How to slay your self-doubt

This week’s spotlight: all things death.


Illustration by Jan Hyrman

When you think about why you’re having trouble getting started on or continuing with a project, do the reasons ever sound like, “I just don’t have any good ideas,” “No one will believe this is going to work,” or “I’ll never be able to see this through.” If so, you may have some self-doubt dragons to slay!

Check out these ideas and tips from Authentic Coach Samuel Collier on how to boost self-confidence and turn obstacles into stepping stones.


While some of us are already living a life filled with confidence, many of us only ever fantasize about being sure of ourselves. More often than not, we are plagued by an annoying, nagging voice inside our heads telling us we aren’t capable of or worthy enough to do the things we want to do.

So how do we get over our self-doubt and claim the life we’ve always dreamed of?

The answer is by “growing up.” This is not the same type of growing up we all went through during childhood where our parents and schools raised us, taught us how to survive, and how to be good people.

This growing up is about reclaiming our childhood and our natural birthright of confidence and curiosity. It’s also about redefining our relationship to fear through the choices we make.

Growing up is a process. It takes time to transform from being a person who doubts him or herself into a self-realized person of courage, curiosity, and confidence. But this journey is possible, and it’s all about the choices you make.

Courage may come easy for some, but both courage and confidence can be generated in everyone. All it takes is the commitment to begin changing with small steps towards the life you want and building a state of mind that will sustain it.

We should first recognize that fear is a survival mechanism, not a character flaw. Most anxiety and belief systems are an adaptation to stressful situations we learned in childhood. So we just need to upgrade our systems. How do we do that?

1. Redefine all fear as positive.

Courage does not mean the absence of fear. Courage means being afraid, but doing it anyway. Without fear, life would be dull, drab, and static. Fear is a core emotion for a reason and it gives life much of its color. If we had no fear, there would be no potential for growth.

2. Remember that real fear has a purpose.

Ninety nine percent of the time the fear you’re feeling is a false fear, meaning one that is not based on any immediate physical danger. When you are feeling afraid you should gauge the likelihood of your worst fear coming true. Most of the time, you will see that it is unlikely ever to happen.

3Face fears gradually and gently.

Break down insurmountable tasks so they become manageable. Use baby steps and follow a schedule that isn’t overwhelming. A more gradual process will strengthen your resolve and I guarantee the sense of power you begin to feel will be enough to keep you going.

4. Become friends with failure.

You alone have the capability to start facing your fears, so don’t give up when you fail. Recognize that when you fail, it’s not permanent—it’s part of the process of learning how to do better.

Befriend your failures, your fears, and the process and you will be rewarded!


Samuel Collier is the Authentic Coach, helping people awaken to their self-confidence and activate their hidden potential. Visit his blog and website, or email him at

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Are you afraid of failure…or success?

Stuck? Feeling hopeless? Unsure of your next step? For the almost two decades Idealist has been around, we’ve been asking you—our community—to tell us about the obstacles you face when trying to turn your good intentions into action. We’ve compiled a short list of the top-reported obstacles, and now we’re blogging about them one by one. This Halloween week, we present: fear.

The following is a translated excerpt from Elena Martín’s original post on Idealist’s Spanish language site, Idealistas.

When we talk about the obstacles that prevent people from moving from intention to action, we often cite the fear of failure. But the other side of the coin is not so commonly discussed: fear of success.


Are you afraid you might see failure… or success?
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

Fear of failure can come into play when we think our image is on the line (“People will think this idea is absurd,” “If I try this and it doesn’t work, they’ll think I’m a failure,” etc.), and also when we treat failures purely as setbacks, instead of as opportunities to learn and make changes.

Fear of success, however, comes from different ideas and habits—often ones related to responsibility and commitment.

When thinking about an idea you want to make happen, have you ever had the following thoughts?

  • “If this goes well, am I willing to take on the extra responsibility it will mean?”
  • “What if I start to develop this, and it works, but then I realize it’s not really what I want?”
  • “My life is pretty good as it is. Why introduce this risk and complication to it?”

If so, you might be suffering from a fear of success! As you can see, the way we frame our thoughts and feelings about fear determines in large part what we dare to do (or not do).

So we invite you to try asking yourself what stops you from taking action. What’s the cost of not trying? Would it be better to try than to keep imagining what would happen if you did? What would make a better addition to your life than realizing your idea?

Your answers might give you a clue that you’re afraid of succeeding. If that’s the case, don’t fret: you can turn it around.

If we change our thoughts—if we can behold failure as a learning experience, responsibility as an honor, and commitment as an adventurous challenge—we can change the world.

Have you experienced fear of failure, or of success? Have you been able to turn good intentions into action by reshaping your thoughts and feelings about fear? Please share in the comments.

Idealist contributor Kimberly Maul also delves into the fear of success, with a focus on career goals, in this Idealist Careers post.

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Reciprocity + Co: The power of collaboration and perseverance


One of five tote bags from Reciprocity + Co. The blue straps indicate your money will go to a featured health project. (photo courtesy

Almost one year ago, we wrote about Samuel McPherson, a young social entrepreneur who was starting a company to help improve education worldwide. The idea for Reciprocity + Co. was simple: buy a canvas tote bag, help a school get needed supplies.

But executing this model proved difficult, and Samuel realized the one-to-one model wasn’t sustainable. Wanting to support more long-lasting projects like installing wells and building schoolhouses, he made some changes.

In the time since we last spoke, Samuel developed a partnership with the crowdfunding website GlobalGiving, with the goal of raising $1,000 for projects across five issues: health, hunger, human rights, children, and education. Now when you buy a Reciprocity + Co. tote bag, a portion of your money goes to a cause of your choice.

During his journey, Samuel realized the power of collaboration—and perseverance. He wrote on his blog after a meeting with GlobalGiving:

As I was leaving their office, filled with adrenaline and excitement, I began thinking about the history of Reciprocity + Co. and all that has happened over the years. I started to reflect on one of the most important lessons I have learned about starting the company: nothing is more important than never giving up.

There were a number of times when most signs were suggesting that I should close up shop and consider Reciprocity + Co. a failed attempt. There were times when I had no sense of direction, nobody asking what was next, and moments when I realized my friends and family were convinced it was done.

There came a time about a year ago when I had to decide if I was going to keep the website or shut it down. I couldn’t bring myself to do this. It was not in the cards. I began working through ways to reinvent the company. I took a fresh perspective and brought new life into the idea. I started from scratch and rebuilt everything.

How did Samuel know he needed to keep going and make it through the dip? It was a gut feeling.

Have you ever wanted to quit but your instincts told you otherwise? Tell us about it!

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Seeking support? Consider flaunting your failures to garner good feelings

Are you trying to drum up support for a project you’re working on—monetary or moral?

Whether you’re drafting language for a Kickstarter page, getting ready to make a speech to city council about your new neighborhood initiative, or prepping for the fundraising event you’re throwing at a local school, the way you tell your audience your story can make the difference between their committing support and walking away.

There are countless good tips out there about how to make people sympathetic to your cause—things like opening with a joke, keeping it short, including real-life examples, and giving a call to action.

Another great one is discussing your failures to show the audience that you’re not afraid to admit your mistakes, are okay with being vulnerable, and—most importantly—that you’ve learned from the past and are better prepared to take on the task at hand as a result of previous missteps.


All eyes on you? Turn the attention from a misstep into heartfelt support.
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

The failure you choose to highlight could relate directly to your current idea, or not.

For example, if you’re trying for the third time to start an after-school art program in your neighborhood, you can explain what you’ve learned from your first two attempts, and how that knowledge makes your plan uniquely equipped to succeed this time.

Or, if you haven’t failed at this particular endeavor before, try dredging up an experience from high school or your first job that relates—maybe you learned the hard way to ask for help when you need it, or to speak up when you see something amiss around you.

Whatever story you choose, here are a few pointers about how to tell great fail tales in print and in person from Brooklyn, New York writer, performer, and storytelling coach Andrew Linderman:

For many people (myself included), the only thing scarier than failing is talking about failure. Maybe you’ve hit a parked cop car, peed your pants in front of the high school rowing team or cried in front of a group of Chinese school children*. Whatever the case, you’ve probably failed a few times in your life.

To help you tell stories about screw-ups, shortcomings and unfortunate incidents without coming across as a bitter shrew or a total moron, follow these rules and you’ll be able to talk about failure without looking like one.

1. Don’t pass judgment.

The point of storytelling is to recreate an experience for your audience, so avoid passing judgment about any of the characters (yourself included!) in the story. The easiest way to do this is to eliminate comparatives (i.e. “better”, “worse”, “faster”, etc) and superlatives (i.e. “worst”, “best”, “fastest”) whenever possible. Instead, turn these comparisons into declarative statements (from “the best shot putter in Brooklyn” to “the #3 shot putter in the 18-22 age cohort in Brooklyn”). Specificity will help your story while making the narrator (you) more relatable.

2. Avoid complex explanations.

If you’re talking about failure, it’s natural to want to explain away a decision through your own interpretive lens. Don’t do this. People love stories about a good flop, so don’t cheat them of the experience. One quick way to cut down interpretation is to eliminate explanatory words (“because”, “why”, “knew”, “understood”, “decided”, “realized”) from your story. Don’t tell an audience why something is important, show them how it is important.

3. Show (don’t tell!) us your emotions.

Stories are filled with emotions and feelings, but manipulating your audience into feeling a particular way won’t help them relate to your experience. Skip emotive words (i.e. “happy”, “sad”, “excited”, “worried”) in favor of active phrases (“I smiled and screamed: “Awesome!”) that show the audience how you’re feeling. When you spend the time to recreate an experience, the emotions will shine through.

It takes time to tell stories about failure, but if you use these tips, you’ll be able to get over life’s hurdles faster and tell richer stories in the process. In the words of Samuel Beckett: “Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.”

*All of these things happened to me

See Andrew’s original post in its entirety on his blog The Story Source, and read more about all the ways he helps people tell better stories on his website,

Have you ever told a story about a time you flopped to try to engage potential supporters? Tell us how it went!

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Epic Fail: Can you really make every failure into a success?

lipstick pig

Maybe you can’t put lipstick on every pig?
(image courtesy Karen Roach)

Here at Idealist, we think there should be more conversations about what happens when things don’t work out. Recently, we’ve touted the benefits of making the most of your mistakeslearning by doing, and knowing when to quit—because even the best-laid plans, well, you know.

And we’re not alone. In this week’s The Atlantic, political columnist Liza Mundy suggests in the article “Losing Is the New Winning” that there’s never been a better time to admit your shortcomings and own up to your mistakes. It used to be the case that a big enough scandal could ruin your reputation forever, but we’re starting to notice that failure (if you’re honest about it) is actually kind of hot right now.

Mundy suggests we’ve entered a time when many public figures are rebranding their mistakes as opportunities for personal growth—and it’s working. She cites former New York state governor Eliot Spitzer’s current campaign for New York City comptroller as an example. He’s taking his questionable gubernatorial ethics head-on in his campaign ads by stating flat out, “I failed. Big time.”

Politics isn’t the only arena with leaders who have (or should) come clean when they mess up. One particularly memorable scandal is Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson’s financial mismanagement of the Central Asia Institute. Mortenson’s refusal to take full responsibility for any wrongdoing has prompted even more criticism of his organization, including Jon Krakauer’s article “Is It Time to Forgive Greg Mortenson?” in The Daily Beast this past spring (hint: until he’s honest, the answer is still ‘no’).

Admissions of guilt—even when they reveal something uncomfortable or unethical—are important to help repair one’s credibility with the public. But Mundy suggests that our willingness to forgive and forget scandals might be because as Americans, we have a certain ‘soft spot’ for fresh starts:

As the historian Robert Dallek pointed out to me, overcoming failure—bankruptcy, addiction, dissolution, defeat—is part of the quintessential American success story. Failure narratives resonate with all sorts of deeply held cultural tenets, from Christianity’s focus on forgiveness and rebirth to the frontier mentality’s emphasis on prevailing over obstacles both external and internal, including our own imperfect selves. Still, some eras seem to crave stories of redemption more than others. It seems no accident that after a punishing half decade in which failure descended upon millions in the forms of foreclosure, job loss, factory shutdowns, workplace realignment, growing economic inequality, and dwindling options, we delight in hearing that NASA, according to Dweck, prefers to hire aspiring astronauts who have failed and bounced back, rather than those who have enjoyed easy successes.

While stories of public figures or politicians overcoming shame and coming back from failure can certainly be compelling, there are still situations where giving second chances is downright crazy. Mundy raises the more complicated question of where we draw the line:

When is a public figure’s failure a sign of abiding character flaws, and when is it a harbinger of growth? When is an attempted comeback a marker of tenacity, and when is it a red flag signifying a delusional lack of self-awareness?

What do you think the current popularity of failure stories means for leadership in the social good sector today? Can you tell us about a time when you admitted your mistakes and kept going, or when you decided to cut your losses and quit a project following a big fail?


Why so serious? What playful thinking can do for you

This week’s spotlight: all things play.


This silly face courtesy of Flickr user Philip Dean via Creative Commons

If your last brainswarm left you with a yellow notepad full of wild ideas, don’t chuck them in the recycling can quite yet. You might be closer to a great new program idea or creative fundraising solution than you think.

According to the minds behind the leading design innovation firm IDEO, the ridiculous ideas we get from uninhibited playful thinking come hand in hand with brilliant ones.

Brendan Boyle is a partner and toy lab leader at IDEO and promotes creative entrepreneurialism around the world. Joe Wilcox, a former circus performer and kinetic sculptor, is one of IDEO’s top toy inventors.

In a recent 99U article, they talked about the importance of play for generating fresh ideas:

Brendan: This is a quote from Stewart Brown, who is founder of the National Institute for Play, “Most people think that the opposite of play is work (especially in the corporate world) but the opposite is boredom or even depression.” To me, play is what you’re passionate about doing. You want to do it because it’s enjoyable and you want to keep doing it because it brings you joy. But play is a ton of effort.

Big innovation is right on the edge of ridiculous ideas. You need an environment that isn’t quite so judgmental about a ridiculous idea. Sometimes those are the ones that are so close to being the brilliant ones. If a space that allows for play can help encourage those types of ideas than you’ll come up with some possibly ridiculous but potentially groundbreaking ideas.

Joe: Those skeptics are in every walk of life. You can certainly combat it [by trying out] the experimenter role. Show people it’s possible, don’t just tell them. It’s always been the seemingly improbable, boundary-pushing ideas that have created this world around us and none of that would have been possible if they’d listened to all the people who said it never would have worked. We’d still be living in caves if we relied on the skeptics.

So hang on tight, buckle your safety belt, and don’t be afraid to get a little silly with your ideas. You never know what you’ll come up with.


What’s your favorite ridiculous idea that ended up being great?


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Video spotlight: The magic is in the process

We write a lot here at Idealist about people who’ve made their ideas happen. And if you’ve been following along, you’ll recognize a common theme in their stories: it’s not easy.

In this video of Jane ni Dhulchaointigh at this year’s 99u conference, the Irish entrepreneur talks about how she launched sugru, a new kind of rubber that helps make your stuff work better.

“All the magic and beauty happens in the process, and not the finished product,” she begins.

She goes on to give a charmingly honest account of the valuable lessons she’s learned—and all the wonderful doubt, delusion, and failure along the way.

If you’ve ever been unsure or stuck, Jane’s story is sure to give you hope.


Did Jane’s talk strike a chord with you? Tell us about an experience you’ve had with process, product, and the related magic in the comments below.

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3 tips for making the most of failure

Christine Prefontaine is a jill of many trades: strategist, organizer, writer, and advisor (among others). Through her extensive work in international development, as an advocate for reforming current publishing methods, and as founder of the social engagement and innovation consultancy Facilitating Change, she has encountered failures on levels large and small, and learned from each one. Here are some of her insights and advice.

I see two trends right now, in international development in particular, but in other fields, too: We want more transparency and openness but at the same time we want more innovation. These two trends, with our current ways of thinking, can clash with each other. For example, what if money is spent on something new and it doesn’t work and now stakeholders can see that?

Similarly, you can’t say to your client, “Those five hours I billed you for? Well, I didn’t get your deliverable done, but I learned a lot.” So while we may need to fail to innovate, certain types of failure may never be accepted.


Take it from Christine (left): Don’t be too afraid of going off the rails.

Then there’s FailFaire. Seeing and presenting at FailFaire [in 2012] was huge for me, because it’s this open forum to at least start talking about failure. People from consulting firms, government, activists, developers—everybody was there to talk about it.

I’ve never seen so much enthusiasm and joy at an event; the collective sigh of relief of, “We can finally talk about this stuff.”

So it’s just thrilling to me that we have these FailFaires now. I think they’re a great step in familiarizing more people with the concept of failure as an experience and process that we can benefit from.


1. Set yourself up for mini-fails.

I look at innovation broadly: often it means using things we already have to solve problems, but utilizing them in a new way. And in order to do that, you have to experiment, and when you experiment, it’s a given that you’ll screw up a lot. So build failure into your system—that’s the whole fail fast/fail forward thing.

Prototype and iterate and test quickly, at the most granular level you can, so that your failures are kept on a low level. That’s where failure is really helpful and less scary. Little models can show you what the big result would be. Don’t go too far down one path without testing or you’ll waste tons of time.

2. Make it okay to talk about failing.

In my career, I’ve tried to surface the reality of how things actually get done; to work transparently. It allows for more efficiency and learning if everyone involved can understand the nitty-gritty of how things actually work.

We all understand how it could be seen as undesirable or unimportant to talk about messing up, but you have to. And it’s a time issue, too—time has to be made to talk about what didn’t work, as much as a safe space has to be made in which to do it. But if we could make more space and time for failure, fewer things would snowball downhill.

3. “You can’t talk about failure without talking about learning.”

There will always be people who say that we shouldn’t air our dirty laundry, especially in international development. But you just can’t talk about failure without talking about learning, whereas if you talk only about success, the learning tends to get vapid.

Also, stories about failure are more likely to go viral, for this reason among others, like the fact that we all love good gossip.

Actually, FailFaire could be called LearningFaire, because that’s what it really is, but the name they chose signals their attempt to inject some humor into the subject, which I think is one great step toward greater acceptance.

Reach out to Christine with your thoughts and questions through one of her websites or in the comments below.

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“Whoops! How did that get there?” Mistakes we’ve made at Idealist

If you’re a human being, chances are you make a mistake sometimes. And if you’re a celebrity or work for a website, your mistakes automatically get beamed straight to the public eye—d’oh!

Here at Idealist, we strive to make our website as clear, up to date, and mistake-free as possible, but of course we’re human too, and sometimes a little something falls through the cracks.

Take this pull quote I found while thumbing through one of our info centers the other day:


Whoops! I might not be Shakespeare, but I’m pretty sure that editor’s note was not supposed to take center stage here. I’ll take that down now.

Hey, nonprofit celebrities—before you call Bloopers with your own amusing gaffes, why not send them to us? Shoot an email to and we’ll post the most mistakey of the mistaken.

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Made a mistake? Try looking at it as a work of art


Mistakes are messy. But that’s not always necessarily a bad thing. (Photo via Peter van Broekhoven on Flickr’s Creative Commons.)

We all make mistakes sometimes. Okay, a lot of the time. Most days I find myself uttering “I’m sorry” or “d’oh!” more than I like to admit.

It’s often these small failures that can send us into a spiraling hole of negativity and cause us to be paralyzed. Taking that next step toward action, then, becomes hard.

So I was relieved to read a recent Brainpickings blog post about philosopher Daniel Dennett’s book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, that encouraged me to look at mistakes in a different way:

The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself. Instead of turning away in denial when you make a mistake, you should become a connoisseur of your own mistakes, turning them over in your mind as if they were works of art, which in a way they are…The trick is to take advantage of the particular details of the mess you’ve made, so that your next attempt will be informed by it and not just another blind stab in the dark.

We have all heard the forlorn refrain “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!” This phrase has come to stand for the rueful reflection of an idiot, a sign of stupidity, but in fact we should appreciate it as a pillar of wisdom. Any being, any agent, who can truly say, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!” is standing on the threshold of brilliance.

So next time you forget a part of your presentation to volunteers or get upset when your plan to attract donors doesn’t come out the way you thought it would, remember: You’re brilliant. And there’s always next time to make it better.

How have you embraced your mistakes and used them to help you take a step forward?

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