Friday, September 21, 2012

Stupid Confidence and Brilliant Doubt


I’m smart.  And here’s how I know it:  I hardly ever feel like I know what I’m doing. 

Yep.  Self-doubt is a sure sign of brilliance according to Bertrand Russell, Father of Analytic Philosophy.  He said, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”   

Applying a Socratic syllogism, as I frequently do, I concluded that my feeling unsure of just about everything I’m sure of signifies a high level of intelligence.  

Wow.  I feel brighter already.  I think I do anyway. 

That is to say, I’ll feel fine until an alternate view presents itself, again bringing uncertainty to the forefront.   

So it’s all good.  Right?  Right!?? 

Even Charles Darwin said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”  He seemed pretty sure of it. 

Admittedly, he was on rant against the peons who disagreed with his theories of evolution, but what did they know?  They were too sure of themselves to be believed. 

I just read an article about Adam Bryant, “the CEO Whisperer,” who writes a column for the New York Times called “The Corner Office.”  He’s now written a book by the same name in which he synthesizes what he’s learned from his interviews with top performing CEO’s on how they got to be so smug.  Excuse me, I meant to say how they got to be so good at being good. 

He says his own success as an interviewer springs from his understanding of the value of what he calls “good, dumb questions.”   

Well.  There you are.  I can ask dumb questions!  I do it all the time.  Sheesh.  If that’s all it takes to be brainy, I sewed up my position in the annals of acumen in fourth grade when I waited in line to ask my homeroom teacher if she would please take the staple out of my thumb.   

What worries me is another angle on aptitude stated by a couple of brainiac researchers out of Cornell, Dunning and Kruger, who also wrote an article.  Theirs is called Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments.” 

Are you still with me?  Good - it takes a lot of smarts to power through a title like that!  

But there it is:  The dumber you are, the less likely you are to recognize your own dumbness.  Not only that, the duller you are, the more likely you are to rate yourself as sharp.   

It all started when Dunning read a news item about an incompetent bank robber named Wheeler who believed — mistakenly, it turned out — that coating his face with lemon juice would make him invisible to security cameras.  Duh!  Everyone knows that to be invisible you have to live with a teenager.  

But Dunning thought deeper and came up with a dumb question.  Er, a good, dumb question:  If the would-be bank robber was too stupid to be a bank robber, maybe he was also too stupid to know that he was too stupid to be a bank robber — that is, did his stupidity protect him from awareness of his own stupidity?  Profound, huh? 

And there’s a certain beauty to it, too, isn’t there?  Ah, to be oblivious in a world of know-it-alls.  It’s a strategy for living ulcer free.  Calculated cluelessness.  No worries. 

One can move about with freedom and even joy, knowing in her own unconscious way that all is well in her world.  People respect her opinions.  Her clothes flatter.  Her jokes amuse.  Associates hang on her words and await her insights.  Her stores of knowledge calm those less fortunate and those more accurate in their own self-assessments.

It’s a conundrum, though.  A pickle.  A mystery wrapped in an enigma floating in a sea of who really cares except the Republicans, the Democrats and the Tea Party:  When you finally secure some wisdom, irony comes around to foil those visions of perfection.  

Life is so much easier when you’re right all the time!  Then bam!  That sneaking suspicion that you understand nothing spoils it all.   

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt.”   

I can only wish I’d listened.