Public discussion of sports stars, CEOs and world-famous artists often treat self-belief and confidence as a vital component in the formula of success. Their bravado, so we are told, allows them to explore their creative potential and express themselves without fear of criticism or failure. Many popular success stories are high on self-belief and low on self-questioning: Bill Gates had to watch his first company fail before founding Microsoft and J.K. Rowling had to handle her many early letters of rejection with good grace. Thanks to an unswerving certainty in the worth of what they had set out to do, they persevered to an eventual triumph of their own making.
But contrast these familiar narratives with the story of how, towards the end of 1889, Vincent Van Gogh mailed some recent paintings to his brother Theo (an art dealer, untiring in his attempts to promote and sell Vincent’s work). Looking to reduce the cost of postage, he decided not to send some of the lower quality pieces in which he saw no real potential, including a rather bold but unusual study of the night’s sky. Today, The Starry Night hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, immediately familiar as one of the most celebrated works in the history of painting. It exists as a powerful reminder that great creative achievements are still sometimes dismissed by their own creators and that self-doubt can be just as consonant with success as self-belief.
The Starry Night does not derive its excellence from Van Gogh’s disinterest and dissatisfaction in the finished work (“[it] says nothing to me” he told his brother); however, his willingness to dismiss a now heralded masterpiece is indicative of something that is frequently overlooked when discussing creativity – that self-doubt is often liberating where self-belief can be constraining. Had Van Gogh become infatuated with the work – or lived in an era like ours where creative successes are frequently hyped to death no sooner than they’ve been completed – he might have spent what remained of his life trying to recreate the magic of that one painting, struggling after an effect that was (arguably) experimental and therefore unrepeatable. Instead, he continued to push forward with his art, trying out subtly different compositions and producing distinctive new pieces – unfettered by any vanity with regard to his own work.
As this story demonstrates, the creative potential of self-doubt lies in its capacity to combat complacency; encouraging us to keep looking for new approaches and possible solutions, rather than becoming fully satisfied with our first breakthrough. Of course, this could easily begin to sound like a description of perfectionism – an obsessive approach to the creative process which, at an extreme, can be very damaging – but this is why a distinction must be made between perfectionism and constructive self-doubt. There is a rigour of thinking that accompanies self-doubt, a helpful attitude of questioning that is too often over-looked in the fast-moving modern workplace.
In particular, too much emphasis on collaboration can deprive projects of creative self-doubt. Susan Cain, in her book Quiet (2012), argues that because teamwork is so cherished in the corporate world, non-collaborative work (of the sort preferred by self-questioning introverts) is almost impossible to find. Corporations encourage teamwork because of its potential for high productivity, but (as Cain points out) it can be particularly damaging to creative processes: especially that positive part which self-doubt can play. When working collaboratively, the rigorous second-questioning of self-doubt is likely to be quashed by group enthusiasm as soon as an appealing idea is landed upon. Once momentum is established in a group working environment, it becomes very difficult to derail, and thus the attempt to raise doubts can easily be ignored. This can leave superior second ideas or significant alterations unexamined to the possible detriment of the project.
The fact is, self-doubt appears unattractive. Since it’s typically seen as a ‘negative’ quality – a questioning, tentative attitude ill-suited to the strong ideals of leadership required in competitive corporate environments – it can suggest that we’re unsure of ourselves and what we’re doing. But self-doubt, when harnessed properly, is fantastic at propelling the creative process forward. A wonderful model of how this can work is found in the ‘Critiquing’ method of teaching common to most art schools. One by one, a group of students will display their work for the rest of the group to comment on and discuss, taking it in turns to question and be questioned. Although a collaborative means of feedback, its ultimate aim is to enable the individual to work more effectively when alone. It uses a group dynamic to refine self-questioning into a powerful creative tool. Learning to answer other people’s questions about your work encourages you to ask those questions of yourself whilst in the midst of the creative process. It helps you to internalise the critique of others, making you better able to justify your decisions as you make them.
Although self-doubt can, when unchecked, become paralysing – this style of self-critique turns self-doubt into a brief interrogation with your own evaluative standards. It helps you to become clearer about your own opinions and, paradoxically, feel more confident about what you’ve done. This is why we shouldn’t hope to eradicate self-doubt or replace it with the serene attitude of self-confidence; team leaders and decision-makers must appreciate that there is space for this introvert, modest quality in any organisation. Not only can efficient self-questioning help you to refine your own creative process, it can help you become a better advocate of your own work. Helping you to understand what makes your approach distinct, whilst keeping complacency very much at bay