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How to Use Design Thinking to Conquer Self-Doubt

John Steinbeck was an American author whose works include renowned classics like The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Of Mice and Men. The Grapes of Wrath is considered part of the American literary canon, and it won both the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and is often included in lists of the best books of the 20th century. Steinbeck also received the Nobel Prize in Literature, with the foundation citing “his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.”

It’s pretty safe to say: John Steinbeck was a good writer.

It’s surprising, then, that Steinbeck wrote in a 1938 journal entry: “I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” Later, another journal entry reveals: “I am assailed by my own ignorance and inability….Sometimes, I seem to do a little good piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity.”

It seems that even John Steinbeck struggled with self-doubt.

How self-doubt holds you back

Steinbeck’s description of self-doubt, being “assailed by [your] own ignorance and inability,” is pretty spot on. Self-doubt is something that everyone feels from time to time—that we simply aren’t smart enough, good enough, or capable enough to do the things we want to do. 

It’s practically universal. It’s definitely harmful.

Harmful, because few things are as crippling as self-doubt. When you doubt yourself, it doesn’t matter how capable you are—your self-doubt will keep you from being able to recognize that capability. You’ll second guess your intelligence, undermine your talent, and dismiss progress or success. 

As a business owner, I’ve seen my peers give up on their business ideas because of self-doubt. As an employer, I’ve seen employees fail to live up to their true potential because they can’t even recognize what that potential is. And as a husband and father, I’ve seen my wife second guess her ability to give everything needed to succeed, and to be all we need her to be. (She’s amazing, by the way, as are all caring wives and mothers.)

It makes me wonder: how much better could our world be if we let go of the self-doubt, acknowledged the power that exists in each of us, and lived under the full force of that power? How many more successful businesses would there be? What about stellar employees with remarkable ideas? Or mothers who felt fulfilled and empowered?

How to use design thinking to conquer self doubt.

Design.org is centered around the idea that you don’t wait for happiness to come to you; rather, you create it for yourself, designing your future (and your future self) to be exactly what you want it to be.

Those same principles of design thinking can be used when you’re working to conquer self-doubt. 

Here’s how.

Begin with the end in mind.

Starting with the end in mind is a concept that we talk about a lot, and for good reason: it’s extremely powerful. After all, you can’t get to where you want to go…if you don’t even know where that is. 

When you begin with the end in mind, you visualize what your life will be like once you’ve reached a goal, finished a project, or accomplished a task. 

To do this properly, you need to go beyond the basics of simply finishing the task and checking the box. For example, I recently lost 50 pounds. When I was visualizing that end, I didn’t just say “I’ll be 50 pounds lighter.” Instead, I said things like “I’ll be able to wear those jeans I love,” “I’ll enjoy our next summer vacation much more,” or “I’ll be able to go hiking with my kids again.” 

When it comes to conquering self-doubt, start with the end in mind by visualizing how you’ll feel, what you’ll do, or how your life will be different once you’ve gotten past this hurdle. You might have thoughts like:

“I’ll feel more secure in my relationships.”
“I will finally submit that book manuscript.”
“I’ll be more social.”
“I’ll be able to accept compliments.”

Once you have a strong, compelling visualization of what your life could be like if you could conquer your self-doubt, you’re ready to move forward.

Be honest about where your self-doubt is now.

In design, we connect where we want to go (the “end” we talked about in the previous section) to where we are now. The problem is, “where we are now” can sometimes be hard to recognize and/or admit.

That said, trying to fool yourself about your current level of self-doubt isn’t going to help you make any progress or improvement. You can’t conquer what you won’t face. 

Think about the ways you doubt yourself on a daily basis. Observe yourself throughout the day and make a note of any time you second guess yourself or question your ability. Chances are, you’ll be surprised at the amount of negative self-talk you allow yourself to indulge in.

Once you have a good idea of where you want to go, and where you’re at now, you can start to connect the dots between the two and bridge the gap of self-doubt.

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Explore the possibilities.

Design thinking is largely about possibilities—about seeing what could be done and using it to inspire action. 

At my consulting firm, Drawbackwards, this looks like prototyping. We create a simplified, not-quite-functional version of something and then take it for a test run. This low-stakes testing method allows us to try various iterations of a project without betting the farm on any single one. (By the way, you can use prototyping for personal change, too!)

When it comes to conquering self-doubt, you’re likely going to want to do some brainstorming about different things you could try, and then do a form of prototyping—trying potential solutions out for a brief period of time to see what sticks.

When you’re stuck in the depths of self-doubt, it can be difficult to even think of things you might try to get out of it. Here are some ideas to get the brainstorming juices flowing:

  • Use personal affirmations (with Design.org Plus, we’ll send you some or you can write your own to be sent to you through the day)
  • Take a self-confidence course
  • Read a book on the subject
  • Find a podcast on the topic
  • Start a gratitude journal (which can improve mental health and self-esteem)
  • Ask someone who knows you well to tell you your strengths
  • List things you’ve accomplished and are proud of
  • Sign up for Design.org’s free coaching emails (start by taking our assessment)

Explore the possibilities of what you could try, put a few of those plans into action, and see what works for your schedule and lifestyle.

Take action.

Lucky for the world of literature, Steinbeck’s struggle with self-doubt didn’t keep him from taking action—in his case, writing. There are a couple important lessons here:

  1. Your self-doubt does not have to impact your ability to act. As I mentioned above, self-doubt often does impact your ability and/or willingness to act, but the point here is that it doesn’t have to. When it comes down to it, you are in control of your life. You are able to act even when you’re feeling held back by self-doubt.
  2. Just because you doubt yourself does not mean you can’t do great things. Just like John Steinbeck, you are fully, completely, 100% capable of producing great work, having great impact, and instigating great change—even with your self-doubt. 

Do either of these things mean that you shouldn’t try to get rid of your self-doubt? No. Just because you can live with it doesn’t mean you have to or you should. What these lessons do teach us, is that no matter how bad you’re feeling about yourself, you can always act.

Action, or testing your hypothesis, is an important part of design thinking: it is the part where you implement your plans or prototypes, and where you start putting the work into learning where you should go to get the results you want. 

When you take action, you are putting effort toward a desired result. The effort, or the test, is more important than the result. If nothing else, taking action shows yourself that you are capable of creating change in your life. This belief can and will help to chip away at your self-doubt. 

Trust yourself. 

Design is a personal process. Creating your design for your life is going to require you to trust your intuition. As well as experimenting, trial and error. Stay patient.

But how do you do that when the think you’re trying to work on—self-doubt—is literally the opposite of self-trust?

Trusting yourself takes practice, and it takes time. But what we’ve found is that the more effort and work you put into your design, the more you’ll trust it.

That means that the more time you spend visualizing where you want to go, the more honest you are with yourself about where you are now, and the more you explore possibilities and take action, the easier it will become, little by little, to trust yourself and conquer your self-doubt. 


“Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.”

Suzy Kassem

Conquering self-doubt isn’t something that happens overnight, but it’s absolutely essential if we want to reach our full potential and live meaningful, fulfilling lives. 

Learn about who you are

Start your journey toward less self-doubt and greater self-fulfillment by taking the Design.org assessment, which will help you show you where you are in the egg today and help you create an action plan for improving your life in the ways that matter to you.