Doubting to learn

Paul Heagen Purposeful Leadership & Living Leave a Comment

Many years ago in my corporate career, someone who knew me well told me: “You’re not always right, but you’re never in doubt.”

It took me a while to realize that the observation probably wasn’t a compliment! (And here I thought it was just my intellectual determination at work!)
How do we feel about being “in doubt?”
Ego, at its most base level, tends to discount or even fend off doubt. Doubt is often associated with uncertainty, and uncertainty is associated with insecurity. Ego sees challenges as an opportunity to summon what we already know, rather than explore a new road. We can see doubt as a drag chute, a brake, on our commitment and focus. If we let doubt creep into our thinking, it threatens to erode our sense of clarity, our focus.
Or does it?
Certainly, we can stipulate that there are situations — particularly where the mission is urgent and even existential — when you cannot afford to have doubt, or at least not express those doubts to those who you lead.
Still, the willingness to offer quarter to doubt is a sign of mature leadership.
Embracing doubt as part of your decision-making process accomplishes two essential things:
Learning  The enemy of growth and learning is certainty. Certainty, and its cousin Familiarity, quash curiosity. Keeping an open mind when all about you are closing theirs (sorry, Rudyard Kipling) is a tension that is worth embracing. Answering questions too readily throttles new ideas, other perspectives, contrarian views. Certainty is the target fixation of decision-making, where we see a challenge as a test of the reservoir of experience that has served us in the past. As any pilot or motorcyclist will tell you, you go where you look. There are times when we need to look more broadly, develop a peripheral vision to see what else there is to learn. The simply question we can always ask to make sure we are not falling into the trap of familiarity or certainty is simply: What else?
Humility  We live in a big world, bigger than us, changing faster than us, more complex than we can ever encompass. Humility takes us out the center of the universe of our own making and places us — rightfully and proportionately — in that larger world. When we doubt, we are acknowledging that larger space — with both the danger and opportunity it can present. What grounds us in humility is the simple acknowledgment: I might be wrong.
Having doubt at the right times does not make us any less determined or focused or decisive. It us a discipline that reminds us that the things that can stretch us a grow us the most are often right outside our normal field of view. We just need to be looking for them.

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