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December 2013: The Comfort of Certainty

Like most humans, I have a strong bias towards certainty.

When my wife became pregnant for the first time, I rushed to a bookstore to purchase three books on how to get ready for a baby. Reading the books calmed me down. I now had confidence that I now knew how to behave in the delivery room, change a diaper, speak in a soothing voice to both baby and mom.

Of course, it turned out that I didn’t know much about any of these. In the delivery room, I offered ice chips – a “sure bet,” the book said – at exactly the wrong moment, and the chips went flying. My first diaper change was what you might call a smear job. It would have been more sanitary to not change the diaper at all. As for my soothing voice, I found that I could only produce that unnatural state when I thought to produce it. Almost never.

The books offered some good suggestions, but the confidence produced by my reading – “Now, I know what I’m doing” – proved to be an illusion.

Emotional Comfort Food

Certainty – “emotional comfort food” – is always available to reassure us that we are right, and that we know what we’re doing.

A “certainty” mindset baits us to believe that an anticipated graduate degree will lead to exciting career opportunities, that a long-term marriage will happily last for a lifetime, that a major financial deal will anchor a year of growth and that a founder’s euphoria about his adult child joining the family business will be vindicated by that child becoming a strong leader. “It’s going to happen the way I’ve planned it,” we think to ourselves.

But as the diaper and the delivery room examples proved, certainty is not a reliable assumption. While “thinking I know” initially buoys confidence, it often disappoints.

The Land of Getting Real

Assuming we are right, and “feeling sure” are automatic, entrenched tendencies not easily counter-acted. We hold on to our certainties like babes with blankies.

Combating such a powerful bias requires entering “the Land of Getting Real,” pushing ourselves to think about information we don’t want to think about, consider possibilities we would rather conceal, and pay attention to data that disturbs our comfort.

It’s one thing to notice the over-zealous religious beliefs, faulty relationship premises and bad business decisions of others. It’s another matter to observe certainty suppositions in ourselves.

The Land of Getting Real offers the possibility of frightening and refreshing honesty with ourselves, about our own phony certainty. Taking the journey into this land proves how something uncomfortable and upsetting can make us stronger.

Consider these examples:

  • The leader of a large religious congregation decided to “come down from the pulpit” and share with his congregation his doubts about God. While at first he feared such exposure, his decision proved a breakthrough in reversing the remoteness many experienced in approaching him. One senior church member said, “I guess if everyone were certain about God, we wouldn’t need faith.”

  • The co-head of a family business stopped pretending that he knew what was best for the business just because his dad anointed him as successor. He pulled together his siblings and cousins, soliciting their ideas and hopes for the future of the business. This effort gave him new and useful data; more importantly, it reduced the pressure he felt to produce answers he didn’t have, and created valuable give-and-take dialogue with other family members working in the business.

  • The head of a medical practice recently told me: “People treat us (physicians) as if we know more than we know. In the past few years, I have found myself saying ‘I don’t know the answer to your question,’ or ‘I don’t have a simple response – it depends on many factors.’ The vast majority of my patients respect that candor as long as it is genuine and not avoidant.”

These examples share a common trait: each one of the subjects confronted the limits of his/her awareness and knowledge. Remoteness, cockiness and claims of expertise decreased. Relationship connection increased.

Yet, not everyone wants to question their certainty. When he heard my suspicions about being sure, Roy, a long-time client, pushed back:

Roy: So what am I supposed to do, pretend I don’t know anything?

John: Why pretend? I’m saying look closely at your convictions and try to examine your assumptions for any fakery.

Roy: Such as what?

John: Do you ever catch yourself sounding sure of a view or decision, when, upon closer examination, you are not actually certain at all? Or closing off ideas from others because your idea is supposedly sure-fire?

Roy: It sounds like a lot of work to think about this all the time.

John: Is that a problem?

Roy: I’m not sure I have the energy to examine everything I feel reasonably certain about.

John: “Everything” might be asking too much. What about looking at how certain you come across in one or two important relationships?

Roy: I think that could have some merit.

“Could have some merit” might be an under-statement.

Come to think of it, I am certain about one thing: Just because we happen to be parents, presidents, partners or politicians doesn’t mean we know what we’re talking about.

6 Responses to “December 2013: The Comfort of Certainty”

  1. December 02, 2013 at 5:44 pm, Paul winter said:

awkward but on the nail

  1. December 02, 2013 at 5:45 pm, Tom Merkel said:

I am certain … I would have done better with a lot of family members over the Thanksgiving holiday had I read this last Wednesday

Thank you for shining the light on what I have worn as a “badge of courage” most of my life … only to find that badge hinders curiosity about me, others and the circumstances I find myself in.

  1. December 02, 2013 at 8:09 pm, Laurie Lassiter said:

This was timely! Thanks.

  1. December 05, 2013 at 3:29 am, Tom Merkel said:

I am certain … I would have done better with a lot of family members over the Thanksgiving holiday had I read this last Wednesday

Thank you for shining the light on what I have worn as a “badge of courage” most of my life … only to find that my badge hinders curiosity about me, others and the circumstances I find myself in.

Thank you John.

  1. December 06, 2013 at 9:39 pm, Rick P said:

I think the last sentence sums it up. How often do we think that of others, without thinking the same way about ourselves.

  1. December 09, 2013 at 9:49 pm, Vincent Randy said:

Very interesting.

I just came across a paper that addresses this point in a different light.

According to this scholarly document, research such as the one done by Diane Vaughan from Columbia University, points us to such phenomena as ” ‘commitment’ or ‘confirmation’ effects. These prompt decision makers to seek out and emphasize information that reinforces the familiarity of new, and potentially problematic, situations, biasing subsequent analysis toward data that confirms the initial interpretation. In this way, individuals unconsciously ‘make the problematic unproblematic’ by shielding themselves from information that may disprove the applicability of preexisting categories to new situations, even if the result is to ignore red flags and respond inappropriately.”

As I see it, this applies to both professional and personal situations.

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