and a poor impression) when you’re nervous. So the very first step is to simply get out of your own way and just breathe. Nothing is that big of a deal. Honestly. Observe anyone doing good work in almost any field of endeavor and what you’ll inevitably find is someone in a very relaxed state of body and mind. Michael Csíkszentmihályi famously described this phenomenon as “flow.” It is the sweet spot where concentration and control blend effortlessly to produce optimum performance. As true for bricklayers as it is for musicians. We can only do our very best work when we are fully present to the unfolding moment.

Get The Facts

Are you seeing the full picture, or operating with a limited field of vision? You cannot make a good decision without having the facts. It is often said that: “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” One way to do this is to ask a lot of questions. Read. Research. Read some more. Instead of wallowing in the anxiety of not knowing, make it your mission to be as informed on this topic as you can possibly be. Don’t even attempt to solve an issue without first collecting all of the facts in an impartial manner.

Ask For Advice

If you don’t understand something, own up to it, and seek out those who do. It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help when you need it, it is a sign of intelligence. And most people are flattered to be asked for their “expert opinion.” Years ago when I was a recruiter, I watched a lot of people interview for jobs they were clearly not qualified for. That’s okay, I wasn’t necessarily qualified to be interviewing them. But given the choice between two candidates – one who was 100% certain of everything, and another who said something like “I may not know the answer to that, but I know I can find out, and I’m a quick study” – guess who always got the job?

Experiment

It hardly matters what you do, as long as you do something. It has been my observation that the most successful people, in life and work, are those who can assemble the facts, and then take swift and decisive action to course correct. They don’t stew over problems, and they don’t agonize once a decision has been made. They do this by effecting change in the areas they can, and then letting go of the rest. In the words of Goethe: “Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

It’s okay to feel like a phony sometimes. Trust me, you’re in good company! Maybe it’s even healthy if it spurs us to learn more and make better decisions. Most of us underestimate our true value and strengths. But buried deep under all the self-doubt is the sense that you are infinitely capable. Even in the midst of not knowing sometimes, it is still possible to enjoy peace of mind when we learn to fully trust ourselves.

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