Read about the most creative thinkers of our age--or any age--and you find a recurring theme: Never for a moment do they seem to doubt their own genius. Whether insisting that the iPhone have one button (good) or that the NeXT computer be a cube (very, very bad), Steve Jobs believed deeply that all his product ideas were brilliant. Elon Musk always knew he'd be able to build an electric car for the masses. Richard Branson loves it when people say he's crazy. For these and other icons of entrepreneurship, self-doubt just doesn't exist.
If you don't have that kind of extreme self-confidence (I certainly don't), this can make you feel second-rate at best. After all, if you were really so smart, you'd know it--right?
Maybe not. Psychology professor Adam Grant's wonderful TED Talk about original thinkers disproves many myths about how the best innovators see themselves. Grant himself mistakenly believed these myths when he was asked to invest in an ecommerce startup. Its founders appeared to be procrastinating. They also lacked confidence that their business would be successful and had lined up "backup jobs" just in case. So Grant declined to put in any money and thus missed his chance to get in on the ground floor with Warby Parker.
Grant dove into research to find out how he could have been so wrong. He discovered that the most creative thinkers did procrastinate--up to a point--and that some procrastination can boost creativity. He also found that highly creative people, including some who seem outwardly confident, are often full of doubt. But, rather than let it paralyze them, they use that doubt to refine and strengthen their best ideas and eliminate the bad ones.
Here's why a healthy dose of self-doubt can lead you to success:
1. You don't settle for obvious answers.
Which Internet browser do you use? Research shows that people who use Firefox or Chrome are likely to perform better in their jobs than those who use Internet Explorer or Safari, Grant says. Not because any of these browsers make you more efficient, but because people who take the initiative to look beyond the pre-installed browser and go find something else aren't likely to settle for the first solution they find to any problem.
2. You're probably smart.
Do you firmly believe your new business will succeed? I'm sorry, but if so you actually are crazy. For one thing, statistics are against you: 96 percent of new businesses fail within 10 years. But let's say all those other entrepreneurs were idiots and you're a genius. There are still any number of things that could bring your business down and are completely beyond your control, including collapsing markets, a failing economy, a new innovation that makes your business irrelevant, new laws or taxes that make your business model untenable, and on and on and on. The fact that Warby Parker's founders had jobs lined up in case it failed is just one more sign of how smart they are.
3. You're asking lots of questions.
That's one of the wisest things you can do when starting a business, or in any other endeavor. People who are sure of themselves declare how right they are, and tell others all about their ideas and plans for success. People who aren't ask others for their opinions and suggestions. Only the second group gets to learn from the exchange. Pretty soon it will be smarter than the first group.
4. You listen to those who disagree with you.
Experiments consistently show that the more diverse a team is, the smarter it is. This improved intelligence results not from the mere fact that the team is diverse but from the discussion, disagreement, and consensus-building that has to happen before a diverse team comes to a decision. People who are completely sure of themselves can't listen to those who disagree with them--they have to either persuade or ignore them. People who aren't sure of themselves are open to the possibility that they might be on the wrong track. If they are on the wrong track, that's a huge advantage.
5. You know the difference between failing and being a failure.
Grant notes that the world's most revered geniuses were mostly very prolific, and came up with countless duds on the way to creating their masterpieces. In fact, when it comes to classical music composers, sheer volume of output is a reliable predictor of genius.
The difference between high-output geniuses and the rest of us, he says, is the attitude they take when something flops. They start by thinking "This is crap." But then, when many of us would internalize that realization and think, "I'm crap," they think something like this: "The first few drafts are always crap, and I'm just not there yet."
If you don't expect every single thing you do to be brilliant, there's no need to be surprised or upset when something goes wrong. You can think, "I'm just not there yet," and go back and try some more. And some more after that, if need be.
That's the surest path to true innovation and lasting success.