Good day, team,

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been tuning in to a recurring message that’s come from the news media, friends, clients and even a bumper sticker a few days ago. The message is “Beware of certainty.”

This week’s challenge is about the danger of being so convinced about something that your mind and heart become closed to any other possibility. Here’s a good example of what I mean.

Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense during the Johnson administration, died a few weeks ago. There’s been much written about him lately, but what struck me most were clips from the film “The Fog of War,” a documentary that includes many interviews of McNamara reflecting on how his views had changed over the years. In one scene, the interviewer asked him to speak about how his views on the war in Vietnam changed over the years. Here was a man who was absolutely certain that the Russians were behind the push of communism into Vietnam. If Vietnam fell to communist ideology, so would all of Southeast Asia, victim of the domino effect: If one falls, the entire row falls. Now, in his later years, McNamara realized how mistaken he had been and how almost all of his decisions about the war had been based on faulty thinking.

Over time, he began to see that his certainty had caused the deaths of thousands and that much of what he had based his decisions upon wasn’t true. Earlier in his career, he said with complete confidence, “It would be our policy to use nuclear weapons wherever we felt it necessary to protect our forces and achieve our objectives.” He came to regret these words, and many of the actions he took during the war haunted him until the day he died.

Similarly, the Bush administration was certain that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in Iraq poised to use against the United States. Life-changing decisions were made based on the administration’s certainty. We now know that those decisions were based on false information.

I wondered this week why people cling to certainty and the false sense of security that comes from thinking it’s this way or no way. Why do we feel more secure when someone says, “No doubt about it”?

In one of his interviews, McNamara explained that, as a younger man, he had been taught that indecision and lack of certainty were seen as signs of weakness. Even if you weren’t 100 percent certain, you had to show others that you were completely convinced that your decisions were correct. Where doubt existed, the potential for opposition and rebellion could occur.

History has shown us many examples of how dangerous this kind of thinking can be. The Holocaust is probably our primary example. And yet, as human beings, we can see how much we desire a simple, sure solution to all our questions. The desire to come up with an answer, to put something in place, is very strong. The feeling of getting it done and not having to think about it anymore is satisfying.

I’ve learned how important it is to question my thinking, particularly when I am completely convinced of something. I try to remember that there is no such thing as an absolute and that my thinking is often influenced by my present circumstances. Change those circumstances, and my thinking and feelings change as well.

This week, try questioning your certainties. Ask yourself, am I missing another way of seeing this situation? Is my belief in this subjective? Is it possible that I might be wrong or that I’m basing my certainty on information that is not completely true? Am I able to see other points of view? Are my views excluding others from participating? Are my thinking and actions encouraging inclusiveness or exclusiveness?

One of the best ways to broaden our thinking is to ask others what they think. If you see yourself being absolutely certain of something, ask someone who doesn’t always agree with you what he or she thinks. I often check my thinking with my husband. He and I have similar values, but he often has just enough of a different viewpoint to get me to open my mind to new possibilities. I’ve also used the Internet to give me new ways of viewing situations. As much as I don’t like overly conservative viewpoints, I will go to such Web sites to read what people who disagree with me think. I’m always surprised by how certain they are of their views! In scoffing at their viewpoints, I have to admit that it’s the certainty in my liberal views that makes me judge the certainty in theirs.

In the editorial section of the newspaper this morning, I read a piece written to President Obama by a man who is dying. He appeals to the president to be honest with the American people about the economy. He writes, “So even as you speak words of hope and quell our fears with your steady presence, let us know that you proceed in the spirit of not being too sure because you cannot be, because no one can be, because a global economic meltdown is unprecedented in scope and nature.” Earlier, he quoted Judge Learned Hand: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit of not being too sure.”

Try asking better questions and digging more deeply into your opinions and views. See if there’s another way to look at the world around you. Remember that being flexible in your thinking and approach gives you more room to move when circumstances change, which they invariably will do.

Bertram Russell wrote, “The whole problem with the world is fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”

Have a good week,


Kathleen Doyle-White
Pathfinders Coaching
(503) 296-9249

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