Why Self-Doubt Might Be the First Step to Success

UPDATED: June 17, 2016
PUBLISHED: June 17, 2016

Elizabeth Gilbert is a few feet away from me. My heart is pounding (I might even be sweating a little bit) and I can feel my hands shaking.

My shortness of breath is partly due to my first time being in the presence of a female New York Times best-seller (something I aspire to be), but also because below my mouth is a microphone—something I haven’t used in a really long time.

I am an author, and for a while I was doing exactly what Elizabeth Gilbert is doing here—traveling and speaking to people about my book. But the last time I spoke in a room like this one, I knew it was the last time I would give that speech. I had said all I had to say about my first book. I wasn’t feeling emotional during the climax of the story anymore. It was time to move on.

Related: 9 Ways to Deal with Change

I felt a little confused and guilty about this decision until last month, when I interviewed a musician (Will Wells, who worked on Hamilton and toured with Imagine Dragons) who, when I told him about leaving speaking, being in transition, working on my second book, said something like, “Oh yes of course! You just finished touring your first album!”

I wanted to hug him right then and there. It gave me so much relief.

When I was standing at the microphone just a few feet away from Elizabeth Gilbert, it had been a while since my last “tour,” since my voice was amplified to a large group of people. And despite being in Tallahassee for the TV show I’ve been hosting for years, I felt more exposed and scared in this moment than I ever have on camera or on stage.

When Elizabeth finishes her masterful talk (no PowerPoint, no props, just a woman and a bottle of water capturing an entire theater of hearts with the authenticity of storytelling), I immediately stand up to walk to the mic before everything inside me tells me to sit back down.

You might think someone who is very comfortable speaking on stages and TV shows and who has interviewed New York Times best-selling authors before would not be nervous. But for some reason, in this moment, asking a question I’ve been thinking about for two years, in front of an audience, and to a woman who does the job I aspire to do? It sends butterflies up through my shoes to my fingers.

But I do it anyway.

As Renée Elise Goldsberry of Hamilton said, “Just show up, afraid.”

Renée Elise Goldsberry is a very smart woman.

I show up to the mic, afraid.

I open my mouth and ask Elizabeth Gilbert the question I’ve been thinking about and struggling with for two years:

Lin-Manuel Miranda said that self-doubt is like ‘rocket fuel’ and that it can blow up your ship if you don’t channel it right. Have you ever felt like self-doubt was about to blow up your proverbial ship, and if so how do you channel it right?”

Related: Fake It and 5 Other Ways to Conquer Self-Doubt

(As you might have already guessed, I’m really inspired by the people who made Hamilton; they came into my life at a time when I thought trying and caring and being vulnerable were the worst and weakest parts about me; a time when I thought that the answer to the pain of self-doubt was to stop writing. Stop trying. Stop caring. That in such an unjust world, the smartest thing for me to do was quiet the trying and caring part of me and do what it seemed everyone else was doing:

Try less. Don’t care anymore. Put away unbridled enthusiasm. Choose cynicism. That’s what adults are supposed to do.

I didn’t know it then, but that’s what it looks like just before you wave the white flag, before injustice wins—when the ship is just about to blow and you’ve doused every wooden plank in rocket fuel; the match is lit, and in your hands.)

Then Elizabeth answers my question and I throw the match into the ocean.

She says she’s learned in her career that self-doubt is not a sign you are doing things wrong—that the nasty voice is not speaking truth, but that also (even with the kind of wild success she’s had) it doesn’t ever go away. She has learned to live with it, she explains, by reframing it.

She tells me how she views self-doubt: as a good sign, a reminder, that you “have skin in the game.”

I’m almost positive she does not intend to mirror a Hamilton lyric when she says this, but my mind immediately goes there: “When you’ve got skin in the game you stay in the game, but you don’t get a win unless you play in the game.”

She looks me directly in the eyes the whole time as she gifts me with the kind of wisdom one only earns after years and years of skin in the game—of writing and bruises and cuts.

Her eyes glisten the whole time she speaks—as if illuminating the years she has put into her creative work. Or maybe it was just the overhead lights.

Or maybe those are the same things.

Despite the applause that erupts as I walk back to my seat, proof that there are hundreds of other people in the room who also really love the way Elizabeth answered my question, I feel as if she only spoke to me, like we have been in a quiet corner of a living room, writer to writer, and she’s telling me to keep going.

Sometimes I forget that I haven’t actually met Elizabeth Gilbert, that she isn’t my friend, my mentor, that we haven’t hugged.

At the end of the night I drive back to my hotel, thinking about Elizabeth, pondering the concept of “skin in the game,” breaking down the metaphor, as I sometimes do when I’m driving (metaphors are my jam).

In my rental car, in the dark, I wonder about possible literal meanings of the “skin in the game,” where it comes from. I can’t Google it because I’m driving. I think about the HBO show Game of Thrones and I start to imagine someone taking off their armor, exposing their actual skin in the game (of thrones). “Skin in the game” always sounded so strong to me: tough, rugged, athletic, brave, stoic. All words I’ve never used to describe myself. 

Related: How I Learned That ‘Ambition’ Is Not a Dirty Word

But this night, on an empty Tallahassee road, I realize for the first time that “skin in the game” is also ultimate vulnerability.

I start to reframe my own self-doubt. I start to see it as a sign that I am taking off protective armor. That maybe my self-doubt is actually a sign of bravery. 

That maybe whenever you feel crushed by the voice that says, “You’re not good enough,” it’s really just a lie to distract you from the amazing thing you’re trying to do: Take off your protective armor and say, “Here I am, unprotected,” offering up your whole self, in hopes that it gives someone else the courage to do the same.       

Skin is also terrifyingly fragile considering what it holds inside. Despite how much I close my eyes at the violent parts of Game of Thrones, it’s very clear how fragile life is when you walk unarmed through a cruel and chaotic world. 

Proverbial skin in the game makes injury more likely. You’re unguarded. Unprotected. And winter is coming. That is where the fear comes in, the terror of putting yourself or your work out there, exposed. 

I saw a documentary on female entrepreneurs last night, and in it Suzanne West, talks about how our culture makes vulnerability seem weak and why that is such a disservice—because to her, “Vulnerable is the most powerful you can be.”

At first, being vulnerable does not feel powerful. So if you’re terrified, it is not a sign you’re doing it wrong. I like to think it’s a sign you’re doing it exactly right.

If you look closer at the people you admire most, in whatever field to which you aspire, you will probably find what I have found: that they feel terror all the time—they just do what Renée Elise Goldsberry does, something I’m trying to do more of too:

“Show up, afraid.” Skin and all.

To feel the warmth of a hug, maybe we must risk the cuts. The scrapes. The bruises.

When it hurts the most and all I want to do is reach for my armor, I can’t help but wonder if scars might be the best kind of skin to have in the game—the kind that, when exposed, makes the biggest difference.

Related: 7 Traits of the Most Resilient People

Isa Adney is an author and TV host named by GOOD magazine as one of the Top 100 People Moving the World Forward. She is currently writing a book about dreams. Follow her on Twitter or learn more at IsaAdney.com.