Self Doubt


My last blog series began with a personal confession: I am doubtful of my creative ability. Whether it be idea generation, writing or drawing, am I forever questioning what I produce and am rarely completely satisfied with the end results. I’ve been made strikingly aware of this lingering self-doubt throughout the MBA program as so many of my fellow students seem to be beaming with assertiveness. Yet recently, in pouring through the works of writer Daniel Pink, I found myself saying things that were a far cry from self-doubt. I learned that self-doubt can actually be a useful and surprising source of creativity. Suddenly I’m telling myself “Ya, I’m awesome!” There are, of course, some caveats to self-doubt, such as the extent to which you take it. This self-questioning practice shouldn’t be debilitating or prevent you from being able to act… That’s unhealthy, and thankfully I haven’t fallen victim to that.

The practice of self-doubt is in stark contrast to what motivational speakers have been preaching to us. Doing a quick Google search of ‘self-doubt’ not only returns self-help essays and videos, but inspirational quotes to help us banish these “dangerous” thoughts. The science and research behind self-doubt and self-questioning is quite interesting, however. In studies that have been conducted around this topic, researchers found that people who introduce self-doubt into the equation are better at coming up with creative solutions to problems. Why? Because in questioning yourself, you open up an internal dialogue (or dialogue with others), which makes you more likely to consider other options or alternatives and not settle on one of the first solutions that pops into your mind. You are skeptical about whether the solution you’ve dreamt up is the best, or even good, and you continue your search.  This quest for additional possibilities will likely yield a deeper, more insightful solution in the end.  

You might be surprised to learn that some very powerful people in this world swear by this practice. For example, Alastair Campbell, the strategist and spokesman for former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, wrote an essay on the topic. In it, he stated, “I see it as a strength, not a weakness… it is the means by which I prepare, consider other options and perspectives, strive for clarity about what can be attained and what cannot - and then, critically, stop the doubting, and act.” I find this extremely refreshing and can clearly see the application to creativity. So instead of pumping ourselves up in the mirror, engage in a little healthy self-doubt, and then ACT!

Instead of concerning ourselves with exiling those nasty thoughts of self-doubt, we should be more concerned with curbing pompous, over-confident attitudes that hamper creativity and limit brainstorming. In fact, I think we can all probably think of a number of cringe-worthy ads (like the one mentioned in my previous blog series) released in recent years that could have benefitted from a healthy dose of doubt.