“What would you do if you weren’t certain?”
This is the opening line of the play Doubt. by John Patrick Shanley. I’ve written about this before, but feel compelled to do so again because of the oil spill and the financial regulations bill being debated right now by Congress.
Over and over again I see people in the news representing anyone who has a financial stake in the outcome– except for the environmental people- act as if there is no room for doubt. Maybe they are going overboard in their doubt, but the environmentalists seem to at least use their experience and data. Some of them have taken the media out into the oil. Maybe the media is just better at choosing level headed environmentalists.
But from BP, Wall Street, and even business owners in the Gulf, I hear the same phrase. “We’ll take care of it.”
BP’s ads are simply ridiculous mirroring other comments from their CEO. They have no idea how to fix this.
From Wall Street and members of Congress who believe in “capitalism,” we are told over and over again that we need Wall Street to thrive and they will do the right thing.
From the people representing the beaches that need tourism to survive, we hear the beaches are fine. C’mon down.
Here’s what I know about doubt. Every study I’ve seen, every book I’ve read says some level of doubt is a good thing.
One famous study about doubt showed that people considered the best at what they do have doubt about outcomes. People considered mediocre, do not have a healthy level of doubt. They truly believe that they can make things work, all evidence to the contrary.
Physicist Richard Feynman once said that he loved science because it has doubt built into the process. He said it gives you “the freedom to doubt.”
Here’s the issue for me. If you took money out of these equations, would these people really say “We’ll take care of it.” Would they really tell you keep drilling? Would they really say plan your vacation at a beach that has oil offshore? Would they really say that derivatives are worth the risk?
I suspect they’d say “We’ll do the best we can.” They’d really say “All of this is unprecedented. We need time to figure this out.”
But because time in so many people’s lives has, in fact, become money, they cannot afford to do it. Taking time to plan, to inspect, to adjust. And people will lose their livelihoods, lose everything they had…and that is tragic.
What I don’t understand about the oil spill is why is this not treated with the same urgency in doing what we can (protecting the shores and animals and therefore the livelihoods of people) as the financial crisis or 9/11? Even if we can’t solve the leak problem, why aren’t we doing more to stem the consequences. I suspect we have no idea how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, but we certainly could do more to limit the damage. We are more afraid of losing money than we are of losing Nature’s gifts to us and the livelihoods of the people who need its bounty to live on.
Doubt is a good thing. We need it. But we need it most at the front end, when we’re planning, testing, preparing. But in each case, it seems because time is money, we allowed that part of the process to proceed to quickly and behind closed doors.
Money is energy. Money cannot fix things precisely because it is only energy. Money doesn’t know anything. It doesn’t provide information.
If work is energy knowing what to do and doing it, if work is fuel doing what matters, then we need doubt built into our processes. One of the best lessons I heard over and over in my interviews was “If you don’t know, ask!” I would add that if you don’t know, find out.
I don’t know what the answers are to any of these problems. What I know is people are too polarized and I believe that polarization is driven by over exuberance or fear.
We need people who doubt not only each other, but ourselves, who ask questions when they don’t know. But it seems everything has gone the other way. Reporters are not given the time or resources they need to professionally doubt and pursue true stories. Regulators do not have the staff and the power to do what they are paid to do– doubt.
Thomas Paine said:
“For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.”
We need government and the press to doubt for us. It seems that has not been the case. We all need to doubt and doubt when it matters most– as we enter into risk and innovation, not after. And when things fall apart, we need people to say “I was wrong.”
Entire generations are being raised to be “positive” and “confident.” But I believe the consequence of that is that it kills doubt. It creates a false sense of ability and expectation. It leads to mediocrity or worse– uninformed risk taking.
And what we’ve all seen, what Alan Greenspan said is the best predictor of the economy, is the transitions from irrational exuberance and fear. The bubbles and collapses. The spills.
We seem to want to live in and witness extremes. To borrow a term from Malcolm Gladwell, these are the true Outliers from everyday life. We are entertained by, transfixed on, the drama. We are addicted to energy in every form.
But the tragedies of the past two years make my point for me. Without information, energy will consume us through our own consumption of it. Without fuel that knows what matters and how to do it, we are all at risk.
Trust and doubt are opposite sides of the same coin. Trust and doubt are a healthy combination of energy and information. Exuberance and fear are emotional and as such are merely energy.
As such, exuberance and fear are not as Paine said “impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed.” Time is their enemy.
We need government because we are emotional, impulsive beings. We need capitalism or some form of it to thrive.
Trust and doubt allow for the time as UConn Coach Geno Auriemma said, to figure things out.
I don’t trust people who say “Ill take care of it,” unless I know they have done it before.
But when there’s doubt, let’s figure it out together.