Speaking your Mind

It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.
– Mark Twain

When communicating in a public space (Twitter, Facebook, blogging, meetings, etc.), it’s easy to censor yourself though the simple fear of saying something irredeemably stupid. Something so vapid, so provably false, that it will undermine any respect people have for you. Peers, direct reports, superiors, random strangers – so much of our authority is based on a faith in our ability, intelligence, talent, etc., or even a simple belief in a similarity of viewpoint, that opening your mouth to say just about anything can feel like a risk.

A word is worth one coin, silence is worth two.
– The Talmud

Of course, it’s much easier just to stay quiet. Speaking up takes effort, and exposes you to the possibility of scorn. At least when you talk to people directly, you can see their facial expressions and modulate based on their reactions – when sending a public message out into the void, though, you’re taking a stand and resting your case before having any idea what your readers think. You might be wrong. Or you might be right, but misjudge your audience. Most people only read the headlines, and will ignore, or violently reject, any content that doesn’t carefully hew to what they already believe. The friend of a friend – a lefty environmentalist – recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times and was accused by his core audience of being a stooge for Monsanto. Writing anything counterintuitive will not only piss off people who disagree, but also partisans who don’t take the time to read, or think.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
– Margaret Mead

I sometimes think about the crazy partisans of obscure technology X, or radical political philosophy Y. Don’t they realize they’re wasting their time? That no one is following them, and that they’re spending untold amounts of time and effort fighting for something that’s doomed to fail and fade into obscurity? But then, all obscure technologies and fringe politics are like that, and sometimes the long shot comes through. Of course I don’t know which is going to win (if I did, I’d have a million bitcoins stashed away), and neither does anyone else – but if not for the many valiant failures, there wouldn’t be the few epic successes. This, of course, is the entire theory behind startups.

The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.
– Justin Kruger, David Dunning, Dunning-Kruger Effect

Paradoxically, it’s easier to doubt yourself if you actually know something about what you’re talking about. You can see the counterarguments, the holes in your own knowledge and understanding, and assume that others will too. For example, everyone I knew at Stanford thought they’d gotten in by mistake1, that all their classmates were piano/oboe/cello-playing multilingual super-geniuses with experiments on the space shuttle, poetry published in Granta, and conceptual art on display at MoMA. At the time, it was easy to believe that this was Imposter Syndrome, pure and simple, though it now seems that we were just a little ahead of our time (it’s three times harder to get accepted now than it was when I applied).

Unfortunately, knowing about Dunning-Kruger doesn’t help, since you could be highly competent and self-doubting, or incompetent and simply congratulating yourself on knowing about D-K. There doesn’t appear to be an objective way of testing the hypothesis without opening your mouth.

Through error you come to the truth! I am a man because I err! You never reach any truth without making fourteen mistakes and very likely a hundred and fourteen. And a fine thing, too, in its way; but we can’t even make mistakes on our own account! Talk nonsense, but talk your own nonsense, and I’ll kiss you for it. To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s. In the first case you are a man, in the second you’re no better than a bird.
– Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

Sometimes, you have to fake it, even if only to yourself. I’m a pretty introverted person, and public speaking, management, and blogging are all somewhat unnatural activities – but I’ve learned to be outgoing at work, and to write about deeply personal subjects I’d normally be hesitant to share. Even so, there are blog posts I’ve thrown away because I knew I’d catch hell, and there are fairly straightforward posts which have earned a fair amount of abuse. Negative commentary isn’t necessarily bad – you can’t write about interesting topics without the inevitable troll – but while crude comments by people who clearly didn’t get the point can be easily rejected and ignored, corrections to technical points are a bit more embarrassing, and flame wars over religious topics can be deeply unsettling, without having any net positive result.

All beginnings are hard.
– The Talmud

In the end, part of the reason for writing is to create a community – a group that “gets you,” and in which you have a safe space to explore ideas. This is what an organization with high levels of trust, or a gelled team, feel like – a meeting with your boss or technical design review might involve a difficult conversation, but you should feel comfortable speaking your mind. The hardest part is just getting started. Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith – whether it’s in your own ability, your audience’s magnanimity, or both – in order to get off the ground.

1 During my freshman year, a lawsuit forced the university to make the notes on student applications available to the students for viewing. We had a month to take advantage of this “opportunity,” after which the university destroyed the notes. Of the people who went and saw the notes, I don’t know a single person who wasn’t crushed by the experience. I chose not to know.

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