It started on a weekend. I suddenly started worrying about a new feature we were beginning to work on Monday.
All sorts of questions started to emerge. Did enough customers need this feature to justify building it? Had we understood the requirements enough? Did we have the right support from other teams? What if we were going to do a lot of work that would be worth nothing? What if?
I wish this story were atypical. I wish that I was hit with doubt and second-guessing myself less often.
Or do I?
Doubt serves like a set of brakes. They help you from running off the road, but in excess, they can slow you down tremendously.
So seek not to eliminate doubt but to optimize it.
There are five things you must do to optimize doubt:
Imposter syndrome — defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success — is widespread among product managers. I have personally noticed it when coaching PMs, so many of us worry about our abilities to do things that we have done with tremendous amounts of success before.
Personally, when I have taken on roles that cause me to stretch myself, I have had crippling doubt. A senior executive wants my advice as a consultant — doubt! People love the work I did on the last release? Doubt and imposter syndrome! Did someone write good things about my class? Doubt, Imposter syndrome, and a general inclination to hide under the bed. You want me to lead this team of product managers? Forget about it!
But here’s the deal. It’s okay to have some doubts.
Its when doubts cause you to miss opportunities that could be life-changing; that’s when the problem begins. As the greatest philosopher of all time (Tim Ferris) asks:
When is an unlikely and temporary 3 or 4 discomfort (on a scale of 1–10) causing you to miss a shot at a probable and permanent 9 or 10?
That’s the question you need to ask.
I sometimes ask this question of my daughter when she is catastrophizing, “How bad is this on a scale of 1–5?”
She usually replies, “2.”
So can you handle it?
Yes, I can.
I wish I would ask myself that more often when I doubt myself.
I wish you would ask that when you doubt yourself and NOT miss shots that have a life-changing impact.
It’s easy for me to sit here and give you advice on what to do to overcome doubts. It’s easy to come up with ideas and things to do when you are in the situation.
But the only way you would ultimately succeed in making changes is if you start from a place of empathy and kindness. Begin by recognizing that as a Product Manager, you are in a situation where it is natural to doubt yourself. You are making decisions with unclear information. You never really know whether it was right — it takes a long time to get that information. And a lot of people think they can do better because it seems to be logic and “common sense.”
The only way you would succeed is if you give yourself time to doubt. Make sure that this time is limited to a pre-set duration.
As my coach taught me — next time you feel sorry for yourself, give yourself five minutes to feel sorry for yourself. And that’s it. Once that time is up, you move in, conquer doubt, and do that thing that’s uncomfortable.
But those five minutes matter. In those five minutes, you must act as your own best friend. You must talk to yourself in the second person so that you can get some distance from the problem and advice yourself as if you were your own best friend.
The next part is essential.
It is about your identity.
You might assume that you do things a certain way and behave a certain way because “that’s just you are.” I can tell you that you are missing out on tremendous opportunities for growth. You are missing opportunities to be able to slay doubts and grow.
The question you must ask is, “What role do I want to take on in this situation?”
How we speak changes how we feel and act. You can decide to move and feel differently. Questions that can help here are:
I’ve seen plenty of successful people not feel successful. Externally they seemed to have everything and had accomplished what I just hoped to achieve.
Internally though, they never felt successful.
This lack of feeling successful is because they had never internalized their successes. It’s like they’ve been watching a move of their lives but only playing attention the villain. The hero might as well not have been in it.
You must step into this by bringing your successes to the forefront. Ask yourself a question every day, “What did I do that I am proud of?”
Don’t go at this alone. Build a tribe of Product Managers who you meet with at least weekly.
But you have to go deeper than the standard conversation at conferences. That kind of dialogue is not useful because you don’t get a full picture.
On social media, you see their successes. At conferences, you hear what they want to say. So you start comparing your reality with an image that you created in your mind.
That is why you must regularly connect with a group that is willing to go deeper. That is willing to help each other to learn and grow. That is willing to accept realities of the Product Manager role and not create expectations of wild successes.
Seek to optimize doubt, not to completely kill it, or to let it take over your life. Give yourself some time to doubt yourself, but then step into the role that would enable you to act in that situation.
Work on yourself continuously. Own your successes and build your support systems, so you become the best version of yourself.
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