Doubt kills. It’s one of those statements you see on the Internet all the time, like those badly typeset, totally cliche posters on Pinterest. But it’s a popular statement because it’s true. Doubting ourselves really prevents us from creating. Self doubt stops good things before they have a chance to be realized.
So let’s break down what we mean by doubt. It could be the doubt of others, but mostly by doubt we mean self-doubt. That inner voice that tells us whatever it is that were doing is not good enough. It tells us it’s not well done, or not original, or articulate enough, or clear enough, or skilled enough, or cool enough.
Doubt is simply an overcritical loudmouth who doesn’t know when to stop. When we realize this, we realize that we can choose to listen or not. It’s not that doubt is completely evil. In fact, doubt helps us filter ourselves a bit so we can push ourselves out of mediocrity and into excellence. But, being completely oblivious to when it’s made its point and needs to shut up, it kind of just pummels us until we ultimately believe it wholesale.
Doubt needs to be put in its place. Don’t completely shut it out. Like a lot of negative feelings we can experience in life, it’s important to test it, to listen to it, to see what it’s trying to say. And then take it with the proverbial grain of salt and move along.
Ultimately, you need to overcome the doubt by being stronger than it. And how does one get strong enough to push through doubt? By much effort. It does not come naturally nor easily. The only way to overcome doubt is to push through it. Did you get that? It’s not that you sidestep it or steamroll over it. It’s kind of a gateway with a lot of force pushing you back, but there are weak spots where the force is not as strong. The thing is that doubt expects you to just push against it exactly where it is pushing you back. But if you move a little to one side and try a new angle, you find you get ahead a little. And you make note of your advance and keep pushing forward like this.
Let me break out of my imperfect analogy for a moment to tell you what I do in the face of doubt — which stands in my way almost every time. The first thing I do is make the first move. Doubt would be more than happy to see me not even try (why bother?). Make that first mark on the paper, write that first thought out, or just start doodling whatever comes to mind. And if I don’t know where to start, I just start writing about how I don’t know where to start, and this usually leads to me defining everything I know and don’t know and that leads me into finding answers to my fundamental questions.
The next thing I do is remind myself that, although there are infinite ways to solve a problem, I am only going to have so much time to come up with so many solutions (so to speak — I dislike the word “solutions” for creative work for some reason). So I let myself take as much time as I can afford (and hopefully not more) to sketch. Then, if I have time, I put it away and come back to it the next day with a fresh mind and a more objective perspective. I may do more sketching, or I might just skip to the next step, which is my real secret to overcoming doubt, so read on.
So I am faced with sketches I may or may not be crazy about. But I know I’ve done all the ideating I can do. So I scan and place every single sketch in my presentation deck. (I suppose I should step back a step or two here: I always present my sketches in a presentation deck, ultimately a PDF that has a title page and each concept plus description per page thereafter). So whether I have 3 or 30 variations to test, I lay them all in my deck. Somehow, seeing them in a presentation format helps me see them more objectively. And often, as I start to write out the concept descriptions on each page, I start to see value in my concepts I formerly hadn’t. This stage helps me to articulate and rationalize what was formerly loose and intuitive. In other words, at this stage, I start selling my ideas to myself and actually start believing in them. Which is the part where doubt is like, adios amigos. And we give him a look like, did you really just say that? It is also the part where I am able to cull those ideas that are least successful or most redundant. The main challenge by this point is less about having too few ideas, but too many — how will I whittle them down to just three (the maximum number of concepts I aim to show clients).
By this point, I have overcome doubt where it is the most intimidating. It will show up and I will have to fight it once again, but by now I am strengthened by my last victory. I am reminded by now that the antidote to doubt is action — pushing through, pushing through, pushing through. And then after a period of time, I am able to step back and think about what I am doing from a distance. I appreciate how Frank Chimero, in The Shape of Design, relates the process to that of a fine painter, stepping in close to do the painting, and then stepping back to look at the big picture more clearly. This constant dance of moving in, acting, and then moving back, reflecting, is how to overcome doubt without sacrificing objectivity.
We heard it said that we must love our enemies, even those who would kill us. So it is with doubt. Though it would kill us, we needn’t kill it back, but only overcome it by knowing where it needs to be overcome. If we killed doubt altogether, we might be worse off for it, feeling overconfident in our abilities, and ultimately becoming even more discouraged when our work falls flat in the wild. But if we become strong enough to push through it, we may even begin to see our doubt as a friend, or at least as an adversary we can't do without.