Scott H Young

Doubt


Feeling doubt isn’t a sin. Life will always be uncertain, and the correct decision isn’t always obvious. It’s better to learn to live with doubts, and act anyways, than to try to eliminate them altogether.

One piece of advice I dislike about traditional self-help, is the focus on eliminating all doubt. Yes, it is easier to act with complete certainty. It’s also easier to stay afloat if you’re tied to a buoy. But that won’t help you swim faster.

Life is inherently uncertain. If you took on a goal without any doubts, the goal was either very easy, or you were completely delusional.

Courage to Face Your Doubts

There is a great definition of courage I once heard: “Courage is not the absence of fear. Rather it is acting in spite of your fears.” I think the same concept can apply to doubts. Confidence isn’t the lack of doubt in yourself. Confidence is moving forward in spite of that doubt.

Advice to eliminate all doubts in your goals is about as practical as telling someone to eliminate all their fear of heights before going skydiving. In the end, you waste too much energy trying to suppress your doubts. You would have been better off just accepting that there is uncertainty, and focusing on your goal.

Taking on Goals You Don’t Feel You Can Succeed

I’ve taken on goals that I didn’t feel I could succeed at. I had sincere doubts I would reach them. Earning $20,000 in one year from this blog, when I was still 17 and hadn’t earned a cent from a business before would certainly qualify. I’ve probably had similar doubts with just about every other major goal I’ve taken on.

Sometimes my doubts proved to be correct. I failed at my goal to earn $20,000 from this business in 2008. Some authors would say I was buying into a self-fulfilling prophecy. By allowing myself doubts, I sabotaged myself from reaching $20,000.

In truth, I earned slightly under $18,000 in 2008. Perhaps, if I had no doubts, I would have reached the full amount. But I believe it is far more likely, that if I refrained from feeling any doubts, I never would have set the goal in the first place.

Focusing on your goals and not letting your doubts distract you is important. But even more important is not letting the presence of doubt keep you from getting started. You may fail. If you have significant doubts, you probably will. But you’ll end up far closer to your goal than you would by waiting for clarity.

Focus on Your Goals, Don’t Try to Eliminate Doubt

I recently read an e-book where the author claimed a series of steps needed to achieve a goal. Most of the process was sound. But he emphasized that you needed to give yourself absolute faith in a goal before you started to pursue it. I completely disagree.

The way to reach your goals isn’t to avoid thinking about your doubts. That’s like trying not to think about polar bears. The mind can’t tolerate a vacuum. Either you have doubts, or you don’t. Trying not to have doubts will only accentuate them in your mind.

A better alternative is to spend more time focusing on the end result, your plan and what you’re doing right now to accomplish it. If you invest enough energy to these ideas, then you won’t have time to let your doubts hold you back.

Should Doubts Tell You to Quit?

Often your doubts for a goal will be significant enough that they encourage you to stop. After you’ve been hit by a major setback or have heard some bad feedback, you may want to give up entirely. In these times, should you ignore your doubts or act on them?

I think anyone familiar with this blog knows I dislike self-help platitudes that inspire, but completely ignore reality. In many cases your doubts are the correct course of action. If you spend your life pursuing someone who doesn’t return your feelings, you may waste the opportunity for a better relationship. If you waste years chasing a career that isn’t possible, you may give up the chance to try an alternative that is also satisfying. Knowing when to quit isn’t an easy decision.

My response is that your feelings of doubt shouldn’t be the primary influence in making a decision to quit. Reasonable questions can differentiate between temporary doubts and bigger problems:

  • How long do you need to persist? Continuing down a dead-end for a few months is considerably different than persisting hopelessly for years.
  • Do you still have a passion for the goal? If so, then material success may not be as important.
  • What are the alternatives? A goal may be frustrating, but quitting may be no better.

Don’t ignore your doubts, just don’t let them become the major factor in decision-making. Accept them, but don’t let them control you.

Can You Actively Reduce Your Doubts?

In the short-term, I think you can eliminate your doubts. I’ve used similar techniques for public speaking. With the right emphasis, you can put yourself into a state of mind of complete confidence. This is a useful technique when you need to be completely focused for a short amount of time and doubts could sabotage your performance.

But I don’t think this method is useful when extended over a period of weeks and months. Maintaining that kind of hyper-focus uninterrupted for days is almost impossible. From a long-term perspective, which is the goal of this article, I think it’s far better to simply accept that there will always be some doubts. From there, you can try to emphasize your goals over those doubts, so they aren’t overwhelming.

I’ve been told when writing about similar topics that if you use NLP or another method, you can eliminate doubts completely. I think there is some substance in these ideas, but I’m not convinced that self-delusion is a sustainable long-term strategy for success. In the end, life is uncertain, and no technique in the world can change the nature of reality.

Acting Under Uncertainty

A business professor has said that the business school motto should be, “It depends.” Rarely is there an abundance of information. Unlike the sterility of a laboratory research environment, life doesn’t always have a big enough sample size. Often you only have a few pieces of information to guess the best decision.

I’ve set new, and more ambitious goals. I have a few doubts as to whether I’ll achieve them. I may fail. They may turn out to be impossible. Or I may realize they were flawed to begin with. But given the alternative of working towards simple goals without any doubts, or working to ambitious goals under uncertainty, I’ll always choose the latter.


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6 Responses to “Doubt”

  1. Mark Lewis says:

    Interesting article. When I have significant doubt about something, I remind myself to consider the evidence on which that doubt manifests. Is the evidence real? Or preconceived notions that can be overturned by self educating? I don’t believe the latter should ever exist long because WE can do something about it.

  2. sachin kapoor says:

    too good.. u re simply fantastic and practical in your ideas.. keep up the good work . thanks so much for such advice.

  3. David Cain says:

    Hi Scott, I agree with you. The Law-of-Attraction model wherein doubts are grave errors is, to me, unrealistic. Doubts happen. They are an evolutionary mechanism for getting us to consider potential negative consequences. I don’t really believe anybody eliminates doubt completely.

    I just try to look at doubts as emotional hints that urge me to look at something a second time before proceeding. I am aware of the snowball effect doubt can have and I consciously nip it in the bud before it really begins to distort my judgment. Doubt is just a little internal advice, IMHO. I take doubts with a grain of salt but I do not ignore them.

  4. Scott Young says:

    David,

    Too much of self-help is a gross simplification. Positive thinking, seems to imply that if we just reduced all problems to eliminating doubt, everything would be solved.

    I like to take a more nuanced look that provides fewer easy answers, but creates better results.

    -Scott

  5. Scott says:

    Scott, I agree with you, to a point. But I also subscribe to Martin Seligman’s positive psychology approach, based on the study of optimistic thinking versus pessimistic thinking. The key is not to have pie in the sky thinking, but you do have to monitor and discipline where your focus is. If your main focus is on your doubts, you will most likely self sabotage. If you accept your doubts and let them go, then focus on your goals with courage, you will be in a much better frame of mind to achieve those goals.

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