Life is complicated.

You have hopes, you have dreams, and you have desires…

… but you also have all these doubts and fears and worries keeping you awake at night, insisting that you should be bigger and better and richer and more successful than you are now, be farther ahead in life, be the person you always wanted to be.

Hey… calm down, subconscious.

Juggling both halves of your self is exhausting. Figuring out how to orient your life in a way that actually quiets those voices of doubt and distraction can be life-changing (and, on that exact topic, I highly recommend you read elle luna’s take on the choice between “should” and “must”).

So, let’s say you’ve decided to actually do something, which is the way to move past your internal roadblocks and start to demonstrably change your life from “Someday maybe I’ll…” to “Why don’t I finally…?”

If you want to accomplish anything, remember these 3 steps:

  • Knowledge and skill lead to competence.
  • Competence leads to confidence.
  • Confidence leads to results.

(And yes, if you have enough money, you can bypass all three of these steps. But then again, if you have enough money, you’re probably not laying awake at night in the first place.)

These steps will help you get wherever you want to go, but they’re not foolproof.

You can have a ton of knowledge and skill and still not feel competent.

You can actually be competent and still not feel confident.

And you can be confident and still not feel like a success.

(Trust me on this. I posted on Facebook earlier this year that I felt like a failure compared to where I felt like I should be at this stage of my life, and the most common response I got from friends, family, colleagues, and complete strangers was “Me too! Thank you for saying what I’ve been feeling for years.” So no, if you also feel like this sometimes, you’re definitely not alone. Far, far from it.)

So, how do you find a way through these crises of perception?

It all starts with how you approach the challenge — which is partly determined by the circumstances, your perception of those circumstances, and your own personality.

Here are three ways to approach any challenge and find your way to the other side.

Woman mountainclimbing with gear, rope, and helmet, photo by Mike Bean

Aaaaaalmost there…

Believe You Can Do it

The first method is the most straightforward. If you already have the knowledge and the skill, then you also have every reason to believe that you can [do the thing]. The problem is that you actually have to amass that knowledge and skill in the first place.

This happens through repeated practice, education, mentorship, hands-on experience, and learning from your own mistakes and failures — all of which can sometimes seem inconvenient, expensive, frustrating, humiliating, and unpleasant. But, on the upside, you’ll eventually emerge from all that trial & error feeling more and more confident that you’re prepared for any reasonable challenge.

This is what leads to a life of exploration, and valuing experience over arrivals.

It means you’re not wrapping your identity up in wins and losses, but in actions.

Plus, the more challenges you undertake, the more you’ll increase your knowledge, augment your skills, and boost your confidence — all of which will help you become more adaptable and secure in your own skin.

On the other hand…

Don’t Believe You Can’t Do It

In other words: refuse to see yourself in the negative… which is easier when you don’t even know what the negative is.

Think of beginner’s luck, in which people have wild successes because they don’t yet understand (or overthink) the risks involved.

Or, think of that colleague you always see getting promoted, or that competitor you see eating away at your own market share, even though you know you’re more talented and more deserving. Guess what: your colleague or competitor doesn’t realize s/he can’t do the job… so, paradoxically, s/he keeps getting it done while you psyche yourself out of even trying.

There’s risk and danger in attempting something you’re not prepared for. But that same lack of threat awareness also means you’ll be approaching the problem from a new point of view… and that just might be the way to find a solution that people with the “right” knowledge, skill, and experience would never have thought of.

(You could also call this optimism.)

And, on the other other hand…

Doubt You Can Do It, But Pretend You Can (Until You Do)

This is the “fake it til you make it” approach, and it works extremely well, as long as you’re comfortable being a fraud (until you’re not).

That’s the part that trips a lot of people up, including me.

I’m logical (or I like to think I am), so I feel dishonest promising someone that I can [do a thing] for them if I’ve never actually done that thing successfully before.

This is also why my brain rejects marketing that revolves around “establishing yourself as an expert — even if you’re not!” That kind of chicanery makes me want to set my laptop on fire.

And yet…

From art to business to politics to romance, we see people succeeding every day because they sell an image of their own confidence that others want to buy into… and, by doing so, all that invested goodwill and hope actually buys the time for that person to figure out how to deliver.

Some of this is bluster. Some of it is a lie. And a lot of it will fall apart if tested.

When it does, some people will resort to bullying and lawsuits in order to maintain their image, because they believe their image is what gets the job done. They forget that competence is what gets the job done, and their image is just a placeholder they’re renting until they deserve it.


In some cases, the appearance of confidence, or competence, or just knowledge and skill, is enough to get someone else to buy into you in a way that convinces both of you that you can [do the thing].

Hope, trust, and belief are powerful things. And if you have trouble generating them by yourself, finding a way to import them from others might give you the boost you need in order to become the experienced, adaptable person who doesn’t need to fake it anymore.

What Do All Three of These Approaches Have In Common?

In order for any of them to work, you have to actually get started.

Your life doesn’t change because you want it to.

You have to also do the work.

If you don’t — even if you have a fantastic excuse — what you’re really saying is, “I’m willing to keep living like this until someone else changes things for me.” And as I’ve discussed before, when you do that, you’re not only robbing yourself of your ability to control your own life, but you’re also hoping the change someone else brings to you is going to be positive.

Is the risk of passively hoping that someone else will fix you a risk that you really want to take?

There’s a better way.

Three of them, actually.

Find the one that best suits who you think you are today and get started.

Images: “Mask” by Timothy Neesam and “Hintisberg Climbing” by Mike Bean via Flickr Creative Commons License.

If You Like This Post

… then you may enjoy this post about overcoming imposter syndrome, or this post about how to build momentum into your workday.

How to Plan Your Workday to Build Momentum


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