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The Benefits of Self Doubt

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No one has all the answers, all the time. No matter how well a person is doing, how many things are working out, it is essential to always question and critically evaluate your thinking. You have to be open to doubt.

Now, that doesn’t mean allowing doubt to take over your life and freeze you into a situation of paralysis by analysis. You cannot be so overridden by self-doubt and questioning that you are unable to do anything; but a healthy level of self-doubt will help you hone your thinking to a sharp point and operate more effectively.

For a positive example of self-doubt, consider Warren Buffett. The Oracle of Omaha is the most successful investor ever. He is one of the most brilliant business minds we’ve ever seen, and he’s ridden his smarts to the top. If anyone would have reason to banish all doubt and do whatever he wanted with supreme, unquestioned self-confidence, it is Warren Buffett.

But that’s not how it is. Warren Buffett has proven—not only with his words but through his actions—that he sees great value to questioning yourself, to being open to doubt. The 2013 annual meeting for Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway was held in early May. For most companies, these annual meetings are completely scripted events; every word the corporate bosses say is pretested and approved, messages are frequently prerecorded, and even the questions “from the floor” are usually preapproved softballs. Nobody gets to say anything that contradicts the approved message from corporate leadership.

But Berkshire Hathaway did it a bit differently. With 35,000 stockholders hanging on every word from Buffett’s mouth at their meeting, he not only welcomed but specifically invited participation from someone who disagrees with him. Doug Kass is an investor who has publicly shorted Berkshire Hathaway’s stock; Mr. Buffett asked him to be on the panel of analysts asking questions at the annual meeting. Far from congratulatory softballs, Mr. Kass was certain to pose skeptical questions challenging the strategy of the company—and that’s exactly what Buffett wanted.

This is just a recent example of a lifelong trend of seeking out people who doubt and disagree with him. What Warren Buffett knows is that you have to be willing to open your eyes and ears to contrarian thinking, to challenge and test what you’re doing. He is open to feedback and doesn’t take it personally. He knows that he doesn’t have all the answers; he doubts himself every day, and that doubt drives him to keep looking and thinking about different ways of doing things.

And the way you respond to those contrarian views is so important. You cannot reject them out of hand. You might take those objections in mind and overcome them with counter-evidence, giving you more confidence in your idea. Or you might change your mind as a result of those objections. But either way, you have to take them seriously and engage with them, not ignore them. Self-doubt helps you refine your thinking—no matter which direction it takes you.

Published: May 28, 2013
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