I saw this on a friend’s FB thread this morning and couldn’t stop thinking about it. Not because I hadn’t considered the premise before; I’m familiar with Dunning-Kruger. I was struck by the inability to decide which is better. Not that we can help or determine which defines us better. We are either full of doubt or confident, and I’m quite sure that it’s not always aligned with intelligence (I know plenty of people who I consider very intelligent who at least appear to have no doubt whatsoever, and I know a few people who I don’t think of as very intelligent who are plagued by doubt). But, given these two options, in a false dichotomous kind of world, which is better?
As an aside, the quote took me down a relatively shallow rabbit hole that ended at a post on quoteinvestigator.com about the origins of this quote and the idea behind it. The quote, as stated in the image, seems to be a bit of a blend. In the original image that I saw on the friend’s thread, it was attributed to Charles Burkowski, but it’s not clear that he ever used these exact words, but instead took a phrase from Yeats that was built upon by Russell, and made it about writers. The post at quoteinvestigator handles this nicely (and, I assume accurately), but here’s the basic evolution of the thought:
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” – Yeats, 1920
“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” – Russell, 1933
“But the problem is that bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt.” – Bukowski, 1989
Back from that rabbit hole, I’m still left unsure which is better. It becomes a question of goals in life, and what we want to achieve. How does each of us define success? Is there one definition of success? I think we all agree that people like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Tim Cook, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos are all very successful. I don’t know if they are happy, but some of the profiles I’ve read at Business Insider, like this one of Jeff Bezos, makes me think that they sure might be. But those are extremes. What about more normal people. I know plenty of people with a good amount of money, who have done very well in their professional lives, but who fit the quoted idea quite well. People who have done well in their business lives, and are bright and doubtful or not so bright and brimming with confidence. From where I sit, the brimming with confidence folks sure seem the happiest. Maybe it’s a front. Maybe it’s not genuine, but I have no way of knowing that, and assuming they are happy, it sure looks good in there sometimes.