“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.