Earlier this week, I heard one of those things that stopped me in my tracks, and immediately made me think: That’s important. That’s helpful. I want to share that with my tribe.

I was talking with a remarkable woman who is the founder and CEO of one of the U.S.’s largest women-owned companies. She said, “I think that for anyone in any type of leadership position, if they don’t have doubts and question what they are doing, they aren’t doing a good job.”

I’d heard that kind of thing before, but this time, I heard it in a new way.

As she spoke more, I got the sense of her continually being in a space of inquiry about her company’s direction, strategic choices, and more. She was asking in an ongoing way, are we on the right path? What might we not be noticing in terms of opportunities or obstacles coming up?

But here’s what’s really captivated me: I could hear in her voice that she did all that “doubting” without a shred of self-doubt. She embraced doubt about the decisions made, the directions being pursued, the assumptions being held about the market and her customers, but didn’t think that having those doubts meant she wasn’t a capable leader.

In fact, she saw doubting as a necessary behavior for effective leaders. So if anything, it strengthened her confidence in herself as a leader.

Listening to her, I understood this: if you are awake to your work, you’ll be confronted with a lot of decisions where there is not – or not yet – a clear right answer. If you are a teacher, you’ll be doubting whether certain things about your teaching are really working, and looking for better solutions. If you are a manager, you’ll be doubting whether your approach is as empowering as it could be for your people, and exploring what could be. If you are an entrepreneur, you’ll be asking big questions about what your customers really want, and what they want at a deeper level underneath that.

But doubt about the work doesn’t have to turn into self-doubt.

Doubt vs Self-Doubt

The problem for so many of us is that we think that our uncertainty about whether we’re doing right, or as well as we could, means that we aren’t the right person to do the work – to create, innovate, lead, teach, write – whatever it is we are doing. We don’t tell ourselves the very empowering story that this CEO was telling herself: that the right kind of leader continually questions and doubts, looks critically, and stays open.

I picture it like two tracks that crisscross each other here and there along the way: on one, you are doing your day to day work – delivering your product or service into the world. On the other track – probably the one you move onto when you’re on a walk, or in the shower, or on a long drive home – you reflect on that work. You think on the questions about what the right strategy is, what would best serve the people you want to serve, and how to really meet the need in the world that you want to meet. Yes, you doubt, yet you also know that thoughtful consideration of what’s unclear, what’s uncertain, is simply part of doing the job well.




photo credit: Chris Lu


Join the discussion 21 Comments

  • Hi Tara,

    Thank you so much for this. I was just finishing journaling about why I’ve quit in the past, why I no longer do and what changed. The self-doubt is still there. I think I now have to start questioning if it is really self-doubt, or just doubt that is keeping me moving forward. This is incredible.

  • Elfin Bow says:

    Hi Tara, you have no idea how perfectly timed this was. I was literally in a moment of ‘doubt’ when your mail zoomed into my inbox and made me think differently about what I was doing. i love your book and use strategies from it often. I’m even hosting my own artists network meeting tonight which is a direct result of working through the journalling exercises. Thank you 🙂

  • Tania says:


    Thank you for breaking this down–such nuance, and so powerful to be fractionally misaligned in that way–I already feel a weight off the shoulders. How powerful to deflect that habitual self-doubt and put it to work in a constructive way. It’s mental Aikido! I found your work through Quest 2015 last year; I ordered Playing Big on my kindle and I confess I’m old-fashioned and love to hold a book in my hands, so I’m so excited that your book is out in paperback. Love what I’ve read so far! Thank you for your beautiful work.

  • Lisa Peterson says:

    Thank you, Tara! I actually said, “ahhhh” out loud while reading your email. Having recently been promoted to the job I wanted and felt deserving of, I still have had many thoughts of ‘there’s so much I don’t know’, ‘am I doing it right?’, etc. Your email sheds an important perspective on our tendency to confuse questioning processes and questioning our capabilities. Thank you SO MUCH for passing this wisdom on!!! Lisa

  • Niamh says:

    Tara, this was a real breakthrough – separating self-doubt from doubt about your work. I think this is crucial – and, actually, I never made the distinction before! This opens up so much space for me.

  • sophia says:

    Tara, this is really a brilliant one. “inquiry”: what a powerful perspective on doubt!

  • Juls says:

    Oh yey! Couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m preparing to speak at a large conference and doubt has been nipping me in the heels for a couple of weeks. Thank you for showing me that it’s normal and to differentiate if from self-doubt. I’ve gotten lost there, thinking it was self-doubt and that has been painful. Thank you Tara!

  • Lara says:

    Thank you for sharing this perspective Tara! I completely agree with the concept of that having doubts is a sign that you are doing a good job. As a mother, I see this for myself everyday – not that self-doubt doesn’t come into play as well sometimes. I try not to let the self-doubt get in the way of marching forward. It’s about asking questions, reflecting, and making decisions in the face of doubt. A little faith along the way is helpful too!

  • Monique says:

    Great post and even greater timing. Thank you. This post literally put into words the doubt I have been feeling and why….I am a great leader.

    Take Care and make it a great one.

  • What a profound awareness. . . and beautiful distinction.

    Thank you!

  • Siobain says:

    Hi Tara
    That is spot-on for me at this time. I was just asking myself when does it stop ? the whole self-questioning thing … especially when I notice that many people (men especially sorry) don’t seem to be affected by this. And it’s kinda exhausting now that I’m in my forties. But by making this distinction it puts it into perspective so Thank you xx

  • Genevieve VenJohnson says:

    Yep! I sense this distinction has been swimming just below the surface for me. I thank you for putting it in words and sharing. Stay sharp 😉

  • Meeta Kaur says:

    I love your mind, Tara Mohr! Brilliant framing and love this CEO for consistently wanting to improve. Have to go back to review the materials again. Is the site still up for the recorded sessions?

  • Karen says:

    This was just the message I needed to read at this point. Thanks for sharing this!

  • Sophie says:

    Excellent insights and guidance which really speaks to me and will help me understand which self doubt voice to listen to depending on the context. Thankyou

  • Melissa says:

    Thank you, Tara. Like others, this couldn’t have come at a better time. What an efficient reframe!! I’m on the brink of launching my rebrand and essentially starting from scratch, and, as before, I found myself questioning. It’s immensely helpful to see this in a new light, and simply allow the questioning to arise as an aspect of process, rather than attempt to stuff it down (we all know how well that works). I’m ready to go back over your book for some needed reflection. Love your work.

  • Tammy says:

    Perfect and oh so true as always. Sharing with my daughter who is currently coaching several women in diet, health, excercise, and healthy body image. Helping others has helped her bloom and dump her self doubt♡

  • Padma says:

    Loving this distinction, Tara. As women, we tend to personalize “don’t know” into “I.. am ignorant” or “I… am not smart enough.” As you describe your CEO, it sounds like she takes the Zen Beginners Mind approach to her work. This view not only liberates us as leaders, but opens up all sorts of possibilities for others in our organizations.

  • Good points made here. There is non-healthy self-doubt, and there is healthy self-doubt. My self-doubt is pragmatic: I often ask myself if I can do things better, and if the answer is yes, I strive to improve… but I don’t let that questioning get in the way of my well-being, confidence, and performance!

  • […] On self-doubt: “The problem for so many of us is that we think that our uncertainty about whether we’re doing right, or as well as we could, means that we aren’t the right person to do the work – to create, innovate, lead, teach, write – whatever it is we are doing.” […]

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