“Doubt Kills More Dreams Than Failure” is a quote by Suzy Kassem, apparently. I admit I don’t know her, but the quote jumped out at me on a LinkedIn Post referencing a brief article by Richard Branson.
My first reaction was “what a load of BS”. In fact, having seen people live by the maxim in the way I suspect Kassim meant it, I got positively incensed by it. Yet once I was done reading Branson’s musings inspired by what I first though was a very dumb and dangerous motto, I decided (not in the spirit of Kassem I think) that it is correct after all, but it needs an important corollary:
- Doubt Kills More Dreams Than Failure;
- That’s a good thing, because Doubt also Gives Birth to Better Dreams, helping to avoid Failure. Listen to Your Doubts
If humanity had ever completely stopped doubting and questioning, science for one would have ground to a halt, innovation would have stopped, and businesses would have continued to fail at a much higher rate than they do. We would still ‘dream’ that Newtonian gravity, classical mechanics, atomism, and Lamarckism are perfect. Instead, we moved on as a species, because we allowed ourselves to doubt these and other theories. We doubt even good ideas from time to time, but the prize is better ideas, better dreams, and lower risk of failure.
It’s no different in business than it is in the domain of science: listen to your doubts, listen to the doubters in your team, take disappointment and embrace it, embrace diversity of opinions and get on with it. Because you are likely to get to a far better outcome than if you had single-mindedly and doggedly pursued your great, immutable dream of an idea. Plus you are likely to avoid failure altogether, and get outcomes you didn’t even dream of. Who wouldn’t want that?
Ideas and dreams, like any other memes, want to evolve in a literal, Darwinian sense:
- Ideas and dreams need to change and adapt. Even random change is better than no change at all (mutations)
- Ideas evolve best if there is a whole “population” of them: If you can try many of them at once, at least some will likely work. That’s like being “lucky by design”.
- Keep more of what works, and less of what doesn’t (selection)
- But don’t be too quick to cull what doesn’t work (maintain diversity: what initially doesn’t look promising might still be the first step in the right direction; it’s just less likely to be just that; so keep some of the ‘small losers’ amongst your dreams around for a while, just in case)
I could really go into details of how all this maps into the (biological and information-theoretical) theories of evolution, I leave that as material for my lectures. Also, it would detract from the much simpler point here. As Richard Branson says it:
You will inevitably find difficulties on the way. Don’t focus on the negatives – turn the challenge into an opportunity. Looks for ways around your problem and keep pushing for a solution. This stage is the hardest and many entrepreneurs give up at this point – I nearly have on so many occasions. If things are getting you down, have a rest and a cup of tea. Quite often solutions come to me when I’m kitesurfing or having some downtime with my family.
When you divert attention from a hard problem you are stuck with, that is a hard problem which you have already spent some time thinking about, your brain’s “System 2” (in the language of Kahnemann, the thinking, analytical, conscious part of your brain) is training your brain’s “System 1” (the instinctive, intuitive, sub-conscious and non-verbal) to eventually come up with a better intuition (note, it’s not a better insight; that comes later, when System 2 interprets your intuition consciously and verbalizes it). How does System 1 do this? We don’t really know (we don’t even know if there is a distinct line between the two Systems, or whether there are more than two), but the science of machine learning at least gives us a hint that this ‘training’ of the instinctive part of the brain is done via what information theorists call ‘evolutionary algorithms’. For this to work, you need to switch off System 2 (the conscious, analytical part of your brain: the part that tends to ‘get stuck’ in ideas): go and have a cup of tea or go skiing or whatever. All the problems you found, all the doubts you had, all the things you got stuck on, can (but not always will) become pointers to a better solution, especially if and when you manage to switch off. But for this to work, you have to first spend time thinking about the problem, i.e. facing up to it. Facing your doubts, your critics, and your hurdles.
My career so far has been first as a scientist, then I was in big businesses, and lastly (so far) in advising/coaching of mostly small businesses. In all three domains, it’s two things that make you fail: either (i) not facing up to problems at all, i.e. not thinking or talking about them, or soliciting criticism and listening, or (ii) not taking time out not thinking about them. In science, I had the best ideas not while I was working hard on a problem (although these “thinking” periods are necessary), but thereafter, when I was doing completely unrelated things. Anecdotal evidence is that I am not alone with my experience of this. In business, most progress wasn’t made in the meeting where everything was discussed openly and everyone was encouraged to pick holes in the strategy. But these meetings and discussions set the stage for eventual deep insights later one, maybe weeks later, a spark of intuition by someone who wasn’t expecting it at a time when they expected it even less.
It is always dogged single-minded hard-headedness that brings dreams crashing down hardest, eventually. The people who bring these experiences upon themselves are often the ones who work the hardest and the longest hours. They try too hard to make their ideas work and don’t contemplate adapting them at all. They don’t listen, don’t solicit or act upon criticism, and they don’t think outside their own box. They are either “always on” System 2 (never stop thinking), or “never on” System 2 (never consciously listen to inputs that don’t confirm their hypothesis of the world). They get stuck and simply don’t listen even to their own doubts (or never have any). As we say, “madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome“. In this sense at least, it’s mad.
So be open to criticism, scepticism, doubts, and new ideas, and new experiences. You won’t learn anything if you don’t question your ideas and dreams. Let yourself be coached by anyone and anything, even your own staff. In fact, see it as one of their jobs. Train your System 1 about what the problem is, and then take time out, relax, and let the sub-conscious, intuitive System 1 do its work in the background.
Allow your doubts and your doubters in, and System 1 will kill your dreams frequently for you (and create better ones in the process), or else failure will likely kill the dream for you much later and much worse. The reason failure doesn’t kill dreams as often is because doubt, for most people, tends to get there first. And that’s a good thing. Doubt lets you play experiences in your head in such numbers that it would take many lifetimes (and many failures) to try them out in real life.
The longer you wait to listen to the doubters and doubts, the worse it is when the dreams come crashing down: from sad (“I lost six months on this”) to spectacular (“I can’t believe how many people saw me fail”) and tragic (“I wasted my most productive years on this”). No idea works first time, no dream becomes reality without adaptation, except perhaps by exorbitant luck.
Now you may think this is a bit of a glum blog post. Not at all: it’s a call to action: Be a gardener of dreams. Weed out frequently, and plant many. You don’t even have to do it consciously: If you face up to criticism and doubt and diversity of opinion, System 1 will do the job for you while you are having fun, will kill your dreams without you even noticing and replace them with better and more exciting dreams in the process. Yes, on the glum side, I have seen people around me suffer the tragic alternative outcomes of their dogged single-minded pursuit of their one grand idea too often not to be passionate about this message (followers of Suzy Kassem perhaps), but I have seen and experienced the opposite much more often: the positive outcomes of allowing diversity of opinion, allowing yourself to question everything and be questioned on everything, of not taking yourself and your dreams too seriously, and simply taking time out every now and then and trust your instinct to produce a new and better (more resilient, more exciting, and more realistic) dream eventually. And as a freebie, you get excited, engaged, and motivated staff too!
You never know, but chances are you might get to places you never even dreamed of. Try it out.
And good luck, by design!