Strong Opinions, Loosely Held

Abi in Mexico City

“Less certainty. More enquiry.” Eric Seidel

It’s alarming how often I’m wrong. 

I can think of countless examples—even very recent ones. I used to think I loved being alone. Then the pandemic hit and I lived with friends for the first time in years. It was fantastic. I was sure I was a reformed lonely person. Being around people was the key. Then a few weeks ago, I moved out to my own place and it turns out that I’m also happy here—and that surrounding myself with people wasn’t what was missing from my life. 

Almost everything seems to follow this pattern. I used to think, in fact I knew, that nobody would find me attractive unless I was incredibly thin, and that turned out not to be true. And just a few months ago, I thought I’d run every day for the rest of my life, until my foot started hurting and I realised daily runs were no longer healthy for me. 

Also my intuitions, that I felt sure were above average, are often way off. I can be a very poor judge of character. I trust people I shouldn’t and don’t trust those I should. I underestimate some people and overestimate others. I fall in love quickly and out of love even quicker. I let people down and find that I am let down too. 

And it seems that I’m not alone. My mum will tell you that I’ve always been strong-headed. But then so is my brother. And so is she. (Scratch-head emoji).

Every time we act on our intuitions, it’s like we’re placing a small (or large) bet on what we believe to be true. And I’m relieved we don’t put down real money because if we did, I’d be flat broke. 

Sometimes we get unavoidable signs that our assumptions about the world are incorrect. We suffer a serious injury from a weakness we’re not aware of. We have our hearts broken by people we thought we knew and understood. We’re let down by our closest friends or it turns out that we’re the ones who can’t be trusted. This is actually great. It’s an unequivocal sign from the universe that we need to change course. That our beliefs about the world do not match up with reality. 

But most of the time, instances of our wrongness are far less dramatic. (Though no less pernicious.)

I watch people in their twenties making grand statements that I’m sure they’ll make a U-turn on. How many passionate vegans start secretly eating eggs? How many marriages end after just a few unhappy years? I look at them and think—we know nothing in our twenties. 

Then I realise I’m falling into the same trap! What I thought I knew last week seems to have already changed so why am I so sure that the same thing won’t happen two weeks from now?

I bet there’s an evolutionary advantage to false confidence. Maybe it’s the only way to ensure we put our pants on in the morning. But I feel like I could do better. In fact, I think I am getting better, and at the same time, I’m fairly sure that’s just another illusion. I keep having to remind myself that everything needs constant re-evaluation. 

From now on, when it comes to making decisions, I’m going to ask myself a few questions:

  • How did I arrive at this conclusion? And is this reasoning sound?
  • How much money would I bet on this being true?

I’ll let you know if I have any luck. 

8 comments

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  • I love your honesty Abi.
    My theory around this is that, as you age – you give less shits! It’s liberating not giving a shit about what other people think. Of course it has to be tempered by being kind and trying to be a positive influence to those around you (especially your kids) and the planet. I recently turned 50 – which really fired up some serious self reflection but you know what …. after a couple of days I came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t change anything, even my worst mistakes in life. Greg

    • Thank you Greg! Both for appreciating my honesty and for reminding me not to be too concerned about what other people think. I am 40 later this year and I like (almost) all of getting older.

  • One of my favorite spiritual teachers, Richard Rohr, has said the road to maturity passes through three stages: Order (I”ve now got all the answers), Disorder (Many of my answers don’t hold water), and Reorder (Realizing the wisdom of humility and recognizing my limitations). The key is to not get stuck in either of the first two stages. Sounds like you are making good progress!

    • Oh…I love that model. Order—Disorder—Reorder. I hope I get to Reorder soon! I have read some of Richard Rohr and greatly admire him also. I’m currently reading Anthony de Mello’s Awareness and enjoying it very much.

  • It’s nice to still be surprised by outcomes. All the data and information we get, but the world is still filled with unpredictability.

  • Read the book Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke she addresses a lot of the themes and the evolutionary context behind them that you mentioned, along with some suggestions for making better decisions in an uncertain world. And it’s an easy entertaining read.

    • I’m a great admirer of Annie Duke. She’s super smart and, as you say, entertaining. Next book on the reading list is Maria Konnikova’s—The Biggest Bluff.