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Starting your own business – Part 4: Handling doubt

By 123 Reg - October 22, 2014
Barry Adams

Barry Adams of Polemic Digital

In the fourth in a series of posts, Polemic Digital founder Barry Adams explains how he tackles the doubt he has encountered while launching his own business.You can read part one of Barry’s experiences of starting his own business herepart two is here, and the third part here.

When you start out on your own, it’s going to hit you sooner or later. It can come as a sudden wave of panic, or it can build up over time in small accumulations. But inevitably, at some stage, maybe after a couple of weeks or maybe years down the line, you’re going to have massive doubts.

You’re going to reach a point where you ask yourself, “am I doing the right thing?”. You will look at what you’ve done and wonder if you’ve gone totally mad and should just give up right now and go find a proper job again and rejoin the workforce like a normal person.

This is not a matter of if, but when. And it might happen more than once. Doubt will hit you, and you will need to work through it.

The first time I experienced doubt was actually at a stage where I had no right to feel it at all. I just signed another client and my portfolio of work was looking particularly healthy. My income had been steady at a higher level than my old agency job for a while and this new client would boost it even further.

That’s when I had a minor panic attack and doubted everything I’d accomplished on my own.

The many faces of doubt

Doubt can come in many different forms. Mine had two distinct elements:

1. Did the benefits and drawbacks of being my own boss weigh up against those of being in employment?

2. Was I really good enough at what I chose to do to make this a lasting career move?

The first one I tackled quite quickly: I took stock of where I was at that moment, the clients I had signed up (and the one I had lost), the outstanding invoices, work in progress, jobs in the pipeline, and prospective client work.

After that assessment I felt much more at ease. I once again felt convinced that I was doing the right thing, that my financial situation would be secure, that I was doing worthwhile work for clients, and that becoming my own boss was a good move.

The second doubt is, however, not so easily dismissed. It’s a common enough phenomenon that it has its own name: impostor syndrome.

People who suffer from this syndrome don’t believe they really are as good as the world thinks they are. Successes are attributed to luck, and failures are seen as proof that it’s all just a big scam and at some point people are going to see the truth and reveal you as a fake – an impostor.

It’s closely related to the Dunning-Kruger effect: the phenomenon where people of low skill vastly overrate their own capabilities, and people of advanced skill often doubt their own abilities.

In the words of Bertrand Russell:

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell

Am I an impostor?

While taking stock of my current projects and job pipeline made me more confident that being self-employed was a good move, it didn’t take care of the second form of doubt.

Was I actually any good at this search engine optimisation (SEO) thing? Could I help make client sites a success? Did I really have the capabilities necessary to add lasting value to my clients’ websites?

Over the years my work has earned a fair share of accolades. I’ve built a good reputation in my industry, and nearly all of the projects I’ve been involved in have seen considerable success. There are literally dozens of case studies I could show to demonstrate the effectiveness of what my SEO work can do.

On top of that I’ve been the recipient of several awards for the projects I headed up and the teams that I built. These awards were judged by industry peers who really should be able to distinguish a fraud from the real deal.

So by all accounts I should not have any doubt at all.

Wearing the mask

Externally, the face I project is indeed entirely lacking in doubt. In fact, my public personality can probably be accurately described as having a considerable dose of self-confidence, bordering on arrogance.

Yet internally, this is somewhat of a façade. Inside I am continuously in doubt. It’s not a total refutation of all I’ve accomplished – I think a part of me is quite proud of what I’ve done and the professional success I’ve enjoyed – but there is nonetheless a critical voice in my head, one that never shuts up.

It’s that voice that is constantly undermining my confidence. When a client’s website gains traffic and grows its revenue, this voice asks whether that is due to my efforts or if it would have happened anyway. When I deliver training or a workshop, the voice is critiquing my delivery and wonders if anyone understands a word of what I’m trying to explain. When I’m speaking at an industry conference, the voice is right there with me to point out that I’m talking pure rubbish and the attendees are bored out of their minds.

If you’ve ever met me, I reckon you’d never guess that I have such issues with self-esteem. I wear a confident mask, and I wear it well.

Maybe at some stage, somewhere down the line, I’ll actually start believing the mask, and will make it my real face. Until then, I take nothing for granted. I do my best for every client, but I am always afraid that my best is simply not good enough.

When you start out on your own, you will have your own personal moments of doubt. How you handle them is entirely up to you, but I would give you one word of advice: persist. Don’t give up too easily. Hang in there and continue to do the best job you can. That’s all anyone can ask for.

Editor’s note: Last month, Barry was named Digital Person of the Year at the DANI awards. Congratulations to Barry from all at 123-reg.