Learn to deal with doubt

Fiction, Hollywood blockbusters and business have a heck of a lot in common. The journey from ‘here’ to ‘there’ is exactly the same irrespective of whether you’re reading the latest romantic fiction, watching an epic film or getting your startup off the ground from your back room.

In each and everyone of these actions, in order to succeed, you follow the same development curve where your motivation starts off wanting to solve a dilemma, sees a possible solution, thinks about it and gets some help, encouragement or advice, and then, after being convinced that this is the path to follow, begins the trials and tribulations which will lead to that defining moment of doubt when everything hangs in the balance. 

That’s the point where those who do, grit their teeth and press on regardless because they viscerally ‘get’ what it is they are trying to achieve and simply refuse to give up in the face of adversity, while those who don’t, well… they end up with a nice tale to tell someone at some point.

Joseph Campbell, identified this pattern of narrative, in his book Hero with a Thousand Faces as "The Hero’s Journey" and, for the benefit of writers everywhere, conveniently split it into 12 steps. For our purposes the moment of doubt is that moment every businessman knows inside out. It’s when the uphill struggle is mostly over but the easy run has yet not started. It’s the moment where you no longer have to work hard to convince anybody about the logic of your business but you know no one is going to miss you just yet if you and your ‘baby’ disappeared off the face of the world. At that moment in time everything appears to hang into one uneasy sort of balance and because there is no real adversity to force a focus, it becomes all too easy to concentrate instead on the Herculean task lying ahead and the amount of effort it will take.

Sounds familiar?

That’s the moment of almost surrender. The point where the ‘hero’ realizes that he is only human, that what is expected of him is unfair, that he really, really does not want it to be like that, to be this hard. In The Lord of the Rings it’s the moment the Fellowship is divided and Frodo and Sam take off alone, the Quest now squarely upon their shoulders. In The Matrix it’s when Neo dies, and, having come so far to fall at that point he comes back to life.

This is what science fiction writer Samuel R. Delaney has called “the annealing moment of doubt” that changes everything. Or as Virginia Woolf observes:

The writer seems constrained, not by his own free will but by some powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has him in thrall, to provide a plot, to provide comedy, tragedy, love interest, and an air of probability embalming the whole so impeccable that if all his figures were to come to life they would find themselves dressed down to the last button of their coats in the fashion of the hour. The tyrant is obeyed; the novel is done to a turn. But sometimes, more and more often as time goes by, we suspect a momentary doubt, a spasm of rebellion, as the pages themselves in the customary way. Is life like this? Must novels be like this?


Art Imitating Life Imitating Art

It is Woolf, a writer, who asks the most pertinent question of all: Should fiction mirror life? A question underpinned by the suspicion that if it shouldn’t and doesn’t then life is decidedly different than the easy, condensed symbolism of art would have us believe it is.

Woolf, of course, answers her own question:

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions- trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? We are not pleading merely for courage and sincerity; we are suggesting that the proper stuff of fiction is a little other than custom would have us believe it.


It’s All Connected

The connective thread here, of course, is us. Fiction with its verisimilitude of life allows us to reach deep in our everyday world and pull out the ‘good’ stuff, examine its running themes and obsessions devoid of the clutter of everyday life and hold up to the light the things that really matter.

Because human psychology drives everything, in every universe where humans are involved, we can hardly find a universe, real or fictional, that’s not ruled by our needs and wants, our fears and hopes, our aspirations and our failings. And in that amalgam of impulses and drives, thoughts and hopes, we see, at last, that in the end it comes down to the same thing: us, and our conviction. Us and our understanding of how we fit in the world.

And this brings us back to business. Doubt is a natural step in the process to becoming. More than that it is the most important step because, without adversity, without a foe to focus our energies upon, a deep-seated, slightly dark part of us steps up and does the job. At that point decisions are made. Conclusions drawn. And plans laid.

So in the initial question of the title of this piece about how you really deal with doubt, it is by making it the defining moment of your life and that of the life of your business. You tackle it head on, resolve it and make a decision you can live with and which will power you along the development curve of what you do.  

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External Links

Joseph Campbell
The Hero’s Journey
Virginia Woolf
Annealing moment of doubt