Living with doubt

I was inspired to write this post by some recent days when I was suffering from doubts in my own abilities, only to have the horses make wonderful progress and prove my doubts unfounded.  I was prepared to post it when news of the horrific events in Paris came to light.  Feeling that my personal concerns were trivial, I decided to wait.  But today I’ve watched the responses from many, and I suddenly felt that this subject had some relevance.  So, with some modifications, here it is …

I am an innate self-doubter.  If someone takes a position that is opposite to mine, no matter how sure I am of my knowledge, my fallback position is to think “Hmm, perhaps I’m wrong!”  When I attempt something new, or try to return to something I haven’t done for a while, I always have that shadow of “Can I really do this?!” hovering behind me.  The culture of the U.S. clearly favors confidence and certainty – hundreds of books and articles have advice on how to become more confident, how to sell yourself, how to live with certainty.  Yet, for all the pangs of doubt I may have felt, I would argue that doubt can be a positive thing – and that certainty brings with it a lot of danger.

Now, I’m sure some of you who are reading this are thinking, “So what?  Everyone has doubts.”  Not true!  Anyone who has watched American politics over the past decade, or more, should have seen many who have a great deal of certainty.  So great is their certainty, that they are unwilling to listen to any other viewpoint or to compromise even one inch.  On a more personal level, I have worked with people who not only state that they never have any doubts about their own decisions or views, but their actions reflect that reality.  In a workshop, many years ago, a coworker asked a group of these people whether they ever had any doubt or ever thought they might have made a wrong decision.  The answer was a resounding “No, never!”  There explanation was this: any time they made a decision, it was always the best decision based upon the information they had at the time, therefore there could be no doubt or regret.

The one hole I would put in their argument is that I watched each of them often refuse to hear any information that did not fit their predetermined narrative – so, it was not accurate to say that they always made their decisions based upon all the information they had available.  Instead, they cherry-picked the information that fit their already existing certainty – and this is a pattern I see with most people judged to be highly confident and certain.

So, what makes doubt so good?  Well, if you let it control or cripple you, preventing you from trying new things or voicing your opinion, then doubt is certainly bad.  I once followed the advice of a friend, for how to ride a fence on cross-country, in spite of my doubts that it was right.  She was riding a 16.1 Thoroughbred, while I was mounted on a 15 hand chunky Appaloosa.  I knew that I would need speed to get up the hill and over the fence, but her advice to collect made me doubt myself.  Following her advice, we got stuck halfway over the fence.  Upon a second try, following my instinct and putting on speed, we managed the obstacle perfectly.

However, ignoring your doubt can be just as detrimental.  I had doubts about my decision to send Tally away, but I’d already made the commitment and decided it was just “cold feet”.  I had further doubt about the situation, while she was there – but I wrote it off as “worried mother” syndrome.  Had I listened to my doubts in either case, I would not have wasted two years with Tally, and a chunk of money as well.

If you learn to understand and interact with your doubt, it can be a very good friend indeed.  It took me a long time, and a lot of mistakes, to learn to use my doubt to advantage.  Now, when it tells me that someone else might be right, I still listen – but only long enough to revisit my own position.  This might lead me to look up some facts, when some crazy political assertion goes against what I thought I knew.  Or, it might prompt me to recheck assumptions I used in making a plan at work.  With the horses, it always leads me to look more closely at how they are doing.  The value in revisiting my assumptions, ideas, or opinions, is that I either learn something I didn’t know before, or I reaffirm knowledge I already had.  In the best cases, I have been able to do both!

When I started this journey back, a couple of years ago, I had a lot of doubts about what I thought I knew about training horses.  It led me down the paths of different methods – some I’ve adopted, and some did not measure up with the horses.  Abandoning what didn’t work, and revisiting old tried and true methods that were no longer “fashionable”, I began to feel more confident.  But doubt never left.  Now, as I get back into the saddle, doubt is right along with me.  But the horses are there to help me keep perspective, by proving whether or not my doubt is well founded.

I understand the allure of certainty.  Certainty is solid and safe.  Once you “know” something, you never need to work it out again.  Doubt can be very uncomfortable.  Doubt requires work to overcome, and it can leave you off balance while you reassess.  Certainty is a tank with which you can plow through all obstacles; doubt is a sailboat, which may travel calm seas much of the time, but requires additional balance during rough seas.  However, the view from a tank is limited, while the sailboat provides broad vistas.

The recent tragedies in Paris are proof that certainty not only limits your view of the world, but it can be down right dangerous.  First there is this – if there is one thing you can say about extremists and militants, it is that they are operating under a great deal of certainty.  You do not strap a bomb onto your body without being certain that your cause is absolute.  There have been times, in history, where militants have been working for a “just” cause – take the suffragettes as an example.  They were so extreme in some of their actions that the U.S. movement chose the name “Suffragists” to distance themselves from their more militant British cousins.  Yet, it is hard to argue that rights for women was a wrong cause – and no one will ever know if it could have been won in another way.

Before I get hate mail, I am not implying in any way that Islamic extremists have a just cause – but realize that they think they do.  The rhetoric that is coming after the tragedies is often filled with certainty and hatred.  Those who condemn all Muslims, call for dropping the “big bomb” (yes, I’ve seen that more than once) do not realize that their own position is simply a mirror reflection of the extremists they claim to be better than.  Like those who perpetrated the horrific attacks in Paris, those calling for rounding up Muslims into internment camps are very certain in the righteousness of their cause, and unwilling to entertain any doubt in their position.

So, if you live with doubt, make it your friend.  Not a friend that controls you or makes you feel bad, but one that supports you and helps you make better decisions.  If you are one of those who is so certain that you’ve rarely, if ever, met doubt, then I beg you to give it a try.  Just once, try to imagine that you might not be right, or there might be a better way to do something.  Maybe you too can make friends with doubt!

Be good … and enjoy the journey!


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