“Until we’ve eaten our words, life doesn’t consider our diet balanced” ~ Imisi
Hi and welcome back to #DeMeStified. Please allow me to open with what was intended as the conclusion; this life is one greasy pot of beans. What we know, we know for now; the universe makes its own plans.
First, I have to ask which of these two you’d prefer to work with: the guy who says “I’ll feed you back in 5 minutes” or the one who says “I’ll get back to you soonest (or ‘shortly‘; in fact, throw in any of the many ways of keeping people off your back indefinitely)”. Picture it coming from your tailor, mailman or the sales rep taking your food order. Imagine being invited to an event that’s billed to end “as soon as possible” or having to sign a contract that requires you to “just do your best”.
Wing it as you may, it still wouldn’t fly. Humans crave assurances; we seek to know. Mistaking assertion for expertise, we easily muzzle reality to pick assertion over vagueness. This disposition raises the demand for assertion, which in turn hikes its going rate in the open market.
But how much can we – or those from whom we seek those assurances – really know of what’s to be? Bravado is not always substance. Even when it’s the real deal, this fast-changing world can quickly render facts and opinions invalid.
Some politician had boldly declared that his party would remain in power for sixty years. Gloating and taunting are understandably the bread and butter of murky politics. Still, we can agree that it wasn’t all fluff; he had considered certain metrics. His was the continent’s largest political party at the time, and with near-infinite resources. It wasn’t very easy to imagine being ousted.
A present-day reality where the same party struggles to run a Twitter account (no prejudice or disrespect), however, tells us that he was phenomenally wrong! He had gone from being so sure to being so wrong. But it can easily get a lot worse.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s in ‘The Black Swan’ spared no effort in showing how what we know pales next to what we don’t. In fact, what we don’t – and often cannot know – always becomes more important than what we know. Businesses are constantly trying to seize advantage through privileged information. In the larger context, what we don’t know could end up changing the world.
Thomas Watson, one-time Chairman of IBM, once said the world could never sell more than 5 computers. A Nobel laureate in Physics, had categorically said there was no chance of humanity ever tapping the power of the atom. Another expert had said man could never reach the moon “regardless of any future scientific advancements”. History is full of such assertions as “We place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe the boat is unsinkable”, “that bomb would never go off; I speak as an expert in explosives” and “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible”.
Perfectly acceptable coming from a pack of drunks – but these were experts in their fields; men and women of intellectual renown. How on earth could they have been so knowledgeable, so sure and so wrong all at the same time?
Nobody thought Leicester could win the league. The odds were sheer madness; 5000-1. No one saw a black man sitting in the oval office. “Not for another 50 years” by my reckoning. But what we know is one tiny part of the larger reality. How what we don’t know comes around to invalidate what we thought we knew is not something we’re good at predicting.
So, I’ve been pondering the essence and validity of human assertions – about the world, the future and ourselves. Everyone presents as an expert on their own affairs, but experts are wrong more often than is obvious. The world as a whole is constantly changing, and with it, the realities in which we find ourselves as humans. How then can we be so certain of anything that hasn’t already happened?
Experts have been wrong before – and they will be wrong again. Even as individuals, we are frequently wrong about ourselves. Some guy I once said I could never work with is now one of my favourite clients. Paul Pogba is back at Manchester United three years after saying “no amount of money” could make it happen. Citing a long list of reasons, a pal once said he could never buy a Mazda 6. Today, he’s a proud owner of one; gladly preaching it to whoever cares to listen. Did you ever make a list of things you would never do? How many deletions so far?
There’s great delight to being right (particularly about ourselves), but it can quickly become a blinding obsession. We should never be so hung up on being right that we ignore pressing reality. That was the one error from which Blackberry and Nokia never recovered. Even Yahoo; the firm was once so big it could have bought Google and Facebook or sold to Microsoft for ~45 billion dollars. It ended up selling for under 5 billion.
Ours is such a dynamic world that assertions and predictions – of ourselves and the world – are constantly being tested. Every time we put our feet down or lose our heads in the clouds, the universe quietly works out a parallel reality. Often, just to remind us how little we really see of the big picture. So, it’s not a question of ‘if’ we’d ever be wrong about things we think we know. There are few things more certain than human fallibility.
The real question is how we respond when faced with the invalidation of our assertions. Do we take it as an opportunity to learn something new – or do we arrogantly dig in and refuse to budge? It’s a pot of beans in any case; everyone goes wrong at some point. The problem with the latter is how such obsession cages us.
Many of the limitations we encounter are mere products of our fixations; fallouts of stiff ideas we’ve formed about a future we can’t quite see, a world we don’t fully understand and abilities we haven’t yet discovered. Pogba ate his words and smashed a world record. My pal acted similarly and hasn’t looked back since. In the end, humans would rather be happy than right.