In Praise of Doubt

In Praise of Doubt

Has doubt been maligned? Doubt is typically associated with problems like indecisiveness and procrastination. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is known as “The Doubting Illness.” Politicians who show doubt are said to be “Waffling or Flip- Flopping.” Would you hire a CEO or draft an athlete that is riddled with “doubts”? A “Doubting Thomas” is someone lacking faith. Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet doubts the value of life-“To be, or not to be.” These are not exactly words that connote positive leadership qualities.

If there are so many clinical, professional, and literary examples of how doubt is considered undesirable, then what could possibly be praiseworthy about doubt? Hindsight being 20-20, you don’t need to think too far back for examples. Just think of how the current economic crisis might have been mitigated if some of our business and political leaders had at least a modicum of prospective doubt about the wisdom of their decisions (“no down payment teaser loans,” “de-regulating the securities industry,” “bank’s 30-1 leverage,” “credit default swaps”). For them, doubt would have tempered hubris, the pride that went before the fall.

There are two sides to the “doubting” coin. Doubt in the negative sense is associated with people who are nervous, obsessive, and fearful. The doubtful person is often the type who is thought to be “white knuckling” it through life. This is the kind of doubting that is terrified of uncertainty or risk. It’s what we might call “amateur doubting”.

On the flip side, the astute, “professional doubter” is well aware of the finite nature of all “knowledge” and the limitations of all theories and “models.” This kind of affirmative doubter, if you will, is calm, unruffled by the inevitable ups and downs of life, and is appropriately skeptical of myopic, absurd claims of certainty and safety (“this is the war to end all wars,” “real estate can only go up,” “it’s the end of history,” “there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq” – we could go on ad infinitum with examples). This kind of doubter actually is an optimist, one who perceives the silver lining in the dark economic cloud (e.g. the recession actually creates a lot of opportunities), the great book that can be written about social injustices (think Solzenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelego”), and the resilience forthcoming from recovery from major illness (consider Lance Armstrong).

The affirmative doubter keeps things in perspective. This type of doubting correlates with a more even temperament and less dichotomous (either-or) thinking. Because they are less reactive, affirmative doubters are more likely to cope well in adversity. They are less prone to catastrophize “the sky is falling”, and, also, less likely to be seduced by claims that “the sky’s the limit” (a.k.a. “irrational exuberance”). They are aware of the pitfalls of making prophetic declarations and in believing in their own infallibility. The affirmative doubter might be less likely to plunge into war without awareness that many of the consequences will be unforeseen, more aware that economic stimuli could backfire, and cognizant that leveraging one’s way to wealth is also a way to leverage one’s self into bankruptcy. They might be more likely to wait for the risks that are worth taking rather than taking worthless risks.

Instead of scoffing at doubt, perhaps we would all benefit from some. Not the amateur kind, of course.

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