The doubt tax

Once or twice a year, somebody posts to the biking list I follow asking how one learns to do long climbs such as Page Mill Road, the 2,000 foot vertical climb up to Skyline Blvd. And they are always disappointed to hear the answer is “You just do it.” There isn’t a secret or a special training method; you just keep turning the pedals until you get to the top.

However, I’ve come to realize that I do have a secret that enables me to do that climb…and that secret is the knowledge that I can do it.

Let’s rewind to when I first started biking longer distances in 2012. At that point, those climbs were insanely hard, and beyond my capabilities. I couldn’t imagine how anybody was able to do it. The first time I tried going up highway 9 to Skyline, I only made it about a third of the way up, and was completely exhausted, so I turned around and came home. The next time, I took a couple breaks and was able to make it halfway up before turning back. And each weekend I was able to go a little further, until eventually I got all the way to Skyline Blvd; I think I took four breaks and needed to eat a Clif bar on the way, but I made it.

The funny thing was that after I’d done the climb to Skyline once, it was no longer intimidating. In fact, the next time I tried it, I was able to ride straight through to the top without a single break, even though I’d needed 30 minutes of breaks the first time. And even after my bike crash last year, when I was in “terrible” shape (I had fallen back to my 2012 level of conditioning), I still was able to just get on the bike and ride to the top of Page Mill – I was slow, but it never even occurred to me that I couldn’t do it.

So what changed? What was my secret? It was the knowledge that I could do it. Before I did that first ascent, I questioned whether I had it in me to do the climb. That doubt weighed on my mind, because when the climb got harder and my legs started feeling tired, I would wonder whether I could manage to keep going, and my Inner Critic would clamor at me to give up. But by finishing the climb once, I was free of that “doubt tax” and my performance immediately improved as I didn’t have to fight both the hill and my Inner Critic.

In my meditation practice this week, I had another illustration of the inhibiting effect of doubt, and the freedom associated with achieving a milestone for the first time. I had let my meditation practice slip somewhat in the first couple months of this year, but re-focused on it again as it was a required practice for the coaching training program of which I am a student. However, the coaching program recommended 30 minutes of meditation a day, and I had never made it past 20. And after starting meditation again, I was shaking with impatience by the end of those 20 minutes, and couldn’t imagine how I could keep going for another ten minutes beyond that. On Friday, I asked my coach for help, and she had a couple mindset suggestions that I tried over the weekend when I had time to experiment. And, boom, I meditated for 30 minutes on Sunday morning, and have been able to do so each day this week so far. Achieving 30 minutes just once erased my preying doubt, which freed me to just focus on my practice rather than be distracted by the question of “Can I do this?”

This doubt tax can also be eliminated by being part of a community where somebody you know is able to do a feat. The most famous example is that a four minute mile was considered impossible until Roger Bannister did it, but once he did it, several other people did it within a year. Steven Kotler details how athletes in extreme sports form communities, and once one person does a crazy trick, or completes a previously untried route, others are able to not only do that feat, but build on it to do something even crazier. Daniel Coyle calls it “ignition”; the knowledge that somebody like you has done it gives one the willpower to keep trying and not give up despite setbacks. I definitely noticed this when I decided to do the Death Ride, as the folks I biked with regularly did it, so I knew I could do it.

My own journey over the last five years can be seen as me realizing that several things that I thought were impossible for me were only impossible because I thought they were. In 2012, I learned a new sport (snowboarding), I did my first multi-day bike tour (biking six days down the coast to Santa Barbara), and I did my first big international trip alone to India. I had never done any of those things before, and had doubts about my ability to do each of them before starting. And then I did them.

On the flight back from India, I contemplated what to do with this new “superpower” I had, the ability to do new things. And I decided that I would try lots of things that had previously scared me, which turned into my Year of Yes. And when those experiments went well, it gave me the confidence to push the limits further. And this progress compounded over time – each small step forward made the next challenge easier, because I was lowering the doubt tax of questioning whether I could do it, and building my self-confidence higher.

I feel like I’m in a pretty good place right now, and I think that’s partially because of the progress I have made over the last five years in reducing the doubt tax for myself. I have learned to trust my competence and my resilience to bounce back from setbacks. Unfortunately, to call back to the start of this post, there was no secret to developing that confidence and resilience; it required diving in and trying new things that were a stretch for me, and accepting that I would sometimes fail, turning back halfway up the metaphorical hill. But each time I successfully completed a challenge, the doubt tax was reduced for the next one, which gave me the confidence and grit to try even bigger challenges. And, yes, I realize that I can focus on this sort of self-improvement in part because I don’t have to worry about any of my basic needs (food, rent, etc.) and have more freedom to fail because of that advantage (and privilege); that does not apply to everybody (see footnote).

Anyway, in my meditation this week, this idea kept bubbling up of breaking through a mental barrier for each new challenge, and how the doubt we harbor slows us down until we successfully finish that challenge for the first time. So I thought I’d share my experience and see if this description resonates with anybody of my readers.

P.S. The doubt tax can also show up in much more harmful ways. In Whistling Vivaldi, Claude Steele describes the impact of doubt due to stereotype threat, where people worried they would underperform on certain tasks because they were part of a population that was thought to underperform on those tasks. He performed experiments to show that people who were doubting themselves performed up to 30% worse than they did if the stereotype was removed e.g. women test takers performed much better on a math test when they were assured that the math test they were about to take had been proven to be gender neutral. I am fortunate to be privileged, and so am not subject to that type of stereotype threat; that is a whole different class of challenges, as sexism and racism and similar harmful prejudices hold people back regardless of their attitude.

2 thoughts on “The doubt tax

  1. It’s sort of related, but this came up in a conversation with some random folks last night. One of the guys in the group was talking about team sports, and how some teams just fight through when they’re losing – and was talking about how important that will to win was.

    And I was thinking, based on stuff I’d been reading, that maybe it’s not the will to win. Maybe it’s that somehow, you get a team where no one “breaks” and gives up. Even if everyone else on the team doesn’t think themselves that they’re going to lose, that one person flips, and that doubt then echoes through the rest of the team. You get that in group working experiments where one bad apple destroys the whole group’s morale – maybe it’s the same in competitive sports.

    At a high level, the difference between a winning & losing team is just tiny tweaks in behavior – a little slower here, a little less accurate there. And it seems to me that while a positive individual can definitely have an impact in pulling morale up, maybe a bigger difference that might not get as much attention is the difference in not having anyone on the team break first.

    So sort of the doubt tax writ large in groups.

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