Archive for the ‘Essay’ Category

CONFIDENCE: The feeling you experience before you fully understand the situation.

For the past year and a half I have been collecting quotes that I felt are particularly true and important (and often funny). I have over 200 now and roughly an eighth are related to confidence, faith or doubt. This endeavor corresponds with the “midlife crisis” I’ve been experiencing during the same time [1]. This period also corresponds with the birth of my daughters and the progression of my arthritis.

One can mistrust one’s own senses, but not one’s own belief. If there were a verb meaning “to believe falsely,” it would not have any significant first person, present indicative.

–Ludwig Wittgenstein

My midlife crisis is what I will call a crisis of confidence. I want to say crisis of faith, but the word faith is too often associated with religion, and so I will say crisis of confidence. During this period I have lost some amount of confidence in everything from the free market, to literal religious belief, and especially my own ability to succeed.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. All progress, therefore, depends upon the unreasonable man.

–George Bernard Shaw

This has, naturally, caused me to think about the nature of confidence and the “unfairness” of it. A person with confidence has an automatic advantage over someone who doesn’t. This has of course been well studied in, say, tennis. Certainly many of history’s great men (and women) have been very confident. Consider for example Richard Stallman, Joseph Stalin, and Mahatma Gandhi. Clearly they have accomplished “great” things (great in the large rather than good sense obviously), and from the little that I know, I would definitely consider them “confident” people. They were extremely stubborn and I think that takes confidence. On the other hand, I consider myself a fairly reasonable person, which likely means I will never do “great” things.

The victor is not victorious if the vanquished does not consider himself so.


I have realize that for most of my life I had confidence working for me, at least in school. I knew that I was “smart” and that I could would do well. When I worried about “flunking”, I was worried about getting a B. Of course I had doubts, like everyone, but I always knew that in the end I would be fine. I usually knew, even as I was thinking “I’m not good enough”, that I was in fact good enough. I would pass the test and the class. Unfortunately, I have come to the point where I no longer know it. Or rather, I don’t believe it when I tell myself that I know it. The self-doubt drains my energy and the will to study. Why try when I’m going to fail embarrassingly anyway?

I have learned, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

–Henry Thoreau

Having gone back to school after working 4 years for a great company I knew that I would have forgotten some things. But when I started school I was faced with the reality of having forgotten things. There were also things that I had never learned. Then came the oral exams. Someday I may feel comfortable taking an oral exam, but right now they scare the CENSORED out of me. When they ask a question that I don’t immediately know the answer to (which is most of them) I freeze up and hear the little man in my head repeating “I can’t do this. I’m too stupid. I should know this.” Needless to say it’s not very conducive to actually thinking my way towards a solution.  This never happened to me before.  If life were fair this failure would spur me to work harder next time, but instead it erodes my confidence and work ethic because I know I’m going to make a fool of myself anway.

Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.

–Ludwig Wittgenstein

In other words I’ve gone from placebo to nocebo.

What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure, that just ain’t so.

–Mark Twain

Enter the Candidacy Exam. It’s oral. It a requirement. And you only get one chance to take it.

Seventy percent of success in life is showing up.

–Woody Allen

While studying I had to tell myself every day that it’s mostly a formality (I don’t know if that’s actually true). “They don’t want the shame of flunking me anymore than I want the shame of having flunked,” I would tell myself. It almost worked. Mostly what got me to study was the embarrassment of failing. I now know what it feels like to really worry about failing–really failing. Changing-all-the-plans-you’ve-made-for-the-next-few-years-and-maybe-your-life failing. If this is what other people feel in school, no wonder they hate it.

There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills.


In the end the exam was more of a presentation than an exam (a presentation where I only presented about a quarter of what I had prepared). They did ask a few questions, but it was quite low key. Once I was in presentation mode (where I feel more comfortable) I didn’t have time to worry and I did okay. I didn’t pass with flying colors, but I did pass—which is the important thing. I felt relieved of course, but I was surprised to feel a boost to my self confidence a few days later. For one of the first times in my academic career I feel like I overcame something—achieved something for which the outcome was in actual doubt [2]. I am no longer playing Mario with as many lives as I need. I’m playing Nethack on a remote server with no way to save scum. And I made it.  It wasn’t pretty, but I made it. I might even be able to graduate. No probably not. I honestly don’t know enough math for that.

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.

–Charles Darwin

You might think that I wish that I had my old self-confidence back, and I do, but I have also begun to wonder whether it is better (in some ways) to be more honest with ourselves. Is it moral and healthy to lie to ourselves, believing that we are competent? The psychology seems to say yes. You perform better and you feel better [3]. If there is any thing to homeopathy or “the secret”, it is little more than confidence–though that shouldn’t necessarily be scoffed at. I think one of the main positive influences of religion in a person’s life is to give them confidence. What could be more empowering than knowing you are doing the will of the supreme being? It’s very liberating.

Doubt is uncomfortable, certainty is ridiculous.


Nevertheless for some reason I have hangups with deceiving myself. Sometimes I wish I could go back to naively believing that everything was okay so that I could achieve more and be happier (though I don’t know how to do that). Other days I think I would rather be completely honest and see the world as it is. Perhaps it’s some sort of trade off like happiness and reason [4].

Doubt is the beginning not the end of wisdom.

–George Iles

In the meantime, I’m going to celebrate passing my exam and the bit of confidence I found in doing so. If you drink, have a pint of bitter for me, and if you don’t have a non-alcoholic malt beverage.

Men are born to succeed, not fail.

–Henry Thoreau

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do you increase your self confidence?
  2. Have you found that viewing yourself more accurately has lowered your self-confidence?
  3. Would you or do you willingly believe a lie so that you can be happier or more successful?  How do you do this?
  4. Do you know people who seem to get everything they want just because they are confident? Do you resent them? Is it “fair” that confident people have an easier life?
  5. Do you think it’s ethical for doctors to prescribe a placebo if it works for the patient?
  6. Do you have any good quotes about faith, doubt, or confidence?


–Death (Terry Pratchett)

[1] I realize it’s probably not a actual midlife crisis since it’s not directly age related, but it’s too late to be a Quarter life crisis (and it fits the symptoms of a midlife crisis much better).

[2] There is a theory that praising children too much and in the wrong ways decreases self esteem and work ethic. If that’s true, then I think it happened to me. All my life I was told I was smart. I remember thinking (though perhaps it’s a false memory) that if you had to work at school you weren’t smart. How bizarre that seems now.

[3] From Radiolab, we learn that people who lie to themselves are more successful [5]. And there is an entire theory about how self-delusion makes us happy.

[4] If you haven’t read Voltaire’s “The Good Brahman“, you really need to. It’s short, and I read it 10 years ago in Spanish and I have never forgotten it.

[5] Yes, I realize I can’t write anything without referencing Radiolab, but dang it, it helps me stay sane. When walking Evelyn late one night I got a Radiolab episode followed by This American Life. Normally I try to not have my favorite shows back to back. I was very glad it slipped past me this time since my mood, almost instantly, went from angry and frustrated to tired but enjoying myself.

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I realized recently that my experience with Relief Society was a little outside of normal. I realized this after spending 8 months in my mom’s ward because we were between moves/having a baby, etc. My RS history:
My first Relief Society was a student ward in the dorms – obviously not your typical RS. A bunch of 18-19 year old women doesn’t really fall within the typical stereotype of the LDS women’s organization. My second experience would have been a regular BYU student ward – again, not exactly typical. After that was our married student ward – closer, but still pretty out there, and finally our branch in Orem. (yes there is actually a branch in Orem, Utah. THE Orem, Utah just North of Provo, Utah.) Arguably this was a normal Relief Society, except that it was an apartment complex all thrown together into a branch. It had a lot of young married women, some older single, divorced or widowed women, and it was very small. I’m not sure I would have called it your standard Relief Society experience.
Then I moved home. And this is where the revelation came. There are old people in Relief Society! Duh, there are old people in Relief Society. Everyone knows that right? Well, it’s true. In an abstract way I did know there are old people in Relief Society. What I didn’t know was that there are fascinating old people in Relief Society. And this is where I explain my history with old women, which is also maybe a little abnormal?
My history with old women consists of my experiences with my Grandmas. What I remember of my mom’s mom (she died when I was 14) was that she was old and kind of quiet. I remember her sitting on the couch a lot. The exception is when my mom had my little brother when I was four and she taught me to skip and we tied blue ribbons everywhere. Other than that I mostly remember her talking quietly on the couch with my parents.
My other grandmother did things with us when we were little, but since about the time I turned 13  all she’s really done is lie in bed watching her various TV shows (lately it’s been the food network) and eating club crackers.
The point of these involved histories is that I really had the impression that when you got to be an old lady you had to be boring. This was a little distressing to me, but I kind of took it as a fact of life and resigned myself to it. I told myself that when I got to be 78 I would WANT to be lethargic and a little colorless (no offense to my grandmas. They had good reasons).
Then I got involved in my mom’s Relief Society. Actually, first I met Ivan’s aunt Louise. Louise was my first beacon of hope. This woman refused to fit my stereotype of old women. She bought VW busses, made enchiladas, organized family get togethers, traveled, and I even heard rumors that she got those spinner wheel covers for her car. It’s true she tended to sit a lot at the monthly dinners that her entire extended family came for, but she is still a force to be reckoned with. Louise became my first hero.
Still, I thought, “one woman, she’s the exception that makes the rule.” Then I moved into my mom’s ward and began going to Relief Society there. There are a lot of older women in my mom’s ward. One of the first weeks I was there I sat next to one older lady who talked to me for 15 minutes about cataract surgery. It was hilarious. I can’t explain why it was hilarious, but that woman was certainly not the feeble type I was expecting. There was the older woman who would assign meals to be brought to people who needed it and would at times call and see what was to be brought and occasionally “supplement” the meal if it was anything less than about 10 courses. There were hard working women, there were hilarious women, there were lovable women, there were beautiful women. There were women laughing right along with the teenagers at the white elephant gift exchange. And all of them over 60 or so. So this is my thank you note to Relief Society.
Dear Relief Society,
You have given me hope for my future. I have been liberated from the inevitability of colorless and uninspiring golden years. I now have hope that I too, can be a funny, creative, and perhaps even fun 60 something.

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In honor of the sesquicentennial of its release, I read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (for some reason I prefer the full title to the more common Origin of Species). I finished about a month ago, but have put off writing about it until now.

I will not be writing a book review, teaching evolution, or debating it. Many others have done so. I’m just getting down a few of my thoughts about the book and evolution in general, as well as some things that I learned while reading it.

Evolution by any other name

The first thing I learned is that the term Natural Selection comes from the term Selection which is defined as man purposefully (and sometimes unconsciously) selecting desirable traits and breeding those animals or plants to produce better offspring. This would likely have been a much more common concept at that time when more people were involved in agriculture. Also, Darwin never uses the word evolution (though interestingly he uses the word revolution 4 times in different contexts). Instead he uses a phrase that I found quite charming: descent with modification.

A quaint breakthrough

One of the first things that I noticed is how old it seems. I know that may seem obvious, but many of the things he wonders about we simply take for granted. For example, he doesn’t understand why animals vary within a species, and he is unable to explain how breeds often “revert” to characteristics that haven’t been present for up to 20 generations. He uses the analogy of mixing blood, but realizes it doesn’t work. Instead he comes to the conclusion that:

When a character which has been lost in a breed, reappears after a great number of generations, the most probable hypothesis is, not that the offspring suddenly takes after an ancestor some hundred generations distant, but that in each successive generation there has been a tendency to reproduce the character in question, which at last, under unknown favourable conditions, gains an ascendancy.

I suppose this may have been deep insight for his day, but I wanted to scream back in time that it was simply a recessive trait. I wanted to explain genetics to him (Darwin was apparently unaware of the work of Mendel his contemporary). His ignorance serves to make his discovery even more amazing. If someone were to explain genetics and DNA and all the other advances that have been made in this area in the last 150 years he would probably smack himself in the forehead and say, “Duh, everything makes sense now.” (At least it’s fun to imagine a Victorian Charles Darwin with his huge beard saying “Duh”.)

I felt that the book was important for me because it made me realize how people thought before certain things were discovered. I tend to have a hard time remembering how I thought before I knew something. (e.g. How did I look at the world before I learned about differential equations? or What did I believe before I believed in evolution? Was there ever such a time?) Reading On the Origin of Species served to remind me that our current ways of thinking will soon seem quaint. And that’s a good thing to remember.

What we haven’t learned

Darwin spends a good deal of effort explaining that the concept of a species is inherently fuzzy. At the time many naturalists were concerned with whether two beings belonged to different species or were merely different varieties (or breeds) of the same species. He goes to great lengths to point out that there isn’t really a difference between a species and a variety–it’s all a matter of degree. Species are not distinct entities, rather individuals form a continuum of variation (though of course it’s not really a continuum since there are finitely many different genetic codes less than a fixed length). This is one lesson that I think we haven’t learned very well in that last 150 years, or at least that I didn’t learn. I’m sure biologists understand this, and perhaps if you had asked me I could have told you, but I didn’t conceptualize it that way. My mental model of species was of them being separate and distinct.

Darwin spends several chapters dealing with the difficulties of the theory. He discusses the imperfection of the geological record (which has improved significantly since his time) as a potential problem, as well as how seemingly complex things like instinct and eyes could possibly have come about in this manner (Hint: as long as each step along the way is beneficial it can work). He discusses several aspects of hybridism which I found interesting but am not qualified to discuss (you’ll have to read about them yourself–it’s not too difficult to read).


Sadly, I feel that I must address the topic of religion. This section should be considered optional reading unless you are a creationist or interested in the evolution-religion debate. I wish that this weren’t necessary, but until the majority of people are at least willing to consider that evolution might be true (and stop pushing for creationism to be taught in science class), I think we’ll have to keep talking about it.

In my mind one of the most compelling evidences for descent with modification over creation is the geographical distribution of species. Why, as Darwin points out, would marsupials only be found in South America and Australia (and nearby islands) if they were created by God? Why would cave fish be more closely related to their non-cave neighbors than to cave fish in other places who share nearly identical environments?

Some creationists have proposed that God made fossils and planted other evidence for evolution to force us to have faith. I cannot believe this. God is not a liar. Or if he is, maybe he doesn’t deserve to be called God.

In any case, which is more miraculous, a God who can create a static world of well-defined species or a God that can set things in motion which will, after millions of years, give rise to a vibrant, varied and beautiful planet (dare I say universe)? If one truly believes that God is omnipotent then surely he could create a universe that will lead to any given set of “species” by the end (or by the middle for that matter). In other words I see no reason to believe that God can create man in his own image, but only if he does it all at once. Who am I to say that God isn’t powerful enough to use evolution to create life if he wants to?

In case you are wondering, the LDS church officially has no position on evolution and teaches it at church schools, but in my experience many members seem to believe that the church’s position is against evolution. This is doubtless due in part to several statements made (unofficially) by some leaders back in the days when the church forbade birth control and interracial marriage. The Mormon church, so fond of eternal progression, should be the first to embrace descent with modification as a wonderful analog and teaching aid.

I suspect most Mormons who reject evolution in favor of creationism do so because they fear giving in to the world (intellectualism). The problem is that in doing so they give in to fundamentalist christianity and a literal reading of the bible, which I personally believe is a much greater threat to Mormonism in the short term. I would be happy if Mormon leaders would follow the lead of the Catholics and officially accept that evolution can be compatible with Christianity, but I’m afraid that doing so might cause some who believe in creationism too much to become disaffected.

Hopefully, Mormons and fundamentalist christians will eventually come to accept evolution, just as they have accepted heliocentrism (I don’t have much hope for people like the Flat Earth Society).


A recent Radiolab episode discusses, among other things, the work of Dmitri Beliaev, a geneticist in Stalinist Russia. In order to escape certain death for being a Darwinian (incidentally doesn’t Stalin killing evolutionists prove it’s true :-), he started a fox farm in Siberia. He kept the most “domesticated” foxes and used the rest for fur coats. After only 10 years the foxes were noticeably domesticated. It turns out it may be because domesticated foxes are more juvenile in a very real sense (to find out more you’ll have to listen–it’s worth it). So perhaps when Jesus said for of such is the kingdom of heaven and Isaiah said The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb they were speaking about the same thing.

Many people feel that Darwin was greatly influenced by reading Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (I really like the long titles), and that in fact it may have been Smith’s theory which led to Darwin’s breakthrough. If you think about it the theory is the same in both cases: many small, selfish decisions taken together can create a (locally) “good” system. This is why I find it ironic that many people are religiously devoted to free market economics and against evolution. It’s a good thing I no longer believe in the inherent rationality of our species.

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