Doubt is Better Than Certainty

Posted on: 02/20/2013
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One of my heroes in life and art is Milton Glaser. He has one of those minds I’d like transferred onto a cassette tape so I could revive my Walkman, clip it to my belt and play, rewind and listen to his words whenever I need inspiration or wisdom or a punch of motivation to the gut.

Glaser is an advocate for inquiring about meaning, encouraging us to be mindful of slipping into surface-deep observations and assumptions.

Here’s a snippet from an essay he wrote about 10 things he’s learned throughout his career as a designer. My favorite is #8: “Doubt is better than certainty”

“It makes me nervous when someone believes too deeply or too much. I think that being skeptical and questioning all deeply held beliefs is essential. Of course we must know the difference between skepticism and cynicism, because cynicism is as much a restriction of one’s openness to the world as passionate belief is. They are sort of twins. And then in a very real way, solving any problem is more important than being right…one of the signs of a damaged ego is absolute certainty.”

This advice applies to every corner of our lives. As designers and writers (or any creator, really), we should embrace doubt. Be confident enough to doubt your work. Invite other people to doubt it. Welcome it. Be wrong, learn and apply it quickly. 

We should also be suspicious of the certainty inherent to statements like “good design” or “innovative technology.” These words are subjective and harrowingly formulaic. Best practices are not stamps of certainty. They’re a culmination of experiences. Break them, carefully. (Or at least tidy up the shattered glass afterward.)

As marketers seek to understand targeted groups of people, sweeping assumptions—absolute certainties—are damning. Beyond satisfying our physiological needs, there is nothing certain about human behavior. We’re only aware of 5% of our conscious decisions. The rest is taken care of in the quiet of our unconscious mind, an ever-changing landscape of uncertainty. So just because customers made purchases from a mobile device last month doesn’t mean the trend is certain to continue. Data can be a trap door for disenchanted certainty. There is so much data can’t do—and will never do.

Marketers, creators, horse whisperers—all of us need to build up our stamina so we don’t cower from voicing our doubt, despite mounting evidence or public opinion.

Certainty leads to stagnation. Doubt leads to iteration. And iterative thinking, iterative creating and iterative testing mean we’re in a constant state of evolution, that we’re getting better and smarter. That we’re in motion.

We can choose to stand still or evolve.

To learn more about Milton Glaser, check out this wonderful feature by Hillman Curtis.

Milton Glaser from Rui Amaral on Vimeo.

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