Hyperbole is the deepest red of all the red flags. Every time I’m certain, I know that I’ve fucked up. “Yeah, it’s the best,” “Oh, for sure,” and “Definitely” are the fastest routes to the poorest decisions.
Hold up, I spotted some hyperbole. “Every time” I’m certain, I have not been led to some awful place. I’ve been certain about love and it’s turned out quite nicely before devolving into heartbreak, surely no fault of certainty. I’ve been certain about a basketball team winning and then reveled in the glory of my own skills as a potential big money sports gambler. I’ve been certain that the final whiskey I drink will surely make my head hurt very badly tomorrow and been spot on; my hangover is no fault of certainty.
But listen: Certainty has dicked me over enough to realize that certainty is something to be strung up by its proverbial feet before being poked and prodded until it bleeds out. To put it less Inquisitiony, I’ve found that using certainty as a cue to question my own thoughts and actions is a great way to see life with a bit more clarity.
This scrutiny tool is something I picked up as a reporter in my early 20s. “If your mother tells you that she loves you, call two sources to confirm,” is an old newsroom saying. I never called my aunts and uncles to ask them about my mother’s love, but I did take to heart that truth comes from many different sides and should be checked, confirmed, and checked again. Chisel away at people’s stories past their certainties and definite responses; somewhere underneath is some kernel of truth, likely a small sandy nugget that has been sitting in the sun for longer than George Hamilton.
Here’s how I think this should work out in real life: Whenever someone utters that something is “definitely,” “100%,” or “certainly” true, the listener should think of the last time they smelled dog shit up close and personal and visualize how that smell made them feel. Ah, the sickly smell of queasiness. In addition to the gag reflex, this should trigger questions like “Why is this person so convinced?” “How many ways did they confirm what they’re so certain about?” and “What do the have to gain or lose?”
There’s nothing wrong with confident thinking. It’s necessary to convince people, after all – you can’t sell an idea to someone else without being confident in your idea. We all have to be able to reality test with others, not to mention ourselves. But every human brain can only hold so much information. In fact, studies show that the brain can only hold about seven pieces of information for less than 30 seconds. Isn’t this alone reason enough to measure even the truths that seem to run deep into your bones?
My fuck-ups are usually because I didn’t take the time to hear the information that runs contrary to what I want to be true. Often, what I want to be true is partially true; what I want to be false is also partially true. Ugh. This causes some conundrums. Should I still do what I think is true or right even if it isn’t fully true and therefore may not be fully right? Do I go to the dark side and start believing what was previously unbelievable?
Why not take a nuanced approach? Why not be willing to say “I’m not sure”? F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famed quote from The Crack Up comes to mind: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Does thinking in nuance instead of certainty make you smarter? I’m not sure, but it sure as hell gives you a better perspective on issues that matter.
What I am sure about – and perhaps someone can shake me from this belief – is that it doesn’t matter what people think, only how they think. It’s about playing a game of skill versus a game of chance. The chance is putting all hopes of being right or correct on someone else’s – or perhaps a group of someone else’s – shoulders. Or perhaps it’s about leaving thinking in the wind entirely – this FEELS right, so it must be right. Right?
I’d prefer to live and die in how I think. If this means I’m wrong, more often and thus a bad person in the eyes of those who are certain they’re right, so be it. I want being wrong to be akin to the tears in soft muscle that help form sinewy muscle.