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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Inquiry As A Replacement For Self Doubt

Comments (21)

I had several conversations with entrepreneurs this week who were struggling with a specific issue that had plagued them for a while. In each case these are strong, capable entrepreneurs who I’ve known for a long time. As with all entrepreneurs (and humans), they have strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots. In each case, I felt like self-doubt had crept into their brains around the specific weakness they were struggling with.

On the way to the airport, I had call with another entrepreneur that I work with. Same tenor – something that he’s struggled with for a while was causing him to lose confidence. We talked most of the way to the airport and by the end of the conversation, it was clear that, while this is an issue that has been a struggle for a while, it’s one that this person has actually done a good job on, but just has never crushed it. The frustration – over a period of time – started to morph into self doubt.

When I realized this, I gave him some specific suggestions, using the frame of reference of “inquiry.” This is how I deal with my own self doubt. Whenever I find myself struggling with something that I think is important, I go on an inquiry to learn as much as I can about the issue, figure out what I’m struggling with, figure out a solution that works for me, and then implement it. I’ve done this numerous times in my life – sometimes the inquiries are short (24 hours); other times they last a decade or more.

When I thought about what might be generating this self doubt in otherwise successful, smart, and intellectually / emotionally strong people, I realized that the context that we are in is often a driver. Suddenly lots of companies are having what appears to be success and rapid growth. If you are an entrepreneur and you are not running one of these, even if you are experienced and successful, it’s easily to start to doubt yourself. This is especially true when you find yourself in a bumpy spot in your business.

Perspective matters a lot at these moments. I’ve had a lot of successes and failures. Whenever I fail at something, I just get up, try to learn something from it, and try again. But I don’t benchmark myself against others – I don’t care where I am on any particular list, I don’t care what other people are saying, I don’t care what is written about me (good or bad). I just try to learn from each experience and get better. And, when I realize that I’m doubting my ability to do something, I double down on the notion of figuring it out and use an inquiry to get me there.

  • http://twitter.com/tobiaspeggs tobias peggs

    great post.

    the best ceos i have worked with always had a reference framework for inquiry to help with quick problem resolution… and constantly coached folks in their team to use the same technique. I hope i emulate that now as a ceo.

    But, looking back, they’ve all sometimes forgotten to apply that technique to their own dilemmas. And as a team member, you suffer too (through lack of clear guidance from that ceo, or a sudden dip in inspiration levels). Unfortunately, i *know* i emulate that. 

    Your post is a good reminder. 

    (also: i think the additional context you mentioned – that of general success in the industry driving self doubt in those who are not themselves on a rocket – is spot on)

  • http://twitter.com/jpmalek Jeff Malek

    Great stuff. More frequently over the last few years I find myself promoting inquiry over debate or opinion, preferring the lower-fricton, ego-less path to resolution/action via discovery with folks.  Applying that friendlier, logical approach to your internal forum to get through times of self-doubt is a great idea.  Articulating and broadcasting this approach is a great lesson in inward/outward mentorship.  Thank you.

  • http://www.interpretllc.com Michael Dowling

    the pull of human nature is just too strong – even though grades in school were intended to measure our progress, it has also resulted in conditioning us to compare ourselves against others as a means to gauge our relative importance, success, intelligence. This is where self-doubt creeps in most insidiously, especially in this age of celebrity youth-CEO. Ask anyone who has a friend at Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn these days and I’m sure you will hear, “I’m nearly 30, why haven’t I made millions yet?” That has to be one of the more debilitating thoughts bouncing around inside the heads of CEOs, which is why having advisors who can offer the voice of reason is so critically important to companies at all stages.

  • http://about.me/saketmundra Saket Mundra

    Hi Brad, unfortunately ‘success’ is mostly perceived as a relative virtue whereas in real terms ‘success’ is an absolute & individualistic trait. This belief has not only helped me many a times but led to improvements that otherwise seemed difficult. Couldn’t agree with you more.

  • http://buysteroidsuk.blog.co.uk/ buy steroids uk

    it’s very easy to feel self doubt esp if you have people telling you your ideas suck etc

  • http://www.totaltab.com Nick Reuter

    I think this can be somewhat of a forest for the trees scenario. We are all, after all, only human – and we are all prone to error and failure. Some people don’t handle it well, and others just roll with it. Or we might handle it well or not at a given point in time considering the outside factors at that same time. A situation or self-doubt you have after you fail to make a sale is different from self-doubt you might have if you had to lay off half your office, for example. 

    I wonder sometimes how much other entrepreneurs have similar feelings. I love blog posts like this and the entrepreneurs that open their hearts because it lets you know you aren’t alone. For example – I know I get anxious when I see other companies growing and succeeding very quickly. I want that to be @totaltab:twitter - but then I realize that we are taking it one day at a time and even with the “Do More Faster” mentality, you still can’t build Rome in a day :)

  • http://about.me/njquigley Nate Quigley

    I really like this post. I’m thinking of your “inquiry” like turning to face the enemy, figuring it out, breaking it down, fighting it. Not letting it nag at you and wear you down over time. Instead pulling it out into the open and saying “it’s on”. Great thought today on Feld Thoughts!

  • http://hansoolee.com hansoo

    Self-management is so important but not talked about enough publicly. Thanks for sharing! 

    In a future post, I’d love to hear about an example of when you used the “inquiry” method to handle a difficult issue – what resources did you use, who did you speak with, how did you formulate your solution, and how did the implementation go?”Stories of Inquiry”, from either you or guest posters, would be a great mini-series on Feld Thoughts!

  • http://www.sixstringcpa.com Geoffrey

    A wonderful ‘coaching’ post!

    Although I personally despise the overuse of the term ‘crushing it’ I thought the latter portion of the following was a powerful insight to be shared:
    “it’s one that this person has actually done a good job on, but just has never crushed it. The frustration – over a period of time – started to morph into self doubt.”

    And this blurb was brilliant because many may begin to question their effectiveness if they do not grow as fast as “X” or gets as much press coverage as “Y”: 
    “Suddenly lots of companies are having what appears to be success and rapid growth. If you are anentrepreneur and you are not running one of these, even if you are experienced and successful, it’s easily to start to doubt yourself. This is especially true when you find yourself in a bumpy spot in your business.”

  • Rich

    Nice post.

    Recently I’ve learned to “read” my emotions. Self-doubt would be one of those. Emotions are always telling us something. Emotions are the way our subconscious communicates. The subconscious has access to much more computing power than our conscious mind. Our subconscious mind constantly works on immense amounts of input and it *see* things our conscious mind misses.

    When you’re emotions are telling you something, like raising doubt. It’s best to stop what you’re doing and take some time to figure out what they are saying. Some people call these tickling warnings gut feelings or vibes.

    Once I figured out the power of reading my emotions. I have had uncountable experiences where my emotions were right, but I didnt’ see it clearly until I took some time to read them.

    I’m sure everyone can think of a time when they got a bad feeling. But were in a hurray and went against it only to have things come crashing down because of not listening to their emotions.

  • http://fashioningchange.com/blog/kevin Kevin Ball

    This is a good technique.  I have found that I’ve gotten a lot better at doing this since I started using 750words.com to get myself to write every morning… when writing a journal that noone is going to read it is somehow a lot easier to start inquiring about why I’m feeling down and how to improve, rather than just stewing in it.

  • http://one.valeski.org Jud Valeski

    Clint Eastwood: “As you get older, you’re not afraid of doubt. Doubt isn’t running the show. You take out all the self-agonizing.”

  • http://twitter.com/mitmads Mads

    Brad, the last paragraph reminded of of some portions from Alain De Botton’s Status Anxiety book.

  • Jonvanv

    Good observations.

    Engineers are generally tasked with the “figuring it out” part of the technical work, and there are tools that help to do this.  The key, as you point out, is to either redefine the context or to address the context in a completely different manner.  Inquiry is good, not only research but face-to-face/mouth-to-mouth inquiry of anyone and everyone.  Many times the good idea or innovation comes from those least familiar with the problem, because their understanding of the context or how they view the context is completely different from the exhausted traditional approaches.

    If people developed their abilities to facilitate others, optimize group think, and discuss problems without leading solutions they may find that they have a lot less anxiety associated with personal performance. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000303123631 Cemer Yilmaz

    Self-management is so important but not talked about enough publicly. Thanks for sharing! 

    In
    a future post, I’d love to hear about an example of when you used the
    “inquiry” method to handle a difficult issue – http://www.seyretsinema.com what resources did you
    use, who did you speak with, how did you formulate your solution, and
    how did the implementation go?”Stories of Inquiry”, from either you or
    guest posters, would be a great mini-series on Feld Thoughts!

  • http://www.risktail.com Eric

    Poincaré said that to doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.  I have experienced lot of self doubt lately, but I also remember being blindly overconfident.  But I am learning.  Reflection.  Inquiry.  Thanks Henri.  Thanks Brad.

  • http://twitter.com/statspotting StatSpotting.com

    Great perspective. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://salubri.com Mike Levine

    I’ve been following your posts for the past few months (basically since you presented at the AccelerateMTL conference) – and just recently listened to your “The Startup Success” Podcast. I kept coming back to your website because each time I had a topic in mind, you’ve managed to somehow either graze it, or in the case of this post, hit it right on. 

    I’ve been working on my Canadian-based startup for quite some time now. I finished university, grad school, and got my professional designation and full-time employment right out of university with a well-paying Big Four company. Not a day in my life was there any uncertainty. And that really bothered me (or at least I thought it did). I was fortunate in University I made one really good investment decision (an Alberta-based natural gas company), and that’s basically allowed me to leave my job and focus 100% of my efforts on working with the startup. That’s where the problem comes in.

    Our company been operational for 3 months now, with minimal traction to say the least. I have a very hard time focusing on the day-to-day motivation, and I think the reason is because the problem (that is definitely solvable) begins to plague and toy with your emotions. Like you said, I think it begins to morph into self-doubt, and thats a scary phenomenon. I know I’m not alone, far from it. We’re a team of three well qualified individuals, but the problem lies in the fact that all three of us are located in different cities. Thankfully, with all the technology available in the cloud, this does not hinder our ability to operate (at least from a business perspective). But I think something that’s not really talked about is the psychological aspect of being alone working (meaning not in the same physical location as the rest of the team). 

    I know the hardest part by far is getting over the first business hurdle hurdle. Finding the internal drive to do so, while being alone, when your mind wonders from one place to another every ten minutes has proven to be extremely challenging for me at least. No joke, just writing this post is actually making me feel a lot better, I actually wish I would have written it at 6am this morning when I woke up instead of waiting until almost 2pm. 

    One thing I want to know – is when people talk about “Successes” and “Failures”, they never address the purgatory stage when you are in between the two. Once you hit one of those two extremities, you can react or accelerate accordingly and move on. But what about during the intermediary purgatory phases? 

    In the end, I guess its nice to read that these negative thoughts that go through my head, are likely going through those of my teams, and those of my fellow startupers around North America (if not the world). But in the end – its about finding that confidence, and doing so quickly, so as to not waste valuable time in a given day, and thats something I know I personally need to work on. Well, whatever the response is, I feel better writing all this. . . !

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      It’s insightful to hear that “just writing this response helped.”
      Introspection is a hugely positive force and writing your thoughts down and
      getting them out into the world is incredibly powerful, if only for you.

      Many entrepreneurs are in the in-between state. There’s a lot about this in
      Do More Faster (www.domorefasterbook.com). One of the biggest challenges of
      a first time entrepreneur – in my experience – is staying focused on moving
      forward when you are thrashing around in that vague uncertain ambiguous
      confusing part of the business.

      Keep at it. Three months isn’t very long – make sure you celebrate all of
      your small victories along the way.

  • http://reecepacheco.com reecepacheco

    “perspective” is so underrated. 

    it’s so easy to lose perspective on things – whether you can’t step back to ‘see the big picture’ or you can’t ‘see the forest from the trees’ – it sucks when you’re stuck on an issue for days and days.

    this is where mentors can come in to remind you that all is well, the room hasn’t collapsed and the only thing you can do is keep going. 

  • http://en-gb.facebook.com/people/Nic-Brisbourne/608641437 Nic Brisbourne

    Nice post.  I like the idea of characterising doubt as a problem of lack of information.  It makes it easy to figure out how to fix it (or at least how to start…)

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