Doubt as a driving force of creativity

One of the most difficult emotions to come to terms with is doubt; it’s also one of the most realistic ones. It’s the allure of faking it till you make it: you’re making a promise against your doubt with the hammer of reality, and trying to get more people to believe in you to drown out the people who doubt you (maybe including yourself).

I’m not sure there even is a common trait in any good writer—or good artist, I daresay—but if there was, it would be doubt. 

Even behind the most confident and charismatic persona of someone skilled at their craft, is just a shred of doubt; one that is uncertain if the work is good enough, one that wants to make it better, one that needs to know that this was the best they could’ve done. It draws to mind a scene from jeen-yuhs of a seasoned Pharrell telling an upcoming Ye, promising him greatness and advising him after everybody believes in him, “Still doubt yourself.” It’s how Michael Lewis describes Daryl Morey in The Undoing Project, “He suggested a new definition of the nerd: a person who knows his own mind well enough to mistrust it.”

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s doubt is a defining emotion that enables him to go deeper and deeper into his work, a driving force for exploration and depth. It was also the root of his collaboration with Amos Tversky. Lewis writes: “The entire project, in other words, was rooted in Danny’s doubts about his own work, and his willingness, which was almost an eagerness, to find error in that work. In their joint hands, Danny’s tendency to look for his own mistakes became the most fantastic material. For it wasn’t just Danny who made those mistakes: Everyone did. It wasn’t just a personal problem; it was a glitch in human nature. At least that was their suspicion.”

Left unchecked, doubt can dull and drain creative energy as much as it drives it. We all know of moments in our own lives (“Ah, forget it, this was stupid of me to even try”), when doubt rears its head on us and blocks us. 

At some point, we need to accept that we’re no longer in a place where we need to doubt ourselves. Our confidence should be getting stronger. That’s where Tversky also provided his own defining emotion to his collaboration with Kahneman: confidence, fearlessness, and irreverence.  

I hope that in the future, we don’t crave certainty the way we do now—and that we’re okay with admitting and even accepting that the world is probabilistic; that an outcome being very likely is not the same as exact certainty, that there’s always a level of risk, and being okay with it and honest about it. That’s why I also don’t subscribe to the idea of writing with authority, or the common journalist practice of taking one stance and backing it up with quotes to support it—and leaving the other side completely unexplored.

In many ways, that’s where my fascination with self-fulfilling beliefs and unrealistic expectations comes from as well. We work through our doubt to get to a place where we can believe in a better alternative future, then we work hard to make it a reality.

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