Doubt As A Superpower

The most popular post I’ve ever written concerns the well-known physicist Richard Feynman and how he overcame a brief period of dejection after winning the Nobel prize in 1965. Perhaps paradoxically, he doubted his ability to continue to make useful and original contributions to theoretical physics after the prize, maybe thinking he had reached his peak.

On this theme, I heard a podcast recently featuring Nicola Reindorp, the CEO of the international charity Crisis Action. She aimed to recast doubt as a source of creativity and innovation rather than as an annoying obstacle.

From an early age we’re given models of behaviour that focus on certainty of purpose and having leaders that, if they have doubts, hide or mask them. This occurs even in situations where it’s hard to believe in any form of certainty due to the situation being intrinsically complex (climate change, pandemics etc).

Although Reindorp had important doubts during her career, eventually she came to the conclusion that doubt can be a productive driver for insight and wisdom. She proposes the question: perhaps some of the conventional myths and stories we’re fed on handling doubt are simply misleading or even wrong?

Turning things around, she suggests viewing doubt as a potential superpower that helps us realise what we don’t know and hence what important perspectives might be missing. Practically this amounts to using doubt to formulate and ask more questions, especially on what may be absent and then carefully listening to the feedback. All this is done in a positive spirit of curiosity and learning rather than anxiety and worry.

I thought her viewpoint was well summed up by her phrase

“What have my doubts come to teach me?”

That’s quite a powerful question and has wide applicability, not just in a business or work setting.

In the case of the (highly original) Feynman, and in a research setting, he learned that it it was best to focus on your own work and disregard or not be unduly influenced by the work of others (see here):

“That’s what I’d forgotten!” he shouted (in the middle of the night). “You have to worry about your own work and ignore what everyone else is doing.” At first light, he called his wife, Gweneth, and said, “I think I’ve figured it out. Now I’ll be able to work again!”

An obvious repost to Reindorp’s approach to handling doubt is that, unbridled, focusing on doubt could just lead to prevarication and avoiding taking action (similar to ‘paralysis through analysis’). Her response to this was there is a need to impose a process discipline and a time frame for action. Indeed overall there should be a bias to action, so if still in doubt simply act but learn through the result, whether it’s ‘success’ or ‘failure’.

It’s an interesting idea and I hope she’s able to expand on it through a book or similar (she mentions her ideas were developed over a long period through conversations with leaders from many areas). It would be great to hear some situations where it worked well, where it didn’t and the lessons so far drawn from this. A brief overview can be found here (extract below):

“I’ve been interviewing leaders from different sectors, generations, ethnicities, nationalities and sexualities about their views and experiences of doubt. I’ve also talked to psychologists, neuroscientists, behavioural economists, teachers of leadership, coaches and counsellors about doubt, certainty and leadership, what we’re learning at this moment in history, including what the COVID pandemic may be teaching us…

Doubt is experienced as a destructive thing – the cause of emotional pain and stress, the cause of breakdowns, sleeplessness, freezing on stage in front of hundreds. Those I’ve interviewed give their doubts names of dark places and demonic creatures.”

In particular it would be interesting to better understand the practicalities of conversation and listening in this approach. Although ‘we need to question and listen more’ is easy to say, doing it in practice needs well thought out approaches. See for example the work of David Gurteen who has been raising awareness and promoting these (usually untapped skills) for over 20 years often using so-called ‘knowledge cafes’. I also think it’s helpful to broaden the discussion as everyone is a leader in some way or other (it’s just a matter of scale), so this way of thinking should not just be restricted to ‘conventional’ or hierarchical leaders.

Doing a bit of googling, there are some recent articles from the Said Business School that also go into this topic. Here’s an extract (see here):

“Doubt is generally viewed as a negative trait, yet in times of uncertainty, it is emotionally and intellectually essential. CEOs who incorporate doubt into their decision-making process can question and test their environment and traverse the currents of the market they operate in and add another layer of vetting to their process. While we have an innate and primal urge to seek certainty, our certainty can be deceiving and can sometimes have us drawing a wrong conclusion. To counteract this hidden mind trap, we can harness our doubt and cultivate it to awaken our curiosity, use it as a source for continuous learning and as a catalyst for agility, to explore other possibilities freely. Those with a willingness to embrace uncertainty and leverage the power of doubt can improve their judgment and make higher quality decisions.”

This article on how CEOs manage doubt is also helpful (see here):

“Understanding the risks and remedies for doubt enables leaders to mitigate their discomfort, whether its source is cognitive or emotional, and return to a zone where they can make more productive and well-considered choices, turning doubt into a powerful decision tool.”

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