The One Question I Ask Myself Whenever a Task Feels Impossible
“Of course I believe in myself, I can do anything I put my mind to!”
That’s the mantra of a confident person. One that I proudly repeated to myself (and to others) throughout my early career.
But that wasn’t the full mantra. It was actually: Of course I believe in myself, I can do anything I put my mind to — except for anything that doesn’t come naturally to me.
I vividly remember the first time I realized that my belief in myself was actually conditional, and that I’d been limiting my potential all along. It was so engrained, I had no idea I was doing it. This might be true for you too, if any of the following phrases resonate with you:
I’m just not a numbers person, I could never learn Excel.
I’ll never be a gym person, I suck at working out.
Learning to code sounds so hard, I could never do that.
I’m a bad writer — being creative like that isn’t a strength of mine.
My belief in myself wasn’t a “Yes I can!” it was a “Yes, but…” So really, I could only do anything I hadn’t already decided I was bad at. For all the obvious reasons, this mindset was holding me back. I want to tell you that I had an epiphany one morning and set out to challenge myself to do everything I thought I couldn’t. But that’s not what happened.
In fact, I broke out of this mindset by accident. I was working in management consulting, and knew that at some point, I had to learn enough Excel to not be a failure to my team. Keyword: Enough.
Before this job, I’d only used Excel to type up my to-do lists in college, and it felt foreign and complicated to master. So, in my 21-year-old head, I set my target at meeting the bare minimum for it to not be a performance issue. Aiming high, I know…
But then I was put on a project in which my sole responsibility for two to three months was to build an Excel model. I had to calculate outputs for a number of age and income segments of the population. Sounds intimidating, right?
It was. But in the interest of not only keeping my job — but also excelling at it — I was willing to learn.
Fast forward three months, and we were on version 78 of the model. It had grown and developed over time, and become more nuanced and complex. It now included dozens of inputs for different demographic segments, sensitivity analyses, and even toggles you could use to see how the output would change and for whom, depending on which of the 10 proposed strategies I’d built in were selected by the client.
Layer by layer, tab by tab, I’d built a masterpiece. A masterpiece I understood better than anyone else on my team, and one that the client looked to me as the expert on.
The client was happy with our work, but more than that, I was surprised and proud of myself in a way I hadn’t expected. I remember looking at the final version of the model and realizing that if you’d shown it to me three months prior and told me I would be building this, I would’ve laughed in your face and said that you were batshit crazy.
Me? Build that? Yeah, no. But here we were, 90 days later. My capacity for learning this new skill had far outpaced my belief in myself.
And I asked myself a question for the first time that now regularly echoes in my mind:
Where else does my capacity for learning outpace my belief in myself?
A few years later, I founded The Muse and when my co-founders and I were dividing up our roles, I took on business operations. That was something I knew I could do and was good at. But I also raised my hand to take on leading product. I didn’t know much about it, and had no idea what I was signing myself up for — but I believed that I could learn.
As part of that journey, I learned how to code, write specs, wireframe, QA, set up our ticketing system, and soon was even helping push code to production when needed. (With the help of our engineering team, of course!) I even coded a number of features, once again feeling like my ability to learn had outpaced my previous belief in myself. Doing so made me a better founder, a stronger product leader, and a more growth-oriented professional. All things I aspire to be.
I’m not telling you this in hopes you’ll open up Excel and push yourself to learn how to build interactive models (but if that’s why you’re here, click this), but rather to remind you that sometimes the only thing holding you back from being the person you want to be is you.
So, the next time a new challenge scares you, take a deep breath, dive in, and see what happens. You might just surprise yourself.
More From The Muse
- The Risky Steps You Have to Take Today if You Want a Career You Love
- How to Tackle Something You Have No Idea How to Do
- 4 Secrets to Taking Career Risks — While Still Paying Your Rent
Alex Cavoulacos is a Founder of The Muse, where she focuses on the product, engineering, and operations of the fast-growing business.
Originally published at www.themuse.com on June 13, 2017.