The Geek Feminist Blog, which is always a source of intelligent reading as I start my daily routine, recently posted an answer to question about how to maintain self-confidence. The poster responded with suggestions, several of which were about how to boost self-esteem – for instance, talk to supportive friends, celebrate your accomplishments, and “don’t forget to be awesome,” which apparently means to feel good about yourself and what you do. However, what neither the poster nor most of the commenters on the entry ever seemed to consider is that self-doubt might have any advantages, or, at the very least, be preferable to self-esteem.
One of the peculiarities of North American culture is that it emphasizes the extrovert. In the popular conception, to be confident and outgoing is to be successful – and not just at one end of a personality perspective.
By contrast, to be diffident and private is nearly synonymous with sociopathy. Geeky high school kids, for example, are widely viewed as the ones most likely to gun down their classmates.
Yet, when you stop to think, both these views fall far short of reality.
Confidence is based on experience, on having gained an understanding of a situation or the ability to handle a situation. But the problem is that North America favors the appearance of confidence – especially in men – and is careless about whether it is real or not. The result is a culture in which, all too often, criticism is ignored and those who argue risk being branded “not a team player.” The dangers of risk-taking are ignored, because to doubt is to show a lack of of confidence and to reveal yourself as being less than leadership material.
Sometimes, the result pays off, because audacity can take people by surprise. But, if you look around business, more often the result is rash, ill-considered, or just plain wrong decisions whose shortcomings a moment’s reflection would have revealed.
For instance, I once worked for a company that brought in a CEO armed with the latest managerial theories. His inevitable response to any company financial crisis was to purge the staff. He would protect his officer team, but otherwise his purges were random. Frequently, he fired key employees who were the only ones who understood major parts of the software that the company was producing. Not that he meant to fire key employees, but the problem was he couldn’t recognize them and was just as likely to fire them as anybody else.
The result? Survivors were demoralized, because not even the jobs of key players were safe. Often, a few months later, the key players were hired back at the more expensive rates of consultants. Other times, the company blundered on alone, trying to recover the lost knowledge instead of doing original development. Four purges and two years later, the company sold its resources and ceased business. What looked like bold and decisive action to the board of directors in the long-term destroyed the company because it was uninformed.
By contrast, self-doubt carried to extremes causes indecision. But what few people seem to consider is that, kept within reasonable limits, self-doubt can be a healthy and creative attitude. Where the artificially confident plunge unthinkingly ahead, the self-doubter looks for information and considers alternatives. Afraid they have left something out, they ask for feedback from other people. Before they act, they double-check, and try to allow some flexibility. While they may miss opportunities that require immediate response, the self-doubters are far less likely than the self-confident to do something wrong – or, if they do, they may have a plan to correct or mitigate the problem.
In other words, doubting yourself can be a source of creativity and painstaking. In fact, of all the accomplished writers and artists I have known, and of all the entrepreneurs I have known who were successful over a period of years or decades, not one of them fell into the category of the artificially self-confident. They might have a facade of confidence, especially the entrepreneurs and especially the men, yet talk to them in private and you would be in no doubt that they were self-doubters. Some of them were not the most naturally gifted, yet they succeeded because their self-doubts drove them to compensate for their perceived deficiencies.
What I have suggested seems a paradox: those who appear most likely to succeed aren’t. Yet I think this paradox is central to creativity and planning.
Robert Graves expressed the paradox elegantly in his poem, “Broken Images:”
He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.
He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images,
Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.
Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact,
Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.
When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.
He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.
He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.