Self-doubt is Good
Last night for some reason I found myself thinking about my darkest hours as a writer.
The period lasted about ten years, more if I include a contiguous stretch where I was too paralyzed to write at all.
Was it Resistance? Was that the foe?
The enemy was self-doubt.
Or put another way, lack of self-belief.
I may be wrong but I have a feeling that’s the Big Enemy for all of us.
In a way, Resistance is self-doubt. That’s the form it takes. That’s the weapon it uses against us.
But self-doubt somehow transcends Resistance. It stands alone. It was there before we ever thought of being writers or artists or entrepreneurs.
Self-doubt cripples us. It maims us. It renders us impotent. It cuts us off from our powers.
And yet, crazy as this sounds, self-doubt is good.
In The War of Art, I found myself writing this:
The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.
In other words, self-doubt is an indicator. It’s the proof of a hidden positive. It’s the flip side of our dream.
The more importance our dream holds for the evolution of our soul—that novel, that movie, that startup—the more Resistance we will feel to realizing it. The greater our level of aspiration (even if we’re unconscious of it), the greater will be our index of self-doubt.
A little over ten years ago I wrote a book called The Virtues of War. It was about Alexander the Great.
The book came to me like one of those tunes Liz Gilbert talks about in her great TED talk. The first two sentences just popped into my head. I had no idea who was speaking those sentences or what subject the book was about. It took months for me to be able to say, “Ah, this is about Alexander.”
The voice in those two sentences was his.
Meaning I was going to have to write this book in the first person, “as” Alexander.
If you’re a reader of this blog, you know that I don’t believe such epiphanies are accidents.
That book was coming to me for a reason.
My daimon was assigning it to me.
Because of all the individuals who ever advanced onto the field of aspiration (this was my conclusion a few years later), no one ever had LESS self-doubt than Alexander.
He was a king and the son of a king. His father Philip of Macedon was probably the greatest general who ever lived up to that time, until he was eclipsed by his son. Alexander’s tutor was Aristotle. Before he could walk, Alexander had internalized his father’s dream of conquering the Persian empire—the greatest in history. By twenty-five he had realized that dream.
In other words, the exercise of writing The Virtues of War was, I believe, my daimon’s way of helping me to overcome self-doubt. For two years I was like an actor immersed in a role. I had to internalize Alexander’s challenges and antagonists from his point of view. I had to narrate events not as I myself might have experienced them, but as Alexander did (or as close as my imagination could come to conceiving them.)
The artist’s daimon is a mighty ally.
It is working relentlessly, beneath the level of consciousness, to strengthen our resolve, to enlarge our self-belief.
What can we do to assist in this process?
We can keep working.
Keep advancing our craft.
We can keep taking chances.
Keep stretching our boundaries.
Keep getting better.
Krishna told Arjuna, of the individual who faithfully follows a practice of meditation and devotion
Who walks his path beside me
Feels my hand upon him always.
No effort he makes is wasted,
Nor unseen, unguided by me.
Newton’s Third Law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That’s physics.
For every measure of self-doubt we experience consciously, there is an equal and opposite measure of self-belief growing and enlarging itself unconsciously.
Our self-doubt is the inverse manifestation of our artistic dream.
The greater the one, the greater the other.
[I practically NEVER recommend books in these posts, but I’m making an exception for our friend Mark McGuinness’s “21 Insights for 21st Century Creatives.” It’s free at this link. It’s a real Swiss Army knife of all-around mental ammunition for those of us slugging it out in the trenches of this new century. Check it out!]
This is the perfect time for me to hear this. I’ll see today’s first-book writing challenges much differently. Honestly, I don’t know how I’ll ever repay Steven Pressfield for all his guidance and inspiration.
I. LOVE. THIS. Thank you, Steven.
Yes, I always have self-doubt it seems to never go away. I don’t think it never leaves me. Especially after about 3 rejections yesterday looking for a literary agent for my screenplay.
Wanna know what got me over my self-doubt?
Was learning an acquaintance of mine has twelve (12!) Books on Amazon — all pedestrian but hot sellers.
He’s listed higher than Stephen King!
I’ve been pumping out thousand word days since.
who is the writer and what does pedestrian mean? as far as books go
Great post, Steve, and thanks so much for the link to the Liz Gilbert TED talk. It was fascinating, and really falls in line with your writings.
Your insight into self doubt couldn’t have come at a better time. Thanks so much Steve for sharing your thoughts with us. They are invaluable.
Perhaps self doubt is the fence, written in to our DNA, to keep us within the fold.
I heard this statement in an interview with Bryon Katie and “the work”. She said: “The Mind is the Cause and The Body is the Affect.” Then I remembered what Steve had written: “Put your ass where your heart is.” If turned around, could it be “The greater the one, the greater the other?”
This was the perfect medicine for me today.
It explains why I feel crazy so often.
Thank you Steve for this reminder.
Steve…you dah man. Love it.
I just watched the Liz Gilbert Ted Talk.
It was awesome. A must see!
Timely, beautifully written, and incredibly relevant for me right now. Thank you so much for writing this (and all your posts!) and for sharing it with all of us. Your encouragement is priceless, and greatly appreciated.
Wow. I needed to read this.
Probably no coincidence I just saw this today, after completing an Elul writing project. Oh, so good, so timely to read this post and deeply consider the utility value of self-doubt as Humility, the flipside of Confidence.
Thank you Steve.
I will look at self-doubt differently now. As my dream has grown bigger, so has self-doubt.
Good stuff, Steve. I’m exploring my personal relationship with resistance, and this was insightful. You helped. Thanks.
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“For every measure of self-doubt we experience consciously, there is an equal and opposite measure of self-belief growing and enlarging itself unconsciously.”
I loved that. I’ve read both the War of Art and the Virtues of War, by the way, but not (yet) Turning Pro. Thank your for this highly motivational article and the above great quote.
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