Self-doubt and the Goldilocks Principle


Recently I sat with a client during one of his live trading sessions and invited him to think out loud while he traded. Verbalising his decisions in real time at different points during the session, highlighted moments where he was confronted with indecision. Sometimes he would move on productively without dwelling on his moment of indecision, while other times he would begin to doubt himself and negative self-talk entered the frame.

He asked me for strategies to work on his self-doubt, naturally thinking that self-doubt was obstructing his clear thinking and decision making. To his surprise and initial resistance, I explained to him that his self-doubt in this instance was his friend.

We proceeded to talk through the decision drivers relating to those moments of indecision and self-doubt. Interestingly, what came up was lack of clarity around the factors that influenced his decisions at this point in his process. Further interrogation even highlighted some of the factors that were important in his decisions that up to this point had remained hidden to him.

It was by going over these moments of self-doubt in review that he was able to improve his process.

Quite often we become trapped by the notion that self-doubt is at all times debilitating. Self-doubt is uncomfortable, but by learning to embrace the discomfort, we can milk experiences of self-doubt for their performance enhancing benefits.

While it seems intuitive that performance would improve with confidence, there have been numerous studies over recent years that support the idea that self-doubt in moderate doses can in fact enhance performance. One particular study engaged a group of expert skippers (as in skipping ropes) where they were asked to perform a skipping trial (Woodman, Akehurst, Hardy and Beattie, 2010).  Split into control and experimental groups, they were offered a reward for the greatest number of turns in a minute, along with a cognitive task to measure effort. On the second test, the experimental group were given a different coloured skipping rope and told that it might negatively effect the speed of rotation of the rope. The only actual difference in the rope was the colour, but the change was designed to reduce their confidence in achieving the goal of the task.

Guess which group had the better result in the second test? The experimental group. There was no measurable increase in effort, but their results were better, despite their drop in confidence.

In this case, increased focus was the positive benefit of a decrease in confidence/increase in self-doubt. When channeled correctly, self-doubt can also lead to an increase in practice or in the case of my coaching client, a more practical focus on factors that positively impact decisions.

Self-doubt can be a little bit like Goldilocks; not too much, not too little, but just enough. The right amount of self-doubt channeled into a framework for continual improvement can lead to better outcomes. So next time you’re confronted with self-doubt, rather than simply looking for ways to retreat from the discomfort that self-doubt elicits, look at your behaviours and see if there is anything you can change to improve performance.


Woodman, T., Akehurst, S., Hardy, L. and Beattie, S., 2010. Self-confidence and performance: A little self-doubt helps. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 11(6), pp.467-470.