I’ve been thinking about my own propensity for self-doubt a lot recently. The seemingly significant overlap between the motivational/self-help world and the craft world frequently sets me to wondering about myself; all the people posting inspirational aphorisms and quoting professional inspirers leave me feeling well outside the space the craft/inspiration complex creates.

For a while now I’ve been wondering if I’ve been going about things all wrong, but today I ended up in a conversation with K and another fellow here in Cambridge about the self-confidence paradigm. I’ve now decided that self-doubt is a profoundly undervalued attribute. Rather than being something to be overcome, self-doubt should perhaps be embraced.

In that vein I want to share a few things I’ve learned over the years:

The first idea is more often than not profoundly mediocre.

That doesn’t mean it is bad, just that it can certainly be improved through further consideration, by being questioned and interrogated. Doubting that initial idea, or one’s instinct, is generally a good way to come to more resonant and meaningful solutions; it is the best way to get beneath the surface of things and find those hidden elements. It’s like mining: the richest deposits are generally deep beneath those first glimmers just below the surface. It takes the hard work of digging and digging to get to that mother lode.

Definite actions are not always the best idea.

Patient waiting and cautious practice are amazing things. Mulling an idea over in one’s head, or better yet in writing, again and again, can produce remarkable clarity. Insight is not just about the flashes of inspiration that we mythologize; most insight comes from careful introspection, and deep thought is a lot of work. The very act of thinking, that seeming small action, takes a lot of practice, and is best done with an enormous dose of doubt. Self-confidence so often steers people away from anguished self-examination or skeptical consideration of one’s own ideas. Confidence values trusting oneself, but I generally find my own brain to be remarkably unreliable. It wants to believe what it believes, to take those leaps of faith, before it knows why. But it is in the why that the most profound understanding lies.

Reworking things generally makes them better.

Once in a blue moon I get something just right the first time. Actually that isn’t true; I get it to be good enough, but it could be better. Editing is a virtue, or should be. Yes, sometimes a project just has to be called done, but not always. My favorite kind of editing is the work that happens before even starting. Working and reworking an idea, a design, anything, embracing that annoying, nagging self-doubt that whispers in the back of your head is how you make exceptional work. When I saw Picasso’s Guernica in Madrid over twenty years ago I spent about five minutes with the painting and four hours with the seemingly endless preparatory drawings Picasso made. I love the painting, but those sketches, the thousands of them, speak to the doubt that underlies the undertaking of great work. Everything is thought and rethought, tried, trashed, revived, and reinvented. In doubting every aspect, especially oneself, those sublime nuances so easily missed are found and made manifest.

Planning is a good thing.

The creativity industrial complex perpetuates the myth of external agency when it comes to inspiration; we talk about being struck by inspiration, as if from the outside, and thus to doubt that is akin to questioning the divine. Much of the popularization of art is about trusting one’s instincts and then accepting that as one’s innermost truth. The thing is that I rarely understand myself and generally find my instincts to be self-contradictory. The only way I can make sense of anything, or find even a sliver of sense in myself, is to map it out, to plan, to anticipate every contingency, and even then I have to make a lot of shit up. Planning is not the enemy of creativity; it is its incubator.

Anxiety usually means something isn’t right.

So much of the inspiration/creativity world valorizes silencing the noise of anxiety or at least overcoming it. I think of anxiety much the same way I think about my children: if they are making irritating noises, that usually means they need help. I would never ignore their annoying noises, so why would I do so with the annoying noises in my head. Take the time to work through the anxiety, to embrace it and figure it out. Don’t just impose self-confidence upon it; being anxious is okay. Hell, medicate it if you need to get a grip on it, but don’t just pretend it ain’t there. I’ve held up really working on projects for years because starting just made me perpetually anxious, but I have always been glad to recognize that the paralyzing self-doubt is there for a reason, even if I can’t see it yet. In my experience paralysis is better than jumping into a gaping chasm.

If you don’t know something, take the time to learn it.

Faking it works in high school, but after that people are going to start calling you out. You should always be aiming for better than faking it. The thing that keeps you from doing shit you can’t do yet is self-doubt. It is a truly mighty evolutionary development. Just think of yourself as the lemming who is too afraid to start running on a certain (ill-fated) Saturday afternoon. Instead look around and get your bearings; learn a bit more and then give it a go.

Fear is your friend.

I am afraid of almost everything. I know I have a good idea when I force myself to overcome my fears. That is my barometer for ideas. Large crowds like those at Quilt Market are horrifying for me, so I am not flying all the way to Houston just to go “for the fun of it.” Spring Market, on the other hand, is a different matter. Since my book is coming out it would be a truly good idea for me to be there, so I shall go. That may be a blunt instance, but it gets the point across; I still don’t want to go to Spring Market, but the goodness of the idea outweighs the terror I feel about going. My fear is my friend.

It’s okay to feel crappy about yourself, at least sometimes.

Confidence has the strong potential to lead to complacency, to laziness. It is easy to get into a rut when you feel good about yourself, when you trust yourself. It is easy to start gliding along. The thing about gliding is that it happens on the surface, like those America’s Cup yachts skimming along the ocean on the tiniest carbon fins. Yep, racing along is kinda exhilarating, but there is some profoundly amazing stuff under the ocean, and there is a lot more ocean beneath the surface than on the surface. Hey, that’s where we get the word superficial.

So, go ahead. Embrace that self-doubt. Feel really shitty about yourself and your work. Decide to chuck it all on a regular basis. Hell, I had an art bonfire a year after I finished undergrad because I just had to get rid of all the crappy crap and move on. While the world has embraced (and likely invented) the idea of the inspired genius, the reality is most likely a story of prolonged doubt, mind-numbing work, and fitful, fraught progress. Great ideas don’t just appear; they are the product of work. No, not the tortured revelations we romanticize; just the mundane work of working through the great lakes of self-doubt we all have. Those great masters of their crafts are the ones who spent the most time swimming in their lakes.


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10 Responses to Confidence

  1. 1

    Awesome post. I agree with (and have gone through myself!) so many of the things you’ve discussed here.

  2. 2
    Kristin L says:

    A friend of mine summed it up when another friend questioned why I would doubt any of my work: “If she didn’t doubt herself she’d never improve.”

  3. 3
    Maggie Magee says:

    Love this, Thomas! Anxiety, to me, means there is a lot more there that needs to be looked at, thought about, and discovered–think that common sense is involved. Fear is survival. Not all confidence is real. As I get older, all of these things come into play.

  4. 4
    Jenny Bonynge says:

    Self doubt…Sometimes one has to trust one’s inner sense of what is right and then persevere forward with that creative drive. Exploring the idea until one feels satisfied…or…NOT. Working through an idea leads to satisfaction with one’s decision to call it good or the need to drop that idea entirely. Anxiety? I say jump in!

  5. 5
    Leanne says:

    I enjoy your insights into the value of using self-doubt to encourage growth in all the ways you describe. I don’t experience confidence in the manner you describe. For me confidence leads to an even greater push for improvement, learning and depth. It is just a starting point for me – a place where I can see the ever receding horizon of potential knowledge and improvement, not a ending place to laze about in.

  6. 6
    Ekaterina Balaban says:

    Brilliant summary, Thomas! My most profound THANK YOU. Bookmarking this post for coming back time and again when I need to recharge on the value of self-doubt… It’s a beautiful thing that moves the world!

  7. 7
    Joanna says:

    This is a really powerful post. Definitely one I’ll come back to again and again.

    “Planning is not the enemy of creativity; it is its incubator.” This is so spot on. I find that planning, and practicing, provide a framework for creativity to grow in.

    Now, if only I could manage to put this all in a manner that my 7 year old would get.

  8. 8
    A says:

    I agree with a lot of it, but I believe that all of the preparatory drawings have value & if Picasso had been Thomas Knauer, those all would have been bonfire fodder & we would not be able to see the evolution of the idea – the process. Which is where most of us are anyway, we only get to see the end product. For example, with your fabric lines, we see what is on store shelves – not the “purple” version that did not make the cut, not tree without the background, etc.

  9. 9
    Casey says:

    I’ve actually written a blog post on self-doubt that I’m waiting (for the courage…) to post, so this really resonated with me. I totally agree with your basic points. I do wonder, though, about when self-doubt is chronic. When it becomes a crippling force instead of a useful tool. Is it not then something to be overcome? I love your idea of working through the layers of self-doubt to a finished product. But if that work doesn’t eventually produce a result in which one is confident, I think there is still value in putting things out there. In fact, I think the act of sharing is often profoundly confidence-boosting and, in its absence, we are more prone to self-doubt. I wonder if the constant emphasis on confidence is not because people are too prone to confidence but because they are *too* crippled by doubt? (And don’t get me started on the myth of the creative genius, because I’ll never shut up.) 🙂

    • 9.1
      Christine says:

      I, too, have found self-doubt to be crippling sometimes, although more often in other areas of my life than expressions of creativity. For me, the word humility resonates. An attitude of humility helps me be open to being wrong and ready to explore deeper and alternative possibilities. Humility means not being too attached to an idea or its concrete expression and therefore able to tear something apart in order to make it better, without tearing myself apart over not having done it right or best in the first place. Humility helps me to accept the need for and endure “patient waiting and cautious practice”. Humility seems to indicate a degree of self-respect, the right balance between self-confidence and self-doubt.

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