It is in my nature to leap before I look too hard.
I follow my enthusiasm without too many questions. If something fits well with my core values, excites me and seems generally in line with what matters most to me, then I’m in. Boots and all.
Later I’ll figure out the details.
Which is not to say that I don’t go in with a plan. If a plan is called for, I’ll put together a plan. But what I won’t do is worry about whether or not it will work. On the big things in life, I waste very little time worrying.
(I’m afraid I can’t say the same thing about smaller things. Like what more I could have done to save the house plant that seems to have died in my care while house-sitting. That, I will worry about until my boyfriend gently suggests that I either do something about it or *ahem* shut up about it.)
Years ago I found out that my dream job was coming up at the New Zealand Human Rights Commission. On paper, I was not qualified for this job. But I knew I could do it and I knew it was the only job worth staying in New Zealand for at the time. So I put together a plan of how I would tackle the role, applied and convinced the panel (some of whom were understandably skeptical) that I could do the job.
There were plenty of people who were worried I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. Some of them were happy to share those doubts with me. I, however, refused to join their ranks.
I had faith that if I kept taking the next sensible step, which included taking advice from people who had more experience than me and getting people on my team who had the skills I lacked, I would get to the finish line on time (and under budget).
And I did. Though not without making many mistakes and learning many lessons along the way.
More on that in a minute.
When I took my job in the Gaza Strip I had two weeks to pack up my life and move to the other side of the world. To the middle of a conflict-zone. To do a job for which I had no experience.
I never doubted that I would figure out a way to do it.
I leap first. Before the self-doubt monsters can get their talons into me and keep me stuck. Once the leap has been taken, and the path has been selected, momentum takes over and there is no time to indulge self-doubt or fear.
There is a job to be done. So you get on with it.
I did the same when I went to Afghanistan. It wasn’t until I was sitting in the airport in Dubai, about to board my flight to Kabul that I suddenly wondered whether I would actually be able to adjust to life in yet another war-torn country. Whether I would be able to do the job I’d signed on to do.
But even in that wobbly moment, I knew that I would find a way to manage.
Why was I so certain?
There are three main reasons. And none of them are because I’m braver, more talented, or smarter than you. Because I’m not.
But my life has equipped me with certain tools that help me beat the self-doubt monsters and have faith that everything will be okay, that even if everything is not okay, everything is actually okay.
I’ve been getting really curious lately about how I came to acquire those tools, because I want to share them with you. With anyone whose self-doubt is getting in the way of their good work in the world.
So this is not a finished, polished, wrapped-up-and-tied-with-a-bow “5 steps to beat self doubt” kind of a post. It’s more of an exploration. I’m mining my own history to see where the clues lie, and digging about a bit to see what can usefully be shared.
The first clue I came across is that I grew up in a very stable home.
Day-to-day marital disagreements and normal teen angst and rebellion aside, there was very little conflict and no violence in my home. Although my parents were by no means wealthy when I was a child, we always had enough to eat, a safe home and a warm, dry bed. My parents and sisters and I were spared any major illness or accident throughout my childhood. My parents are both alive, still together, and happy.
This is part of my story, part of my experience of the world, and it has certainly played a big part in giving me a very solid ground from which to go out into the world.
I want to acknowledge this, and to acknowledge that this is not everyone’s experience. I believe that my experience of family as a child, and now as an adult, have made it easier for me to have faith that things are going to work out okay.
But things didn’t always work out okay. In one terrible three week period – the three weeks before my wedding – my best friend (and bridesmaid) lost her brother, another dear friend lost her husband, a third friend lost her baby and a fourth committed suicide. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that inauspicious beginning, my marriage ended only four years later in heartbreak and divorce.
I abandoned the faith of my childhood, left my family and all my friends and spent eleven months traveling in Africa and the Middle East only to discover that my sense of failure and inadequacy came with me wherever I went. Back home, I spent six weeks in bed – getting up only long enough each morning and evening to hide my profound depression from my housemates.
That all to say that I am familiar with the monsters of grief, anxiety, self-doubt and despair. Very familiar.
My leaps of faith haven’t always worked out the way I expected them to either.
When I finally got my dream job, in Afghanistan, I spent the first six months on the job profoundly depressed. I went through a complete crisis of faith not only in my own ability to do the job but also in the job itself – I wondered whether there was any point at all to the humanitarian work we were purportedly there to do.
Things were not okay. And yet, when I finally stopped fighting the questions and the sadness and allowed myself to simply be sad and confused, I realised that actually everything was okay. Even when things are not at all okay in the way I wanted and expected them to be okay, they are still okay.
What does that mean ‘Things are still okay’? What can that possibly mean when people in Afghanistan are being killed by poverty, disease, narco-crime and war every day? It doesn’t mean that I accept that suffering as unavoidable or acceptable. It doesn’t mean that I stop doing all that I can do to bring more justice, more kindness, more safety to the world.
What it means to me is that I can focus on what I am doing and – most importantly – how I am doing it, and then I can let go of needing to control or even worry about the outcome. The outcome is much bigger than me.
Which brings me to the third clue I came across in my excavations.
Recently I came across the notes from an evaluation of that big project I took on at the Human Rights Commission. Even now I wince at some of the harshest criticism of my short-comings as a project manager. At the time I certainly went to sleep crying some nights, but I always woke up in the morning thinking only about how I could assimilate the criticism to make the project better.
The truth is, in some areas of that role I sucked. But what the project was about – setting a new strategic agenda for human rights in New Zealand, one that included issues like poverty and social and economic disparities – was so much bigger than me that I never wavered from my commitment to do my very best.
This is the third clue I’ve found about how I get past self-doubt: I remember that what is happening is bigger than me.
One of my teachers is Seane Corn, and Seane often says to us;
“There is so much work to be done right now and the question is not ‘Who am I to do this work?’, but ‘Who am I not to do this work?’ How dare I let my self-doubts and fears get in the way of the work that needs to be done.”
This morning I was listening to Jen Louden interview Christina Baldwin for The Teacher’s Path – and Christina talked about the same thing, getting out of our own way so that we can be a conduit for the bigger thing that is wanting to happen.
“We are up to something as a species that is profoundly important right now. We need to attend to this and … my life is part of a decision that’s going on in the human race. I know the kinds of values and contributions I want to make in that decision. And that’s where I have to stand. So, when I get dragged down, I just say to myself … ‘What are you up to? What are you born to be doing at this time?’ And then I get regrounded and that voice just shuts off because I’m not in the same room with it.”
When I heard Seane and Christina’s words I recognised something that I have often experienced in my own life: I can find the audacity to do work that seems far too big for me because I know that the work is bigger than me and because I know that I’m not doing it alone.
This is what faith looks like to me right now: I am not the whole story. I am only a very small part of the story. And I need only do the work that I was born to be doing right now – with integrity, with compassion, with courage.
As Karen Maezen Miller once said: Faith is taking the next step.
So – those are some initial thoughts on the clues I’m uncovering from my own life about how I get past self-doubt and find the audacity and faith to do things I’m not sure I’m ‘big’ enough for.
What I’d love from you are reflections on your own life. How do you move past self-doubt? Where do you find faith?