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The Virtue of Doubt

Updated on October 18, 2011

Knowing When to Stop. . .

Three years ago, I read a newspaper article explaining the ultimate tragedy: the death of a child. The child, who was eight years old, died a seemingly senseless death by attempting to leap from one building to another. The child ambitiously climbed the roof top of his home, tried to jump to the roof top of his accompanying neighbour's home, all but to fall to his tragic death. Long story short, the child thought he could be Superman. . .

Out of respect, I won't mention the name of the child nor the parents. This isn't an article to chastise the parents. The mother was present at the time of the child's death. She was inside watching the child play outdoors from the window sill when this all happened so fast. Nor is the point of this article to make parents fall into a world of constant fear; watching their children every two seconds. What I wish to delve upon is the motivations behind the child before he committed to this fateful act. His motivations I found were rather adult in nature, making this situation seemingly more than a case of childhood innocence resulting in a horrifying accident.

The child was confident, intelligent, and gifted. He would always get good marks, skipped a couple of grades, and despite being only eight years old; he probably had a higher IQ than many who are currently reading this article. He wasn't suicidal by any means, or a troubled child who grew up in a troubled household. He wasn't bullied and had plenty of friends. His confidence was described as so electrifying that it made teachers actually want to teach; in the end I would argue this was the primary cause of his academic success. People become infatuated with a positive thinker regardless of age; that good grades just flow swiftly from the stroke of a pen onto the paper, without being interrupted by a single thought of critical analysis. The kid was literally taught he could do anything, be anything, and achieve everything. So that's exactly what he believed. . . Right down to the diagrams the police found in the child's room where he planned, calculated, and brainstormed how he could physically perform the Superman jump.

I imagine the police must have had difficulty classifying this death; and merely settled on calling it an accident due to the age of the victim, but a part of me wonders had the boy been a teenager instead and pulled this tragic stunt, what would have been the verdict? The death wasn't a result of an accident; it was previously planned. The death wasn't the result of a suicide. Reckless behaviour? Maybe, but I could argue that had those calculations the police found not been off by a few inches, the kid would have made the jump. This is hardly the characteristics of a reckless individual. Mental insanity? Clean bill of health. In fact, due to the kid's high confidence levels that are so valued by our society; the kid was seen as a bastion of sanity. Ignorance? Seems the kid was fully aware of what he was doing; along with the ramifications and risks involved.

Do you want to know what I believe was the culprit? No concept of self-doubt. Let's say, for the sake of argument; that indeed humans "can do anything if you just put your mind to it," does that necessarily mean that you should do it just because you can? Is there something to be said in "no, I can't do it"?

You Can't Do It. . . So What?!

Think of all the times in your life you've wasted pursuing projects, material, jobs, careers, people, etc. that you knew deep down inside you couldn't possibly achieve at the given place and given time. If you were to make a list of all the times this has happened throughout your life; it would be quite a humbling experience. So what propelled you to do them anyways? Mostly it was a combination of peer pressures and "not wanting to be a loser/quitter." Had you just listened to your inner doubts, embraced the "I can't do," and instead focused on what you could do; how different would the results have been?

Doing this exercise may compel you to ask that if you were to go back in time; what advice would you give your younger self? Contrary to conventional wisdom, taking a moment to dwell on the past isn`t pointless, provided you learn something from it. If I could go back in time, I would tell my younger self to drop out of high school (and maybe get a G.E.D later). Seems hard to believe I would give my younger self such advice; surely after fifteen years I would be mature enough to see the value in an education you ask? Let’s just say, after fifteen years I’ve come to the realization that some things are more important than others; and sometimes you can’t have it all. A recognized and established certificate of education is nice to have, but like many things, it carries a cost. Depending on the person and circumstances, the cost could prove to be too high. This brings me to my second point; doubtfulness can not only help you save time, but also allows you to understand the notion of sacrifice. Doubt can allow you to properly gauge what and how much can be appropriately sacrificed to achieve a greater goal.

In my case with high school and college; when I look back at my 16 year old self, I have come to respect my intuition demonstrated at such a young age. I had my doubts with the whole process. I remember struggling with school; despite spending almost all of my free time on homework. A lingering thought entered my mind growing up during those years. That thought was that if high school is meant to prepare us for nothing but college, yet I struggle with high school, what are my chances of doing well in college? Let’s put it this way, if I`m struggling at try-outs despite putting in greater effort than other athletes, what chances do I reasonably have at the big game?

At first I tried to adopt a non-fatalistic attitude to the whole ordeal. Maybe I can make up for my lack of ability in academics by just working harder? Then I came to the realization there wasn’t any more room to “make up”. I’m already exhausted with high school doing homework all hours of the night. Each person only has 24 hours a day. I can’t put in more hours by making a day say 30 hours instead. Then I told myself that perhaps a change in “studying strategy” was in order, until I came to the realization that I’ve exhausted all possible resources in this regard. I went through more tutors than I can count. The peak of this “learn how to study properly” bubble came when I discovered I spent much more time learning how to study; rather than actually studying! So it was back to normal; slugging my way to get a C average. No social life, all homework, all the time; just to get the measly C average.

I passed high school. I struggled to achieve a paper that told me I'm “college prepared,” without any realistic expectations to do well in college. Every waking hour spent in this institution was for “college prep,” and not a single minute was devoted to learning a skill I could actually need or use. Seeing that I never was college material; a part of me to this day still thinks I shouldn't have bothered with high school and just dropped out. During that time it was the booming late 90's; I could have got a job, and although not great, save some money. In my spare time, I could have read many books. Good books, and not the bad books I was being told to read. I have come to the realization I would have been better off in the long run had I chosen this path instead. . .

In the end, I succumbed to peer-pressure that led to devastating and destructive consequences. I ignored my doubts and heeded way to naivety. Despite all my personal reservations; I was determined to get that college degree.

I sacrificed a job where I made, adjusted for inflation, fifteen an hour at age 19. I did this all for the sake of college. I thought that if I could get fifteen an hour at age 19 (while the rest of my friends were working at McDonald`s) without college; imagine what I could do with college? This was a stupid move, I had to drop out of college early due to horrible grades, and we hit a recession. There were no fifteen an hour jobs for me anymore, in fact, there were no jobs at all.

Then I sacrificed a business I started to give another attempt at college. I liquidated the business entirely to have some money while going to college. This was another stupid move. My grades were brutal; and once again I was forced to drop out early due to academic probation.

Finally, I gave college a third shot, enticed by more government grants (along with student loans) than I could count. Strike three, you`re out! I went from age 19 and 10K in my bank account; to age 26 and 10K in debt with no college degree to show for it. Mind you, the money wasn’t the biggest problem. The biggest loss of all was the blown opportunities I mentioned in previous paragraphs by taking the time fumbling around in college.

So what compelled me to make these stupid decisions? I ignored my doubts and fell into peer pressure. I remember the beckoning words of my mother, “the words I can’t are not tolerated in this household” was our number one motto. The number two motto was “success can only come with a college education.” Doubt was illegal in my childhood. Hopefully I am now the wiser for it; as I now understand that doubt is merely accepting the fact there are certain things you can’t do; and moving on!

The Virtue Of Doubt

So, now we’re starting to see some of the hidden virtues of doubt. Doubt allows us to:

  • Not succumb to peer pressures
  • Not waste our time
  • Prioritise what is truly important
  • Weight in risks
  • Doubt is our basic survival instinct. Doubt tells us when we should stop before we go too far. Doubt could very well be the only attribute that's keeping us alive. . .

What Demographic Has The Least Doubt?

Still don't believe me when I state that doubt is a virtue? The truth of the matter is those who grow up “believing they can do anything,” actually believe it! This is especially true when the whole thought process is backed up by the approval of well-meaning academia and subsequently trickles down into career success; leading to monetary success. So far, so good, right? Not quite. . .

There’s a certain demographic in America that without a doubt; are the least doubtful people on the face of the Earth. They’re mostly male, mostly bachelors, and per capita are the highest educated people on the planet. Their average age is 35.6 years and they’re generally fitter and healthier (at least physically) than most Americans. They have an average I.Q of 121 and they’ve had their fair share of “lucrative careers.” They’re extremely confident, go-getters, and believe they’re capable of doing anything! Now before you get too excited ladies, there's but one problem, they’re serial murderers in some of America's roughest prisons. Yes, that's right, when surveyed serial murderers displayed the highest levels of confidence and the least amount of self-doubt out of the entire population.

-Donovan D. Westhaver


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    • carcro profile image

      Paul Cronin 

      7 years ago from Winnipeg

      Yes, we have all kinds of senses that serve as a protection as well as guidance. Good info here, I feel very bad for the child and family, either way its tragic to make a mistake so final. Most of us are fortunate to survive our poor judgement...


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