The Confidence of a Fool 10/30/22

Thoughts with Richard Bleil

An interesting meme appeared on my social media today.  I’m paraphrasing here (partially because I don’t remember the exact quote, and partially because I didn’t like the original wording), but it goes something like “The wise has doubts, but the fool is confident.” 

There’s a lot to unpack here.  It does remind me, however, of a graph of confidence versus knowledge that I had seen a few times.  There is some confidence about a new subject before any studying or experience occurs.  If I were to walk into a bank to work on their databases, I’m slightly comprehensive that I might not be able to figure it out, but I’ve worked with enough databases that I know I should be able to.  As such, my confidence is pretty good.  As you learn more, your self-confidence increases.  As I’m taught the basics of the database, I begin to feel more capable, and my confidence goes up.  See?  I knew I’d be able to figure it out.  But then comes the crash.

Ignorant as to what I am getting into, I’m quite confident, and my initial and surface-level experience reinforces and improves that confidence.  Until I see other people using it and realize that they are doing things that I honestly had no idea that it could do, or any idea on how to do it myself.  The details begin swarming in as I delve deeper and deeper into the capabilities of the database and wonder if I’ll ever have the expertise of my colleagues who act as if they were born to it.  I doubt I’ll be able to remember all of the commands and menus, and my self-confidence plummets to even lower levels than when I first stepped into the door.  This is the true learning stage, and it’s a slow process to ascend out of it.  Eventually, though, after a lot of practice, seminars, books and learning, I’ll get it.  As I can do more and more with it, my confidence continues to grow and eventually will go beyond the highest point of my ignorant confidence.

This is the nature of learning, and knowledge of this confidence versus learning curve comes with a couple of warnings for those of us who understand it.  In this age of political anger, far too many people are echoing what they have heard from others without really thinking through the issues.  These are the people who start of with confidence because they really have no idea how little they actually know, and on hearing something that sounds right and verifies their thinking, right or wrong, their confidence shoots through the roof.  They yell and scream and repeat what they had heard without any doubt in their mind that they might be wrong.  Meanwhile, those with more knowledge will listen to those opinions, consider the possibility of some validity and truth in them and question their own beliefs.  The intelligent invite that uncertainty and use it to either modify or cement their current thinking.  They swim in the doubt to see where the current might take them. 

It also provides some encouragement.  As we learn, there is always a stage of utter chaos and uncertainty.  In graduate school, my adviser started me on several research projects.  They always started out the same way; a library search on the topic with copies being made of the most directly relevant articles (far too many was my usual approach).  But reading those articles, honestly, they never made sense to me.  It was like reading gibberish.  It always took what I felt like was too long before any of it made any sense at all.

The problem, I now understand, is that it all sounded foreign to me.  I’m teaching chemistry online, and I encourage my (lone) student to read ahead, not for comprehension, but for familiarity.  As I read and re-read those articles, eventually they seemed to come more and more into focus, not because of my understanding of them, but because of their increasing familiarity.  I spoke with one of my advisers about this, saying that I felt like an idiot.  “That’s good,” he replied, “because you know that you are not an idiot.  Feeling like one simply means that you’ve stumbled into a new area where the potential for growth is the greatest.”

Enjoy your period of lack of self-confidence, and beware over-confidence, and over-confident people, in your journey.  Over-confidence usually arises out of ignorance of how little you actually know, but regardless of what you are doing, know that you are capable.  You’ll get there.

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