We Have to Eradicate Our Own Self-Doubt

Wednesday, June 28, 2017 - 9:14 pm
Intense rehearsals kept students focused while performing under the direction of Alonzo King LINES Ballet instructors.

We Have to Eradicate Our Own Self-Doubt

This spring, my neighbor Louise and my three-year-old daughter Maya planted a couple dozen carrots in one of the boxes in our communal garden. Louise patiently explained to her that the seeds needed a little distance from one another in order to effectively grow, that they must be watered regularly, which was perfect, as Maya loves little more than watering a garden. Louise said it would take some time for them to sprout.

Time, to a toddler, is about as useful a concept as stock options. Maya forgot about the carrots almost immediately. Then one day we were wandering through the garden looking for strawberries, munching on basil, when she gasped. The little orange head of a carrot was just peeking out of the dirt, its strong head of green hair flopping to one side. Maya grabbed the green stems and pulled with all of her might and out came a real-deal carrot. I have rarely seen her so proud.

Recently, at an odd moment, I thought of Louise and Maya’s carrots when I had the honor of interviewing choreographer Alonzo King, founder of the LINES Ballet (now celebrating its 35th anniversary), at the Aspen Institute’s Spotlight Health conference. You can watch a performance by some of his gifted dancers, followed by the full interview:

Of the many valuable things Alonzo said that evening, this struck me to the core:

“Self-doubt has to be eradicated. If you plant a seed, you don’t dig it up to see if it’s growing. You plant it. You believe in it. You nurture it. You go with it.”

How many of us spend our lives planting seeds and then worriedly start digging them up?

We lie in bed replaying a conversation from the day, wondering if we said what we meant, if we were understood, if perhaps we should revisit the topic with a different angle at a later date. Perhaps we agonize at such length over some comment we made in a past meeting, so much so that we nearly guarantee ourselves that we won’t say anything in the next one. We can’t stomach another retrospective inquisition.

We have a moment of pure creative inspiration — writing or drawing or sculpting — and it feels exhilarating in the moment. And then… we revisit it. We overwork it. The singing intent dies a slow death. Our most basic fear is intellectualized and called “revision.” This is not watering the seed; it is poisoning the dirt with too many considerations.

Or just think of all the overwrought parenting that goes on. We birth these humans who miraculously become real people within just a few years of brain-bending growth. On some level, we realize that their personalities were fully formed from the get-go. Yet, we spend countless hours digging up the proverbial seed of who they are and agonizing over what we — their parents — should be doing better to guarantee their flourishing. Turns out, eradicating our own self-doubt about our capacity to be good parents, and even more importantly, admitting we have less control than we think we do, is the healthiest thing we can probably do for our kids (or so says Alison Gopnik).

Imagine how different your life would be if, as Alonzo King recommends, you were able to eradicate self-doubt. This is not to be confused with becoming thoughtless or arrogant. He’s a huge proponent of self-reflection and humility. It’s more about trusting your own instincts — recognizing that, even in your messiness, you are perfectly made, that you have these seeds, these gifts, that must be planted and trusted.

In many ways, eradicating self-doubt is the pathway to a deeper humility. When you don’t doubt the seed you have planted, you, in a sense, give up control. You admit how little you have to do with the fruits of your own labor. It’s the water and the air and the photosynthesis and maybe, depending on your belief system, it’s an inexplicable, jaw-dropping miracle. You trust that your biggest gifts may actually conspire to exist even without your careful cultivation, that perhaps they will have an even greater chance of appearing if you don’t obsess over them.

I’m going to try to heed Alonzo’s call. I’m going to try to forget time, like Maya. I’m going to try to trust the soil, like Louise. I’m going to give up thinking that I can micromanage miracles — big or small.

Share Post


is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

Share Your Reflection


  • Ellen Collins Schaffer

    Well said. I should use Alonzo’s quote as a mantra.

  • So much wisdom here, Courtney. As a grandmother for the third time (first for my daughter’s daughter), about to become a “grannynanny” for a year again, I hope to help water and nurture the fertile ground that knows more than I do how to grow. Hats off to Louise and Maya.

    And then the idea from Alonzo King, and the beautiful dancing, about the nature of true humility. It penetrated my spirit. Thanks for planting that seed.

  • Gabby

    When should we trust our instincts and when should we question them in a thoughtful way rather than just trusting them? Such an interesting and not entirely simple question.
    Daniel Kaneman, the Noel Laureate who famously brought us the ideas of “thinking fast and slow” (the automatic and instinctive route versus the higher order, slower and more thoughtful route) has spawned the most fascinating work by other scholars on the most productive interaction between the intuitive way on the one hand and the thoughtful way on the other.
    One such outgrowth of Kaneman’s work is the fascinating book Moral Tribes by Harvard empirical psychology professor Joshua Green. What he finds in his research is that our instincts guide us well, typically, in the small contexts of our own “tribes” but guide us poorly in interaction with “the other.” He counsels us to be more cautious about faith in our instincts the farther we step from our narrowest self-interest.
    While Green’s work relates specifically to moral judgment, others have written about broader practical judgment. Specifically, the reliability of our instincts is closely connected to how well we actually understand the terrain in which we act. Our president, for example, may have great faith in his instincts because they have served him well in securing his business and professional interests, but perhaps should not be as confident in his instincts in new areas for him, such as health care or education policy or climate or international relations.
    Knowledge and understanding do matter. Instincts are often misinformed or swayed by prejudice or the narrow scope of privilege.

  • Pingback: Regaining Trust in Ourselves and Seeing Each Other Whole | On Being()