Sunday, June 6, 2010

Doubt

"To believe is to be strong. Doubt cramps energy. Belief is power"
-- Dr
. Endicott Peabody (1857-1944)

The above quote was attributed to Dr. Endicott Peabody, headmaster of Groton, by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

It is an interesting quote, as it illustrates how doubt can be a cancer on the soul and diminish and scatter your energy. For many people, doubt is a specter that haunts them throughout their lives. We all have to deal with doubt from time to time. And in the last few years, after the collapse of the Real Estate and Stock markets, many people are racked with doubt - even as things start to improve.

If you go through life second-guessing yourself, being unsure about decisions, or avoiding making decisions because of doubt, then you will forever be tormented. Not deciding, is, of course, a decision, albeit a passive one. An as I have noted before in my entries on drug use and depression, the stasis induced by both can be devastating to an individual.

Doubt, in its worst form, can be a mental illness - panic disorder - a complete lack of confidence and faith in one's self. People afflicted with this disease may find it hard to even leave the home without being overwhelmed by doubt, which may manifest itself in physical form as a panic attack.

Many people squelch doubt by following the crowd. We watch television and take our social cues from that and other media and act accordingly. Television is a teaching machine, training people on socially normative cues. When told what to do, people feel comfortable and confident. Place the average person in a situation where they don't know what to do, and they panic.

Many people don't take advantage of opportunities because of doubt and fear. For example, I like to repair my own cars. Many people are fearful to try this, convinced they will break something in the process. And the simple answer to that is, yes, you will break something - many things - over the years, if you work on cars.

Mechanics do it all the time and it is considered part and parcel of the process. Spark plugs snap off, brake caliper bleed screws break, bolts snap, etc. That's why they have "easy-outs", hacksaws, and torches. And that's why, sometimes, when doing a simple brake job, you may end up needing a new caliper or brake line. Shit happens, as they say.

If you are afraid of making a mistake, then chances are, you will be risk-averse. Doubt will prevent you from taking a chance and possibly succeeding. And many people live in absolute fear of ever making a mistake.

In school, we saw this all the time. Students remain quiet and say nothing, for fear of giving the wrong answer. So they say nothing and look stupid (while, as the saying goes, others open their mouths and remove all doubt). I was never afraid in school to speak up, even if I ended up giving the wrong answer. Yes, the people in the back of the room who never raised their hands would snicker. They were never wrong, but then again, they were never right.

Babe Ruth had a lifetime batting average of .342, which means that for every three times he swung at a ball, he likely missed twice. And yet, his is the 10th highest batting average in history. Baseball has often been viewed as a metaphor for life. You fail a lot in baseball, both at bat, in the field, and in terms of games won and lost. But one strikeout or one lost game does not make the season. And one season does not make a career.

Many people go through life paranoid about making mistakes, losing, failing, or otherwise striking out. As a result, they often get into more trouble than normal. Their fear of doing anything wrong at all, causes them do things colossally wrong.

I recall reading a story about an Attorney in Virgina who was accused of embezzlement. An honor student in high school, he graduated Magna Cum Laude from his college and top of his class in law school. His career took off like a rocket - working at the right firm, opening his own practice, wild success and fame and riches. It would seem he could do no wrong. He never experienced failure.

When his business ventures started to fail, rather than bail out and take his losses, he resorted to embezzling client funds. He couldn't fail - it was not in his vocabulary. So instead of experiencing a small failure, he experienced a spectacular one. Disbarment, bankruptcy, jail time.

Fail early, fail often, is my motto. You are better off making a lot of failures early on in life and learning from them. And the main thing you learn, is that the consequences of failure are not as dire as they may seem. Take risks and live with the consequences, good and bad. Learn from both. But self-doubt and fear teach us nothing but depression and stasis. Scratch the surface of someone who is depressed, and you'll find fear and self-doubt in spades.

This is not to say you should also have blind faith in everything you do. Narcissism is not the answer either. Doubts should be analyzed and evaluated and then calculated risks taken. Oftentimes, the perceived risk is far less than you may think. The worst case scenario is not all that bad. You make a bad investment - the worst that can happen is you lose money. Compared to your personal health and happiness, money is a trivial matter.

In my business, I see this all the time. A businessman approaches me and asks, "How can I be sure that I will not infringe someone else's Patent?" The simple answer is, you can't. You can take steps to manage the risk, but you cannot eliminate it. Running a business is all about risk-taking, which is why we heap rewards on those who are successful. After all, more than half do not succeed, perhaps more than 3/4.

There are some, in our society, that see rewarding risk-takers as wrong, as the amount rewarded seems overly large. There was an extensive article in the New Yorker about this recently, arguing that businessmen really don't take risks, but actually seek out easy profits with lower risks. This is, of course, true. But the key is being able to see where there is easy profits with lower risks where other people perceive low profits and high risks. The risk-taker does not perceive himself to be taking a risk - others do.

So when I do a $2000 repair on my car for $200, I do not see it as risky. I know how to do the job, or have manuals explaining it, and can determine how difficult it is, versus the money saved. But to others without tool skills, it seems like an impossible risk to take, possibly damaging a $10,000 car, which, if they tried to do the repair, probably would happen.

Does this mean I should be forced to pay the same amount as they do for car repairs? I think not.

As our society becomes more risk-averse, we end up punishing risk-takers more and more. Our litigation-based society rewards passive "victims" and their attorneys, often at the expense of risk-takers. Granted, in some instances, such lawsuits are justified. But we have evolved into a culture that both decries litigation abuse and secretly craves it, at the same time. Everyone Else's lawsuit is frivolous - mine has merit, of course! That is the mentality.

The net result is more doubt. I know people who have closed businesses or aborted business plans because of fears of lawsuits - doubts. They are concerned that for all the hard work they put into a business, the most they could get out would be equivalent to what a normal wage-earner would make. And to some extent, they are right. Many small businessmen make little more than their employees. And they are all one lawsuit away from bankruptcy.

Many simply conclude that starting or running a business simply isn't worth it - which is one reason our country has fallen behind other nations in terms of innovation and job growth. Countries which are more willing to take risks are building businesses. The Chinese and Indians jump into the business arena and make money. What's the worse that could happen? They start over in another business. As a result, those economies are thriving, and manufacturing jobs are moving to those markets - where the risks are less and the rewards greater. They are not paralyzed by doubt, as we are in the USA.

In contrast, if you wanted to open a factory in this country, particularly in places like New York or California, there would be endless debate about the location and appropriateness of the factory, and no doubt, some "citizens group" (possibly funded by a competitor) would spring up to squash your plans. There are too many unknowns, they would tell you. Too many issues. Too many doubts. They would rather cling to a status quo established in a less doubt-ridden era.

But on a more personal level, dealing with doubt is important in making your financial plans and balancing your personal finances. Most folks, in fear of doing something "wrong", tend to follow the great herd, and as a result, end up in financial trouble. Spending like they show on television, borrowing like they show on television, and wasting, like they show on television, can deplete your estate in short order.

Having the belief in yourself to try doing things differently than the mainstream, is the key. No one wants to be laughed at or ridiculed. And you will risk that if you don't act like everyone else does. This is one reason why teenagers and young adults are so conformist - to their own social norms. Give your child an obsolete cell phone or the wrong brand of sneakers, and they will be laughed off campus. Their faith in themselves is still very fragile, and they are rife with doubt.

The ideas I have tried in this blog are off the mainstream for many people. Most folks over-insure their cars (living in fear and doubt that a trivial asset will be destroyed) and shop in the mall for the latest trendy cloths (for fear of being laughed at for wearing last year's styles). They try to spend their way to happiness, hoping the noise and bruhaha of the modern busy life will silence the doubt in the back of their minds. And it never does.

I live a different sort of life than most folks. I shop at thrift stores for my clothes. I try to analyze each purchase I make and spend less, rather than simply try to make more money and squander. I am trying to enjoy life more, consume less. Doing things rather than owning things, is my goal for the next decade. I am not interested in the latest TV shows, Internet sites, trends, cars, gadgets, or whatever. And no, I really don't care whether others snicker and giggle. Because the kids who sit at the back of the class and try to "fit in" never really succeed at anything.

And it has been a wonderful experience. Looking back at the 9-5 existence most people lead - commuting to jobs that they hate, living "paycheck to paycheck" in continual anxiety of being laid off, spending countless hours watching TeeVee and eating bad food. No thanks. And it puzzles me that so many - so many millions, perhaps billions - accept this as a way of life.

There are other ways to live, I think. No doubt!


Have faith in the things you do, you won't go wrong. This is our golden rule"
-- We are Family, Sister Sledge

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