Without a doubt, it’s good to question your decisions

Will Smith is a success by any Hollywood standard. He is a Grammy Award-winning rapper. He starred in a hit sitcom. He was nominated for two best-actor Academy Awards. He’s had eight consecutive films that grossed more than $100 million. He’s also a film and TVproducer.

And you may not know that he was accepted at, but did not attend, MIT – yes, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

One of the secrets to his success might surprise you. It’s self-doubt.

Smith can’t run away from his fears. Whenever he feels fear, he faces it head-on. He tells a story about being in Jamaica as a young man, where he watched people jump off a high cliff into the water below. He was fascinated, but also terrified because he didn’t know how to swim. He wasn’t going to let that stop him, however; so he walked to the edge of the cliff. Several minutes later, he jumped and obviously lived to tell the tale.

Much of his behavior is in response to a fear that he couldn’t live up to the high esteem in which he was held by his mother and grandmother. He concentrated his efforts on trying to meet their expectations. Smith still has some self-doubts, especially in terms of fulfilling the perceptions of those he loves.


Of his fear, Smith said in an interview, "I’ve learned to use it; to flip that negative energy around and make it a challenge. I keep going because I doubt myself. It drives me to do better. I’ve learned that the mastery of self-doubt is the key to success."

I'll admit that there have been times when I have questioned a decision or approached a problem and responded more out of fear than reason. I maintained a pretty calm facade, but truth be told, I had all my fingers and toes crossed for good luck. Most of the time, the result was exactly what I had hoped for. A few times, I got fooled.

Those less-than-desirable outcomes serve as a vivid reminder that we cannot get too arrogant. A measure of self-doubt is a healthy part of management strategy. In fact, it’s a necessary ingredient. As French author Jules Renard said, "There are moments when everything goes well; don't be frightened, it won’t last." How true!

The trick, then, is to be able to adjust to the peaks and valleys, and still keep your business or career on track. When should you let your doubts rule your actions?

Always! Yes, always. It’s good to question things you have always taken for granted, and things that have never been tried. Never confuse confidence with arrogance. Confidence allows you to proceed with some reason to believe that you will succeed. Arrogance prevents you from examining your decisions, and is almost always a recipe for disaster.

Eleanor Roosevelt had an interesting observation: "You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do."

How else will you know whether you can succeed if you always take the easy and proven route? How will you find what needs to be changed if you do not question the way things are done?

Perhaps the experience of Tony Verna, the TV producer/director who invented instant replay for sporting events, will shed some light on the importance of being able to doubt yourself.


Instant replay was used for the first time in a 1963 Army-Navy football game. "The idea came to me out of frustration," Verna said. "Before replays, football telecasts were filled with dead spots. . . It really destroyed the momentum of the telecasts. Replays gave you something to show during the pauses. It seemed to make the game go faster."

Today, instant replay is a permanent fixture of sports telecasts. And now, it’s used to review questionable calls, which can cause long delays, contradicting the original purpose of instant replay's creation.

Verna said, "It's ironic. The reason I started instant replays was to keep the momentum going. Now the replays are slowing the whole thing down."

The other irony is that now, Verna doubts that his invention improved the broadcasts in the way he envisioned. But they are also removing doubt from the game's officiating! Go figure.

Mackay’s Moral: Reasonable doubt helps you work the bugs out.

Harvey Mackay is a Minnesota businessman and author.

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