Most of these mental meanderings are based on books I read, but this one is based on podcasts I listen to. I hate to admit it but I listen to a particular podcast to go back to sleep when I wake up in the middle of the night. It is Krista Tippett’s On Being. Krista Tippett, my apologies. I thoroughly enjoy the podcasts, I listen only to the uncut conversations, and even at 2 in the morning enjoy the humor, laughter, and even push back she enjoys with her guests.
I have my favorites saved and replay them over and over again and I find myself waking up briefly at different times during a given podcast. For example, I have listened to her conversation with Daniel Kahneman maybe a dozen times but it was one time that inspired this blog. For whatever reason, for the first time I heard her ask Daniel Kahneman “What are you going to study next?” He answered, “confidence.”
Then I did something I never do. I got up and wrote confidence down where I would find it. I was pretty sure that he had already studied confidence. It was an entire section of his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. The next day I re-read that section and a few days later Christine and I worked on a different beginning to our book. I then re-read his book, started reading other books that he mentions, and read some other books that discuss solutions to confidence. Perhaps the term that most of us would think of is ‘overconfidence,’ except just confidence in the loosest sense is enough to do us in.
Why is confidence such a double-edged sword? It is not confidence by itself but in combination with other thinking habits that gets us into trouble. We make decisions based on what we know. We usually choose not to explore what we do not know for answers. We then frame decisions as “whether or not” or “either-or” decisions with no middle ground. Finally, we decide with confidence that we are right. It is the perfect storm and we can probably all see ourselves in this storm. The solutions, by the way, are to create processes that introduce doubt. These cause us to slow down, consider a wider range of possibilities, and sometimes even encourage opposition. A dose of humility can sometimes help in this process because, as it turns out, we are often wrong.
We began working on a series of leadership blogs related to this perfect storm but then put confidence back in a box so that it did not consume us. Maybe six to eight months later, I am listening to another On Being podcast for maybe the fourth time. Krista Tippett is conversing with two astronomers, Father George Coyne and Father Guy Consolmagno. Again, mostly asleep, one of the comments was that the enemy of faith is not doubt, it is certainty. That registered and I went back to sleep.
Do you have times when you learn something new, are somewhat amazed, and then you see it everywhere? That is similar to my relationship with confidence and certainty. I had never really thought much about them as character flaws. Instead I saw them as positives and really did not give them much thought.
On the day I sat down to write this, I ran into certainty as a flaw once again. Before I began writing, I was exercising and listening to the podcast, Radio Lab, and there was certainty once again. Jad Abumrad, the show’s host, was conversing with Lulu Miller, a science writer and host of another podcast, Invisibilia. They were discussing David Starr Jordan, the founding president of Stanford, a brilliant zoologist specializing in the categorization of fish, an avid eugenicist, educator and peace activist. She had just written a memoir, Why Fish Don’t Exist, that includes David Starr Jordan. I happened to be reading Some Assembly Required by Neil Shubin and it also discusses fish, so, I I began to pay more attention to the podcast. They introduced Jordan by discussing his persistence but at the end Abumrad asks Miller about Jordan’s shortcomings. Her answer – certainty. He knows that he is right, even when he is wrong, as with eugenics.
Some Assembly Required offers an excellent example of how certainty might work better. Darwin was convinced that man evolved from earlier animals. “Darwin envisioned evolution as consisting of innumerable intermediate stages from one species to another,” but he had critics. One was St. George Jackson Mivart, who contended that Darwin could not be right, at least not across the board. There were too many examples for which an alternative suggestion made more sense. One such alternative is a change in function. A lung fish is so named because it has a lung and is capable of breathing air when it needs to. By repurposing the lung, it, or a species relative, could live on land. This does not require “innumerable intermediate stages” and it could happen quickly.
The Origin of Species has multiple editions and with the sixth edition, Darwin added a new chapter to answer his critics. He suggests that “the gradation of the characters [may often be] accompanied by a change of function.” By including the phrase “a change of function” he had incorporated the lung fish. Rather than stubbornly defend his position, he simply absorbed another position. While he was not quite ready to be wrong, he appeared ready not to be right. A dose of doubt goes a long way. That short phrase changed a lot of biological research going forward.
We will release a Book Note in the Learning about Leadership strand on the book Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath. They very directly address certainty and not kindly. One of the things that they suggest is to prepare to be wrong. This is not an easy task but apparently it, more than certainty, is a desirable characteristic.