I am surprised that I had not blogged on this article the first time it was shared with me by my friend Srinivas Varadarajan in 2013. The article had originally appeared in 2013, of course. Malcolm Gladwell wrote it. It was a review of a biography of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman, a Princeton historian. It took me four years to click on the link that my friend Srinivas Varadarajan had sent and now, four years later, the article is back in my space.
Somewhat interestingly, my friend Gulzar Natarajan shared a paragraph from that article with me yesterday. It is worth repeating it here:
Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be……
……While we are rather willing and even eager and relieved to agree with a historian’s finding that we stumbled into the more shameful events of history, such as war, we are correspondingly unwilling to concede—in fact we find it intolerable to imagine—that our more lofty achievements, such as economic, social or political progress, could have come about by stumbling rather than through careful planning. . . . Language itself conspires toward this sort of asymmetry: we fall into error, but do not usually speak of falling into truth. [Link]
The last line is a gem and it can be interpreted in ever so many ways. It fully reflects the play of human ego. Errors are not ours. They are accidents that are no fault of ours. But, correct solutions are not serendipitous. We engineered them. We don’t stumble into achievements. We actively planned and made them happen. It is beautiful and yet wholly unsurprising that we have even made the language reflect this strong belief of ours: faults are not ours but achievements are!
I am presenting below some extracts from the article and comment on them when I could not resist myself from commenting!
The phrase that Hirschman and Colorni would repeat to each other was that they hoped to “prove Hamlet wrong.” Hamlet shouldn’t have been frozen by his doubts; he should have been freed by them. Hamlet took himself too seriously. He thought he needed to be perfect. Colorni and Hirschman didn’t. Courage, Colorni wrote, required the willingness “to always be on guard against oneself.”…. Hirschman would come to recognize that action fuelled by doubt allows for failures to be left behind.
The extract below resonates with us when we confront choices between ‘tried and tested’ and the unknown. Or, when we look for a new job, between an established employer and a start-up, say. Of course, there is no right or wrong decision. Each one of has to be clear about our preferences and what we are comfortable with. On a whim, Hirschman relocated to Bogota, Colombia.
Of course, eventually it turned out to be a very happy period in his and in his family’s life. I am not sure that we will be writing about it if he or his family members encountered something very harmful in those years. Even he might have called his own decision reckless and his philosophical attitude to experimentation ver. certitude and between doubt and conviction might have evolved differently. Who knows?
Writing to her parents about the family’s decision to move to Colombia, which was then in the midst of a civil war, Sarah explained, “We both realize that you should think of the future—make plans for the children etc. But I think we both somehow feel that it is impossible to know what is best and that the present is so much more important—because if the present is solid and good it will be a surer basis for a good future than any plans that you can make.” Most people would not have left a home in Chevy Chase and the security of a job in Washington to go to a Third World country where armed gangsters roamed the streets, because they would feel certain that Colombia was a mistake. Hirschman believed, as a matter of principle, that it was impossible to know whether Colombia would be a mistake. As it happened, the four years the family spent in Bogotá were among its happiest. Hirschman returned to Latin America again and again during his career, and what he learned there provided the raw material for his most brilliant work. His doubt was a gift, not a curse.
It is not very difficult to relate to this extract:
Obstacles led to frustration, and frustration to anxiety. No one wanted to be anxious. But wasn’t anxiety the most powerful motivator—the emotion capable of driving even the most reluctant party toward some kind of solution?
It is not that difficult to believe that it is the restless mind or that it is the unreasonable person that comes up with extraordinary answers that alter the status quo, that shows a new path, etc.
In other words, what Albert Hirschman is saying is that when there is no conflict between different ideas, when there is no doubt in our heads, when you are so sure of yourself, you make no intellectual progress. Being restless and being anxious and prone to self-doubt is a path to creativity, intellectual growth and progress, according to Prof. Hirschman.
We can extend this notion to nations and societies too. When there is no openness of conflict between ideas and when alternative ideas and views are suppressed, nations do not make progress. Further, when nations undertake policies only when they are sure of themselves, they will never take decisions.
It makes sense to undertake policy experimentation, learn, make changes, improvise, improve and move along. That is why he says, interestingly, that when policymakers think that they got it right when, in fact, they are wrong, that is when creative solutions emerge just as they do, when they are in doubt and still have to act. Of course, it also means that one is simply lucky. The two examples to support this assertion are the case of the Troy-Greenfield railroad. It was an impossible task. But, because the planners did not know how difficult it would, they had ‘recklessly’ begun construction. But, it turned out to be a game-changer for the good, for America! The second example was that of Karnaphuli Paper Mills in Bangladesh.
Sometimes, I admit, it is also difficult to draw the right lessons from these examples for ourselves, except to remind ourselves of our fallibility and of the limitations of our own knowledge and the vastness of our ignorance.
When I reached the end of the review and I saw the story about school vouchers and of the differences between exit, voice and loyalty, I could connect ‘exit’ immediately to passive-aggressive behaviour and voice being the opposite of it. So, it was with a pleasant sensation of being proven right, that I read the sentences below:
Exit is passive. It is silent protest. And silent protest, for him, is too easy. “Proving Hamlet wrong” was about the importance of acting in the face of doubt—but also of acting in the face of fear. Voice was courage.
Exit is also escapism just as passive-aggressive behaviour is. The latter is a sign of unwillingness to hold oneself, one’s own views and actions to scrutiny. We are not confident that they would stand up to scrutiny. Hence, we withdraw and not confront a situation, we don’t engage in dialogue, we don’t resolve it one way or the other, durably. We withdraw, we sulk and we make it worse for all concerned.
In short, I am glad that my friend Gulzar Natarajan brought the article back to my attention and I am glad that I had the time and the mind to re-read it.
One does not have to agree with Hirschman to find him charming. It may be easier said than done to act in the face of doubt and to accept lack of certitude as a permanent feature of one’s thinking. It is not easy. It is unsettling. Others may find us ‘useless’. Only very few can understand such an attitude as one of intellectual honesty and humility and not as a sign of weakness or incompetence. Further, constant experimentation can also result in failures and sometimes, rather seriously so. So, it is easy to find such an attitude ‘charming’ in hindsight.
But, the admonition that the mistake of Hamlet was that he took himself too seriously is well worth heeding.