The 3 Hidden Benefits of Doubt
Why doubt makes ideas stronger, leaders better, and life more wonderful
One of my most favourite books of 2014 was Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking. In this book Burkeman challenges many of the conventional ‘positive thinking’ approaches to happiness, instead advocating what he calls ‘the negative path’ to happiness.
‘Through positive thinking and related approaches, we seek the safety and solid ground of certainty, of knowing how the future will turn out, of a time in the future when we'll be ceaselessly happy and never have to fear negative emotions again. But in chasing all that, we close down the very faculties that permit the happiness we crave.’
Instead of trying to actively pursue happiness (while trying to avoid or run away from negative emotions), Burkeman suggests we instead go the other way: looking to negative experiences and embracing the learning inherent within them.
A similar approach can be applied to the concepts of clarity and conviction. If you want these things, you could set forth a crystal clear goal. You can make it rock solid, and temper it with unwavering persistence and conviction.
Or, you could take a counterintuitive approach, and turn toward the hidden powers that lie within uncertainty and doubt.
Let’s look at a few of these.
1. Doubt makes ideas stronger
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said that ‘Doubt grows with knowledge.’ David T. Freeman echoed this when he said that ‘The more you know, the more you realise how much you don't know—the less you know, the more you think you know.’
And then Bertrand Russell came up with this piece of gold—‘The fundamental cause of trouble in the world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.’
It’s quite apparent that doubt is fundamental to all discovery, learning and growth. It’s an inherent element of the scientific method, and the precursor to all great questions and breakthroughs. Doubt births wisdom. It’s what we unpack when we do slow thinking, and it’s deeply linked to quality ideas. Doubt is uncomfortable, sure—but we know that all growth and development happens just outside our comfort zone.
The best business strategy sessions I’ve facilitated and experienced are the ones that are full of angst and doubt. They’re not joyous or comfortable — they’re a hard and frustrating kind of fun. Quick fixes are resisted, and time is spent within the held tension of uncertainty. From this space, new ideas and pathways emerge that would not have been possible if we were simply ticking boxes and following a rushed agenda.
Doubt makes us ask more questions—better questions—which makes us explore more pathways. This, in turn, can lead to more clarity, confidence and conviction. We see more, and through the pursuit of good questions; we know more.
2. Doubt makes leaders better
Have you ever felt that, sooner or later, your colleagues and everyone around you will realise that you’re not as smart as people think you are. That you are not really that qualified for the position you hold. And that one day you’ll be found out. People will point at you and shout impostor!—exposing you for the fraud that you are.
I get that feeling all the time. It’s called the impostor syndrome. It’s the scenario whereby we constantly compare ourselves to our talented peers. Or more specifically, we compare our own doubt-ridden internal perceptions with the confident facade that others project.
We feel that there is a big discrepancy—but for all we know, they could be full of self-doubt too. In fact, if they're any good, they probably are.
This sense of ‘impostorism’ could be seen as a natural symptom of gaining experience. ‘Move up the ranks and if your field’s even vaguely meritocratic, you’ll encounter more talented people to compare yourself negatively against,’ writes Burkeman. Some research suggests that it actually gets worse as you get better.
So, the good news: if you're full of self doubt, you’re probably doing great!*
Besides, it’s much better to feel like an impostor than to suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect — a scenario whereby people harbour inaccurate illusions of superiority. Unburdened by self doubt, they don’t realise how inept they are. The fools.
Now, there’s plenty of standard advice for managing the impostor syndrome (stop comparing yourself, accept that you’re successful, focus on providing value, yawn). Most of it is about reassuring yourself.
But you could take a different tact, and embrace the doubt.
In my world, I know that sooner or later someone will challenge me on my work. And that's great—I will be prepared for that battle. Or maybe I won't. Either way, we'll learn something. And in the meantime I use my awareness of the impostor syndrome to stay ahead of the game. I publish books, work with increasingly influential leaders and share world class research in keynotes. Never settling, and never falling into the delusion that I’ve ‘made it’.
You might like to take this approach too. Accept that the doubt is there, and use it to do more and be better. This is exactly the quality we want in leaders—the ability to question themselves, to think deeper and accept that no one and no thing is perfect, but we can learn.
Much better than a leader unburdened by doubt.
3. Doubt makes life more wonderful
So often we think in binary mode, in terms of what’s right and what’s wrong. This places us in a near-constant state of judgement — of ourselves, and of others. To be right, someone must be wrong.
Marshall Rosenberg, wielder of daggy puppets and pioneer in non-violent communication, argues that this type of thinking is the very thing that brings us closer to violence. Binary right/wrong thinking certainly doesn’t enable self-compassion, nor compassion or empathy for others.
‘Instead of playing the game “Making Life Wonderful,” we often play the game called “Who's Right”,’ Marshall Rosenberg says. ‘Do you know that game? It's a game where everybody loses.’
We can play a different game—a game in which there is no clear right and wrong. Nothing is conclusive. A game in which there's always room for wonder, and win-win scenarios that are wonderful.
We see this in science all the time. Theories that were thought to be right and true, are dismantled in light of new evidence. Everything is always open to further questioning.
‘I like the scientific spirit—the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them… it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection…’ ― Walt Whitman
‘Let go of certainty. The opposite isn't uncertainty. It's openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides. The ultimate challenge is to accept ourselves exactly as we are, but never stop trying to learn and grow.’ — Tony Schwartz
Want more wonder in your life? Relinquish the need to be right, and instead embrace doubt and the opportunity to learn.
It's not always wonderful
It's uncomfortable, remember? The thing we need to be careful of, is when we make conclusions.
‘I can't do this’ is an unhelpful conclusion. ‘I'm not sure I can do this’ is a bit better. Because there's only one way to find out — do it. And then if that doesn't work, you could fall back to the conclusion that you, in fact, can't do said thing. Or maybe you can keep the doubt alive! Maybe it was an issue with your methodology, or some other factor.
Avoid conclusions. The best kind of doubt ends in a question mark.
‘Can I do this?’ Let's find out.
There’s a time and a place for doubt
You choose the time, and you choose the place.
What does this look like at work?
It looks like leaders being comfortable enough to share their doubts and insecurities with each other during meetings and retreats, but to rally with conviction when it counts.
It looks like time scheduled for deep, slow thinking — time spent in angst over the relevance of current business models in a changing world.
It looks like time dedicated to real strategic development that searches for the best path (the hidden, clever path — not just the quick fix or the convenient default).
And it looks like time spent on the frontier, playing in the intersection of trends and researching what may be.
Then, of course, there’s the rest of our work
The business as usual stuff, where the thinking needs to be fast. Where we default to systems and processes, reducing cognitive burden and enabling us to get work done.
Good businesses dance between these two types of thinking.
They carve out time for slow thinking — be it as part of their ongoing leadership development, research or learning (or deliberate work culture rituals) — they ensure there’s always time for good thinking and questioning.
And then, when it counts, they can make decisions with more confidence, clarity and conviction — because of the doubt. Such companies are less likely to be blindsided by disruption, and are more equipped to embrace emerging opportunities and change.
So, ask more questions.