The Power of Doubt

I often write about subjects about which I start off knowing little or nothing. I have long since stopped trying to hide my ignorance as I’m gathering information. I’ve almost come to enjoy asking stupid questions. That’s a learned skill, and for this I have NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart to thank.

I first interviewed him 15 years ago, and I had a racing-related question that I long wanted to know the answer to but I never asked of anyone because asking would reveal my ignorance. He and a couple other star drivers were lefthanded. It was a small sample size, sure, but the proportion seemed off. Considering most NASCAR races consist of drivers sitting on the left side of the car and turning left for hours on end, I wondered: does being lefthanded give him and other lefties an advantage over righthanded drivers?

I could spend the rest of my life thinking about it and never fully decide if that was an interesting question or a stupid question. At the time, Stewart was, how to put it, not always the friendliest person to interview. On a good day, he was thoughtful and funny and gave you answers you would still think about 15 years later. On a bad day, he gave witheringly sarcastic answers to dumb questions and belittled the people asking them… and you’d still think about those, too, I suppose.    

So I would either get a good answer or an atomic wedgie. Knowing this, I employed the age-old technique of making sure I had enough information for my story before asking a question that might shut down the interview.

Lucky for me, I got him on a good day. We hit it off. It was going great. I sensed an opening…

I began: “I have a stupid question …”
Stewart: “Do you know the answer?”
Me: “No.”
Stewart: “Then how can it be a stupid question?”

Car races start with the wave of a green flag. And that exchange was the green flag to knowing that being comfortable looking like a fool might be good for me. I think about that exchange whenever the topic of self-doubt or lack of confidence or the dreaded impostor syndrome comes up.

Someone who “suffers” from the impostor syndrome doubts their accomplishments/talents/skills and worries that they will be exposed as a fraud.

That’s a syndrome? Like, with a name and everything? Doesn’t everybody feel like an impostor, (almost) all day, (almost) every day?

I sure do. I feel like an impostor all the time. I wouldn’t know what to do if I suddenly thought I knew what I was doing. I have no doubt that I’d be lost without doubt. I suppose I can look back on my career and see that I’m not nearly as ignorant as I used to be. But, um, that still leaves plenty of room for doubt. For years I wanted to feel like I had arrived. How long am I going to be a writer, I wondered, before I stop doubting if I know what I’m doing?

And then I came to not only accept doubt but to embrace it—even to be wary when I lack it. One day a friend of mine wrote an incredible essay. He does that often enough that I should probably just set my email to auto-reply every time he publishes a story. Anyway, I wrote him telling him how much I liked this particular essay.

He wrote back to say thanks, he was glad to hear that, because he thought (paraphrasing here) the piece blew great big chunks when he turned it in.

That was like hearing Coke doubts that Coke in a glass bottle with real sugar tastes good. If my friend doubts THAT story was good, that must mean everybody doubts. And if everybody doubts, that means I had to figure out a way to live with mine.

Now doubt motivates me instead of cripples me.

You know who suffers from self-doubt? People whose careers are marked by striving—athletes, musicians, artists. You know who doesn’t? Bloviating shouting heads on television. Self-righteous schmucks on social media. Yankees fans.

The world needs more self-doubt, not less. The antidote to doubting you can do something is not self-confidence but doing it anyway with your doubt fully intact. The solution to doubt is not believing in yourself but the courage to keep going anyway.

We should be overrun with Ted Talks about embracing doubt instead of incessant drivel that “you’ve got this.” If I have to tell myself, I’ve got this, it’s a sure sign that I don’t. Worse yet is if someone else tells me, “You’ve got this,” because they only say that when it looks like I don’t.

I doubt that the beginnings of my stories are good, I question whether the endings are worth the keystrokes it took to create them, and don’t even get me started on the middles. The way to make my stories better is sure as heck not to tell myself that I’m good enough.

To mangle a Gordon Gekko quote from the movie Wall Street, doubt is good. Doubt is right. Doubt works. When I listen to my doubts, it helps stories turn out far better than if I thought every word that shoots forth from my fingertips drips inerrant wisdom.

Just about the only thing I’m confident about is that lacking confidence is inseparable from my motivation to get better. Doubt drives me to make extra phone calls, to write and rewrite and rewrite again. It drives me to seek out mentors, to ask peers for help, to get rid of the original opening for this story and replace it with something coherent.

And yes, I did that already. If you think the NASCAR opening stinks, you should have read the one about latchkey kids. Back to that opening: Stewart’s answer to the question of whether being lefthanded gave him an advantage was this: “I don’t know. I’ve never been righthanded.”

Was he being sincere or sarcastic? It was probably both, but I’m not sure. I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to look like a dope.


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