Self-Doubt and Overconfidence

There’s more self-doubt in this world than I know what to do with. How many people have something great inside them, some light to throw into the world, but they sit on it their whole lives because they think they aren’t the ones to do it? 

How to know if self-doubt is a problem for you:

  1. You know enough about a thing to know you know almost nothing about it.
  2. You’ve been fascinated by the thing, and so have been a natural student of the thing, for years.
  3. Despite hearing several times from people who know what they’re talking about that the thing you make (or do or know about) is good and valuable, you aren’t putting it out into the world consistently.
  4. Every time you make something, the feeling of how much better it could be overtakes your momentary satisfaction at having made something cool.
  5. You aren’t very impressed with the things you’ve made in the past, even if you see some good in them.
  6. You can’t share anything you’ve made without giving a disclaimer, like, “Oh this could be so much better,” or, “This is okay, but you should see what this other person can do.”

You have to find a way to overcome self-doubt. I don’t know how to conquer that dragon completely, but here’s the thought that works well for me.

When you really know a craft or skill, when you’ve started getting good at it, you rightly think of yourself as having a level 2-3 knowledge about it while the experts you follow have a level 10. You’re probably right. You’re probably decades away from being able to make something on the level of the masters.

But here’s what we fail to consider. To someone else in this world, you are on level 10 already. They would be delighted to see your work, to learn from you, to hear your process, to be like you in every way. You are someone else’s inspiration, but if you never share what you’re working on, they’ll never find you. That’s the light I was referring to. You have a chance to make someone else’s world brighter. Don’t waste it!

Start putting your work out there consistently with no expectations. This does two really important things:

  1. It builds the habit of publishing and makes it easier. –  It removes the rust on your self-doubt and gets you in the flow. Pretty soon, you’re “over it” and not so attached to how people are reacting to it. It takes all the hype out of it.
  2. It keeps you from that quiet arrogance you pretend isn’t there. – Yes, arrogance. Sometimes self-doubt has an undercurrent of pride. We don’t publish our stuff because we’re snobs, and we think our creativity is just for us and that if people don’t appreciate it they just don’t get it. Publishing your work exposes you to your own unoriginality in a really healthy way.

Which leads me to the second half of this post. The other side of self-doubt is overconfidence.

How to know if overconfidence is a problem for you:

  1. You thing you’re an expert and mostly have a thing mastered. (True masters never think this.)
  2. You’ve achieved this skill level quickly, which impresses you, and expect the world to be impressed by you too.
  3. You’ve published work for a long time and the only people who have ever complimented it are your mom or sister—or the same 2 friends.
  4. You’re proud of everything you’ve made.
  5. You’re actually offended when you are overlooked for a project in your field.
  6. You suddenly have a change of heart about what you’ve made when it doesn’t elicit the response you anticipated.

There are probably other indicators.

It seems to me more people are beset by self-doubt than overconfidence, but I know that we’ll never be completely free of either, and that’s a good thing. 

The best thing we can do is complete and share projects often. This keeps us from that thought that hurts so many creative people: at some unknown date in the future I will publish my masterpiece out of nowhere and the world will fawn over it. You might as well plan on winning the lottery.

Hold yourself accountable by sharing your work often. Otherwise you’ll be like an explorer who spends all his time with his nose in the map and sails past a thousand things worth seeing along the way.

Skill and Business

There is a mystery in charging people to use your skill for them.

On the one hand you have the skill, the actual work you do. On the other hand you have the business, the way you make money with the skill. Two different things.

There are two parts that are mysterious to me:

  1. How to keep business and skill in balance (if “balance” is even the right way of thinking about it).
  2. Whether focusing on one pollutes the other.

Artists aren’t typically renown for business savvy, and the image that comes to mind of a great businessperson is typically nothing like an artist.

I don’t know what to do with the mystery, but it’s there.


It’s frustrating when people interrupt us. Infuriating when it happens often. It makes us feel that what we were saying wasn’t important enough to be heard. We were in the middle of something, and now we have to stop against our will, divert our attention, make room for something else, and try to find our train of thought again if we want to finish what we were saying. It’s rude.

It’s aggravating when someone cuts us off in traffic and causes us to wait at a red light. It’s an unwanted delay to our timeline. It’s rude.

But we aren’t perturbed in the least—we actually feel a little ping of pleasure and an eagerness to hear the interruption—when it comes from our phone.

What It Takes to Live

Someone was recently talking about young people graduating high school and how, in the years following, their mind changes as they start learning “what it takes to live.”

What it takes to live.

The phrase jumped out at me. The words are so simple, but I noticed them because I thought they were a great summary of what we’re all doing from the time we’re born until we die. It’s the toil that drives all human behavior. 

When we’re getting an education, making friends, seeking employment, and dreaming of what to make of ourselves, we’re simply figuring out what it takes to live.

And what does it take to live, exactly? I don’t know, and thankfully I don’t have to answer it. I thought the phrase was great on its own. But if I had to take a stab at answering it, I’d probably look to some psychological model.

I know almost nothing about psychology, but you might have heard of the model that ranks human needs called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

User: Factoryjoe, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

(I would probably place morality lower on the chart. It seems more foundational. Worship has not only been all-important for the vast majority of all humans in history, but some have argued pretty convincingly that everyone worships. Everyone ascribes ultimate value to something—looks to something to make them okay and to make life worth living—even if that works out differently from person to person and even if it’s not directed towards a god at all.)

What I just learned about the Hierarchy from this article is that the first 4 tiers of needs are considered “Deficiency Needs” and the top tier is considered a “Growth Need.” 

The motivation for meeting the deficiency needs decreases as the needs are met, whereas motivation for the growth need increases as the need is met.

The longer you go without food, water, shelter, clothing, security, safety, friends, the feeling of accomplishment, the more intense your motivation is to get them. Once you get them, your motivation and pursuit of them drops. 

Yet the more you engage in creative activities, the more you want them. This explains why some authors are so prolific or why some city builders never stop planning and dreaming. The more they engage in the creative process the more they want it and the more their motivation increases.

Whatever use you choose to make of this is up to you. I just find the model a helpful and accurate way of seeing human needs.

A Reflection on American Building

The city used to amaze me. Maybe it’s because I’m from the part of the world where the plains reach out farther than you can see, so the sight of a 30-story building, or even a naked parking garage, is almost a spectacle. It gives you the feeling of being elsewhere—not here, not home, not out in pasture with the wind and the sun, but in the city where everyone is busy with important things.

A charm for the city still lingers in my imagination. And yet, it’s changing. 

I used to look at skylines and feel the pulsating energy drawing me in and pushing me away at the same time like the snobby cool kid at school. I wanted in, wanted to feel like I belonged there, wanted to find an inlet to the mainstream, whatever that is.

Now I’m not so sure. 

I recently visited a city, and in a neighborhood where humble houses once stood there is now a mammoth hole hewn deep into the crust—a squared foundation for a skyscraper. As I looked through the chain link barrier I was reminded of the meteor crater in Arizona I saw when I was 5. When you look down from that ledge you can feel the leftover violence that bowled out the earth so long ago, and a similar brutality looked back through the chain link fence of job site. Laborers ascend the hole on makeshift stairs at the end of their shift and think of the leftovers they’ll have when they get home.

Enterprise does this. It takes a wooded hill and fells every tree and flattens the dirt and puts its mind on nothing but the job to finish and the profit to realize. It installs a manmade plain where for centuries a riverbank stood—where wolves once watched the moonbeams warble on the river currents, where Native Americans likely sat seeking solace for sufferings they couldn’t understand.

And now? Now there’s skid loaders and I-beams, robotic arms with hoses that spray concrete, white lights filling every corner of the site and a polluted reflection dimming the stars. “There’ll be a shopping center at the bottom with stores our predicted tenants will be sure to enjoy.”

I stand on the street and look down into the cavern of industry, seeing how we pummel the earth and blast the rock and spew down cement that will be there forever and I wonder: “Is this okay?” Is it right for us to do this? We stamp and plod and stab into the earth with ever newer ever better machines that multiply our efficiency and force, and the hill that once stood here is nothing but a memory in the minds of the dead, which is to say a memory that exists nowhere.

I don’t know. One could argue that in that building human lives will find their home—that mothers will rear their young, that professionals will rest from anxious toil, that Christmas parties will be hosted and love will be shared. 

We can build whatever we desire—it happens every American second—but should we? Will the universe hold us accountable for the way we kick down earth’s door and smash hills and chip trees and blast bedrock to build a steel and glass profit box? With what presumption do we stomp froward and justify our every action provided the bottom line is black? I don’t know. 

I look up and see the crane forty stories above the surface frowning down at me like an offended conscience. One thing I know is I’m not in control. 

We are a loud species, dead set that our will be done and our kingdom come.