Saturday, January 17, 2009

Confidence amid calamity

Confidence amid calamity
Torrey Orton

Confidence is a creature of capability and competence. Reading John Hewson (AFR 160109 – “Blind leading the blind”) and a plethora of other economic commentators, we could believe the reverse is the case: that confidence is the creator of competence. If only we could print it like money, then we could recover from our economic calamities. It is the dark energy in most commentators’, observers’ and bloggers’ understanding of our times.

Hewson finishes excoriating the economics crowd by asserting that “Economists are not really good at saying exactly what will make that happen.” - the confidence that is (while implicitly counting himself among them by not counting himself out). There’s a good reason for his judgment: because you can’t get there from here soon enough. Confidence is not a product nor is it an outcome. It’s a platform or a precursor to outcomes, which can be increased by success (especially against odds and difficulties). Confidence is, in brief, a mix of material predictability (the capacity to make ‘things’ happen) and intentional community (the desire to do it together).

The false confidence based on material predictability alone we’ve seen a lot in modern times. And some would argue that the dominant tendency to seek outcomes for self over others in the last few decades has eroded the will to community (and distorted the relationships though which the will could be expressed). If we seek confidence about and from the economy alone, as economists tend to, we cannot get the whole thing.

Self-esteem, happiness and other emotional assessments like confidence cannot be created by direct instruction. We cannot achieve them by trying to be them. We can only achieve them by living. Put another way, confidence and self-esteem and happiness, etc.) can only be had by successful learning and doing. These emotions tell us how we are doing along the way; they are not the doing itself. When we are doing OK, the feelings support our next steps into new learnings (unknown settings, new tasks, etc.).

Back to our calamitous times. In the short term (1-5 years, say), what can we do to re-create confidence? A starting place is to tell the truth of our declining confidence. First, it is increasingly unlikely we can have, or hope for, predictability in material matters. The world of material certainties is fading around us as a (perfect) storm of personally uncontrollable forces assail us. Not merely is it the economy stupid. It’s also the climate and the fluids (fuels and waters), the food and the pervasive speed of movement of them all., plus a gathering of insights and innovations which mark the growing edges of the sciences.

Second, we are engaging these forces from a weakened position in our fragmented relationships. And these weaknesses will be enhanced by the times which are the reasons for our worries in the first place. Making the effort for the longer term will be even more important as each day of its decline passes.

This, telling the truth, is something our leaders (especially, but not only, political) seem uniformly unable to do. One commentator (see Andrew Rawnsley, The Observer, Sunday Jan. 11, ‘09 ) suggests that even those leaders who display occasional truth-telling tendencies (often appearing in unguarded ‘mis-spokes’ quickly reversed in appalling tangled circumlocutions prefaced with first name addressing of the interviewer and .. “Look,…”) are caught in a situational Catch 22: if they said they did not know what to do at this time, they would be turfed out and maybe the people would feel bad and hopeless. But the research on credibility shows the masses don’t believe them anyway, so I’m not sure who would be surprised. The exception is the credibility of perceived intentions or character of leaders for religious believers – even in the face of evidently incompetent pursuit of those intentions with flawed character. That is a kind of confidence.
I look forward to the first public utterance of these two truths by any government or corporate leader (commentators and not-for-profit leaders already do).

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