A Reality Check for Your Doubt-Free Existence
Is a ‘doubt budget’ the prelude to a worry-free life?
Obvious next question: How about setting a doubt budget? How do we make it real? And will doing so make us feel better about, well, anything?
(Spoiler Alert: I’m leaning toward “no” in answer to these questions. But please read on!)
As I maintain in my forthcoming book, Wrangling the Doubt Monster, self-doubt is a condition to be managed, never defeated. Implementing a doubt budget—a psychological mechanism that lets us ration when, how often, and under what circumstances self-doubt takes hold—strikes me as a form of paradise on earth.
Imagine spending days or weeks free from doubt’s shadow. And off you go, skipping about in your art studio, pounding out the pages on your laptop, drawing up plans for your next building.
In this Shangri-La, you’re focused on the art, not the worries around making the art, because you’re not scheduled to doubt your talent, or your ability to finish and deliver, until, say, next month, when your doubt budget is due for reconciliation. (The books must be balanced—but not yet!)
With a doubt budget in place (hypothetically), you trick yourself into sequestering that particular brand of anxiety, potentially freeing yourself to enter that longed-for state of “flow” when intrusive thoughts do not come between you and the act of creation. Your self-affirming mantras are in place, unmolested: I am a creator, an innovator, an artist, and my art is beautiful to behold.
What a vision! Talk about living in paradise.
“Four be the things I’d been better without: Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.”
Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s nearly that simple. Giving oneself permission to make mistakes (as a mistake budget does), seems grounded in externalities. Whether your mistake is made in public or in private, it has an actionable dimension. Self-doubt, in contrast, is a storm that rages in our heads, often at unpredictable intervals (in the middle of the night; in the shower; on the treadmill; during a meeting).
I’ll push this a bit further. You can worry endlessly about a mistake you may make in the future, but by allowing yourself room to make that mistake in the first place (the planned mistake budget), you get a jump on forgiving yourself and moving on. Last week, I called that de-fanging the enemy, and I think it’s got potential.
But self-doubt is qualitatively different and far more amorphous. Especially where creative endeavors are concerned, doubt is an integral part of the creative process. Even a concert pianist at the peak of her powers is apt to question her phrasing, her total mastery of a piece, her ability to honor the composer’s intentions.
If you’ve watched even just one episode of the Great British Baking Show, it’s clear that self-doubt is a co-star of the show. Every baker is plagued by self-doubt during every minute they’re making a recipe. You might say that doubt is baked in to every confection. (Sorry.)
And so, I’m struggling to see a way to rationally budget self-doubt. To tell yourself: This month, I’m permitted three intervals of self-doubt, each lasting no more than five minutes.
“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”
The mind is a messy, messy place and it often refuses to play by the rules that we seek in vain to impose.
I’ve concluded, therefore, that it’s not possible to set a doubt budget the way you might set a mistake budget.
That’s not where I started, intellectually. I thought I could make a case for rational doubt budgeting. But I can’t. (If you disagree, tell me!)
However, I do think there is a “next best thing” to try, and that is to interrogate—and to see plainly—the ways in which you manufacture doubt and implications related to the illegitimate co-option of doubt.
The business of manufacturing and co-opting doubt is fascinating and it takes us from Socrates to Pasteur and beyond. The topic offers lessons to help us manage doubt in ways you may not have thought of before.
That’s coming your way next week.