During one of our pair working sessions many months ago, Melisa and I enjoyed discovering that we are very different types of coaches.  The more we talked, the more we found that we each get a little kick of dopamine in our brains for completely different things.  We can see this in the different ways we each work.

Melisa is a finisher – every time she finishes something, she gets her little hit of dopamine from her brain.  This floods her hypothalamus with feel-good hormones and she wants to finish more things.  It’s a little chemical kick of approval from her limbic system in her brain that tells her she did a good thing.

We got to talking about other types of motivation.  For example, some people’s brains feel good when they get certifications.  They like the ‘proof’ that they have achieved something by getting the recognition of a third party.

My motivation was less clear though.  I’m certainly not much of a finisher, and certification is not my thing either.

I do like learning though.  I am curious.  Just finding out about something new is definitely a ‘thing’ for me, but it’s not the whole story.  We think my motivation is recognition (this is why I strive to write blogs & books, and why I like to speak at conferences).   Being perceived as good at something gives my brain its little dopamine fix.

Well, that’s great Helen, but so what?

And that’s a fair question.

"Well Done!"

“Well Done!”

Whilst the learning part of me is self-referential (when you rely on your self for your ‘well done!’ messages), my motivation for recognition is not.  Recognition relies on other people conveying their (preferably positive) perception of you.

In the short-term this is fine.  If we are trying something new and don’t know if we’ve done well, getting the approval of someone else will help.  Especially someone who will be honest with us, and who has experience/authority in the skill we are looking at.

But we need to see this as a short-term fix.  It is both addictive and ultimately destructive to our self-esteem.

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to make my reward for recognition also be self-referential, like my curiosity?  Of course, but self-referential approval  is not easy for lots of people, and I am 100% in this group.

Why could that be?

Let’s look at some things that might impede my ability to self-approve.

1) I am English – it is practically a cultural trait to display humility at every opportunity*.  (Along with Canadians I am reliably informed….)

2) My gender – in my early career, I learned to be careful not to outshine male colleagues.  (There were no other female colleagues around me for most of my early career, but that’s a whole other story.) Traces of this stubborn habit linger on.

3) My nature – I have an almost pathological need to excuse any sign of brilliance by deflecting any praise to a 3rd party.  Yup, even that sentence was a push for me to write.  I will see if I can manage to leave it in and not edit it out before I publish!

Self-referential praise is clearly the answer, but those other voices in my head are so very loud I can hardly hear myself think!

So what to do?

I have no idea if there is a single, best answer to this, but I have been experimenting with this recently.  Here is an example experience that might illustrate one option you could try.

It’s the approach I am currently using, and am having some success with.  It is hard, and far from satisfying at the moment, but I expect that is what all addicts say about switching to a healthier substitute!

What this approach does do is enable me to move on to the next thing.  I don’t remain trapped in the murky waters of self-reflection for longer than is necessary.  Nor do I spend precious effort trying to find someone from whom I can get that dopamine-fixing approval.

Firstly, I recommend you treat your task as any other product development.  Begin by outlining it carefully  – be specific.  Then decide what ‘done’ looks like.  This is crucial for ‘proving’ to yourself later that you did a great job.

Here is a recent example from me:

Start with the end in mind:

I had a pre-existing long-term goal:

  • I want to be a published author

Be Specific:

  • by ‘author’ I mean that I want to write something that people can read if they want to.
  • by ‘published’ I mean that my work is available for the public to read, in book format.

In my case, the goal existed already, but I was blessed with an opportunity that I was ready for when it came.

I took my 20 seconds of insane bravery (I’ll write about this in a future post), and started to make it happen.

Now lets just pause for a moment here because  I realise I made that sound really easy.

3 things made that look easy:

  • firstly, I already had this goal identified, so I didn’t need to think about if I wanted to do it or not when the opportunity came along.
  • Secondly, following a tip from Charles Duhigg’s book on habits (The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change) , I had an “if…..then….” plan in place too:
    • IF I get an idea or opportunity to write a book
    • THEN I will take that opportunity!
  • Thirdly, I combined the last step with a tip from Steve Kamb’s book Level Up Your Life.  Using my 20 seconds of insane bravery I was able to action that plan immediately, and importantly, before I could worry about exactly how I would do this.

Ok, so I had a specific task, I had an If…Then plan, and I took my 20 seconds of insane bravery to action that plan.  Together, those 3 little step were the secret to getting this done.  Talking of which…

How do I know I am Done?

This is easy – look back at Be Specific notes

  • I have my name as author on a book that I contributed to
  • the book is available to the general public to read if they want to.

So, 1 hackathon, 2 days, & 6 co-authors later and we had a book.Be A Scrum Master

  • I am named as an author.
  • It is available to the general public to read if they want to.

Job Done.  Celebrate the ‘done’ bit.  Its there in black and white and can’t be argued with (even by my own inner critic 😉 ).

More importantly for this blog post, I didn’t need anyone else to tell me I had done a great job.  I already knew this, and am very proud of myself.  It’s still an unfamiliar feeling for me.

Of course, lots of other people have told me I’ve done a great job too.  Whilst I still find this wonderful to hear, and greatly appreciate it, their voices aren’t so prominent in my mind these days.


I’ll write more about the 20 seconds of insane bravery next week (and I promise it will be a much shorter post!).

In the mean time, I’d love to know how you keep self-doubt or the imposter phenomenon or low confidence etc. from stopping you doing great things.



* You must have heard a British person apologise for the weather – like we had ANYTHING to do with that!