Saturday, May 09, 2015

Confidence and Certainty

I finished reading Kevin Ashton's super-smart How To Fly A Horse, a very readable book on creativity. This is the kind of book I love reading, about new ideas, and what makes people come up with them. While I would not put this one at the top of my favourites list on the category, that will be Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From, this is still very good. At this very point of my life, when I am searching for a potential topic that I could do further studies on, this is a feast, a birds-eye view of one of the things I keep reading about - about creation and creators. However, more than just being a good start for me on my project to make my reading more thematic, the book is full of great insights and ideas that will hopefully help me in my work.

One of these ideas comes from an inspired passage in the book, which distinguishes Confidence and Certainty. In Mr Ashton's view, Confidence is the belief in yourself whereas Certainty is the belief in your belief. And, as he shows, through the stories of creators and mass of research presented in a very readable way, while Confidence is a tool, certainty is a trap. Certainty makes people ignore data, and make them jump out of Eiffel Tower tied to a parachute that would not work. However, confidence, as he demonstrates in story after story, keeps great creators on track, even when everyone rejects what they are saying. Indeed, the two may look very similar from outside, because the crucial difference is really inside - that the successful creators themselves are themselves riven by doubt. 

Mr Ashton does not use Darwin's example, perhaps because it is oft-used. But, Darwin spent years proving to himself his own theories, collecting data, observing, doubting and validating his observations again and again. He did not go out and publish, as many of the evolutionists before him did. Rather, he took years, indeed decades, establishing a whole new way of looking at the world - and only then went out to publish. There were other people saying the same thing (Alfred Russell Wallace being one Darwin wanted to beat by publishing before him), but Darwin had evidence. 

In a different context, the book tells the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, who had a hunch that women were dying at Vienna General Hospital after giving birth because Doctors never washed their hands after dissecting corpse, which they did intermittently while delivering babies. Dr Semmelweis could prove this with data - he urged Doctors to wash their hands and the mortality rates dropped - but he was ignored and ridiculed. There were other eminent Medical Practitioners who believed that the Doctors' hands could not be unclean because the Doctors were gentlemen. Dr Semmelweis eventually lost the argument, losing his job and dying in a mental asylum a few years later. This was indeed some years before Louis Pasteur and others will develop the germ theory of disease working on the precise problem Dr Semmelweis tried to solve - the problem for puerperal fever. 

In these stories and other, confidence, as in the likes of Darwin and Pasteur (the book also tells the stories of Judah Folkman, Robin Warren and Woody Allen), was about keeping your head down and working on an idea, constantly doubting your own observations, but never your ability. It is about treating rejection as a feedback, rather than a conspiracy. This is a rather subtle difference, and arguably achieved through great commitment towards truth. But this combination, Confidence and Doubt, is what makes great creators. The opposite, Certainty and Arrogance, could be shown to have created most fools and various other monsters.

Mr Ashton is actually quite damning of certainty. He writes "Delusion's comfort comes from certainty. Certainty is the low road past questions and problems. Certainty is cowardice - the flight from the possibility that we might be wrong". And, yet, isn't it common to see Confidence and Certainty being one and the same? In fact, I would suspect most educators, coaches and managers want to develop certainty in their students or employees, as this is treated as synonymous to confidence. It takes a lot to teach Doubt, and yet develop Confidence. This is about letting someone fail, even repeatedly, and yet not allowing her to be a failure. This is a hard job, and in most cases, will get a teacher fairly bad feedback. And, yet, the arguments against certainty is so convincing, and so obvious if we start counting all those experiences we have of meeting people who are certain about Ghosts, Aliens and Jews (or Muslims nowadays). 


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