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Against Confidence

I hope I never make a habit of writing stuff that makes me feel confident.

If my writing makes me feel confident, it probably has a title like “Look At My Cleverly Constructed Argument/Insight” (subtitle: “Also Look At My Pretty Words”). If I release writing like this into the wild, the best-case scenario is that it is universally recognized as a masterpiece, I am laden with so many awards and medals that I can barely walk, and I do a series of talks and interviews to jettison any excess wisdom.

But there are other pieces that I could write, pieces with titles that are the emotional equivalent of “How I Removed a Golf Ball From My Intestines (With Pictures)” (subtitle: “Don’t Ask What I Was Thinking When I Ate It, Focus On The Pretty Words Please”).

Writing the golf ball piece evokes no confidence whatsoever. That piece makes me think “Maybe I should crop these photos so the sorry state of my other internal organs is less visible, or better yet, never, ever let this writing see the light of day.”

But the best-case scenario for the golf ball piece is that somebody removes a metaphorical golf ball from their colon (or, better yet, doesn’t swallow one in the first place). Which leaves me with a gentle but insistent question for everything I write—am I writing this for the fancy people who give out awards? Or am I writing this so people can unclog their innards?

When I write to put words to my feelings, it shouldn’t be confidence-inspiring. It should feel like crawling through the depths of my emotions and trying to pin down the creatures that slither through that darkness. It’s raw and ugly, and if it feels tame and sterile, I’m probably either lying to myself or haven’t gone deep enough. Likewise, if I’m writing to persuade, and I feel utterly confident that my writing will convince the people who disagree with me that I’m right, then one of two things is happening:

  1. My writing will spread through the world like wildfire and everyone who now disagrees with me will soon abandon their intellectual position

  2. I don’t understand why people disagree with me (even if I’m right)

More likely, I feel confident because I believe that “any reasonable person” (by which I mean someone who already agrees with me or at least shares my exact worldview and values) will be convinced by my arguments. People who already agree with me will have their position validated (which, in fairness, be helpful), but if I want to convince people on the fence or who disagree, which is supposedly my goal, then confidence is arrogance. I’m assuming that I understand them and their position well enough to get through to them. “Let me tell you how you think, let me tell you how you feel, and I guarantee you that afterwards you’ll agree with me.”

When I write for myself, I fear confidence because I only walk with certainty when I’m not exploring someplace new. When I write for others, I fear confidence because empathy is at the heart of all communication, and whether or not I have understood another person is not my decision to make.