Taming Doubt

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

When I was eleven years old I could program in BASIC, and a little bit of Zilog_Z80 assembly, and I could write a pong game in a few hours. I was agitated that I couldn't draw shapes on the borders of the TV screen connected to my Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and was fascinated by how some people could record programs on cassette tapes, while I had to retype mine from scratch after every boot. In both cases I was determined to find the answers and it never occurred to me to ask the question of whether I am any good of a programmer. Everything I did was simply driven by my natural curiosity and meta-questions never came up.

Older people looked at me with gentle smiles, as if my curiosity and relentless drive is a product of my youth and will eventually wane. I suppose they thought it was cute. I think I might have noticed this, but I never paid much heed to it. I don't remember now because it never seemed to matter. I followed my gut, and learned as much as I could from people that were willing to help me, and everything else was of no concern to me.

As I grew older and learned more I started to wonder. Am I really any good? There didn't seem to be an easy way to tell. Eventually, this detached wondering turned to doubt. I would spend only ten percent of my time working and the rest of the time I'd question the rank of my talent in relation to other people and some perceived absolute.

I thought that one way to determine this was by external validation. I would publish an article online and watch social news sites. If it rose to the top and people gave positive comments, I would feel good. If it didn't rise to the top or if I saw even a few negative comments I would feel bad. Even though I understood that this process is highly random, and that almost anything will generate both positive and negative comments, I couldn't escape from it. This pattern reappeared in other parts of my life. Test results, job interviews, and success (or rather, failure) rate with women would all have instantaneous effect on my self esteem.

Eventually, after much trial and error, I convinced myself that popularity is a terrible metric. So I turned instead to validation from people I respected. This worked better, but it still didn't quite work. People always erred on the side of safety, and some of my most adventurous ideas were never accepted.

I tried a few other methods to validate the quality of my ideas (and, what seemed to be by extension, my own worth), but I never did find a good way. Eventually I broke free. The first blow to the endless cycle of external validation occurred after I learned that van Gogh committed suicide because nobody bought his paintings during his lifetime. How can anyone pass judgment on any work if upon closer examination quality appears to be completely relative? Perhaps two hundred (or a thousand) years from now nobody will care for van Gogh's paintings once more and bad adolescent poems will become popular? It seems that the harder one tries to define what quality means, the more the meaning slips away.

The second and final blow came after I took up meditation and observed that the ideas simply enter and leave my mind and none of them are truly "mine". In biblical terms, there is nothing new under the sun. How could my work affect my true self worth if I have no complete control of what enters my mind, what processing goes on inside, and what leaves it?

Of course the polar opposite of constantly seeking external validation is developing an astounding degree of arrogance and never asking for feedback. This isn't what I'm suggesting - it would mean turning into the people that prophesize the end of days despite all evidence to the contrary and any appeal to reason. Instead, one should collect as much feedback as it is possible to effectively process, try to examine it with an open mind, and incorporate what makes sense. But none of it should affect one's self worth - a human being's true inner nature needs no validation.

I now act the way I acted when I was eleven years old. I follow my gut, and learn as much as I can from people that are willing to help me, and everything else is of no concern to me.


If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, please drop a note at coffeemug@gmail.com. I'll be glad to hear your feedback.