Journeys in Tech
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Journeys in Tech

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Three tricks to beat your inner critic

How to not let self-doubt run your world

“I shouldn’t even try because I’m going to fail. What’s the point. I’ll just look stupid and waste my time.”

Whether it’s about pursing that hottie in the dating world, or taking on a difficult project in the professional world, so many of us have been held back by our inner critic.

“Who do you think you are?”

“You’re just going to make a fool of yourself.”

As a result of this fear of failure, we end up not even giving ourselves a chance to succeed.

Human beings are born with only two fears: fear of falling and fear of loud noises. It’s a survival mechanism that protects us from real physical danger.

Thus, fear of failure, fear of taking risks, is not innate. It comes from that voice in our head telling us we can’t and we shouldn’t. That voice is our inner critic.

Just like the amygdala is an evolutionary mechanism that protects us from physical danger, our inner critic is a mechanism that protects us from emotional danger. In this case, the emotional minefield of failing.

Unlike falling, however, most risks we are too afraid to take don’t pose real danger to us. Our inner critic only holds us back from pursuing our dreams.

So, how do you calm your inner critic?

I met and talked with a few career coaches in the last couple of weeks. Here are three exercises I have learned and have found helpful:

I. Know your inner critic is not you.

Your inner critic is like a wounded child. She’s telling you to stay exactly where you are because she doesn’t want to get hurt. Her fears are based on what might have happened in the past or what could happen in the future. She’s not the voice of reason so you shouldn’t follow her. Acknowledge her, sympathize with her, and tell her that it’s okay, that she’s going to be okay.

This exercise has helped me replace my inner critic with an inner mentor. Whereas my inner critic is this immature, hyperbolic child, my inner mentor is a powerful woman capable of handling the complexities of life. She is the true guidance, the voice of reason.

II. Know your worst case.

For a given risk, ask yourself “what’s the worst thing that could happen?”

I’ve been told over and over that it’s good to take risks in my professional life. For example, take on challenging projects that put me outside of my comfort zone. Ask for raises and promotions when I feel they’re due.

The worst thing that could happen is getting fired. Even if that were to happen, I’d walk away with a valuable learning experience, and I’d quickly find another job.

III. And last but not least, know your best case.

Picture your best case; ask yourself: “are you willing to give it up?”

Are you willing to give up your best case because you’re too afraid of your worst case? Sure, if your worst case scenario for that given risk is homelessness, jail, or death, by all means, please be afraid. However, most of the time, our reasonable worst case is merely a rejection, not getting the recognition we wanted, or a fantastic learning experience.

Are you willing to give up on your dream life because you’re afraid the efforts may not pay off?

Truth be told, I have to battle my inner critic every time I take on a new initiative. For example, I started my blog “Journeys in Tech” a little over a month ago. Of course self-doubt flooded my mind as I reached out to accomplished people, seeking their advice, asking questions about their career journey. What I hoped to gain were invaluable insights I could take with me for the rest of my life.

What I feared was looking stupid.

What if I don’t learn anything and this is just a waste of time. What if people think I’m stupid for “not having figured it out yet” at my age? What if people think I’m dumb for even trying because this is a ridiculous idea.

So, it’s now been a month since the inauguration of “Journeys in Tech”. How do I feel?

Yes, I’ve felt stupid at occasions. I’ve asked bad questions. I’ve conducted interviews where I felt I’ve wasted both of our times by asking bad questions. I’ve been ignored. I’ve been told no.

However, I’ve gained from my endeavor too. I’ve met people who inspire me to pursue my goals, however big or small, fearlessly. I started working on new side projects and hobbies. I’ve taken on a challenging but potentially very impactful project at work — a project that requires me to dig into a technology I’ve never worked with and learn a new language.

Most importantly, I’ve become less scared of taking risks.

Just like everything else, going after your dream gets easier with practice.

“You should try because things will work out. At worst, you’d walk away with a valuable learning experience. At best, you’d walk away with your dream.”



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Lily Chen

Lily Chen


Senior software engineer at Datadog | frontend | performance optimization | profiling. Portfolio: