The Power of "Maybe"

And the potential peril of a can-do attitude.

Posted Aug 16, 2019

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When you’re making a decision, what percentage of the relevant information do you have? What percentage of all the possible influences on the outcome have you taken into account by the time you pull the trigger on a decision?

Like when you’re deciding something really important, like where you’ll live or whether to have children. Do you decide when you have factored in 99 percent? One hundred percent?

If you answer 99 percent, you’re very optimistic. If you answer 100 percent, you’re positively delusional. There are just too many factors. No matter how many factors you take into account, there will always be other factors you haven’t that could have changed your decision.

We’re far from omniscient. We’re "someniscient." We know some, not all.

How about your power? Of all the things you might want to be able to do, what percentage are within your power? Maybe you’re realistic and have stopped wanting to do what you can’t. Even still, of the things on your bucket list, what percentage are really within your overall abilities?

Again, if you answer 99 percent, your confidence overfloweth. If you’d say 100 percent, you’re just plain kidding yourself. We are not omnipotent. We are somenipotent. We have some power, not all, despite the Nike “Just do it” slogan.

Not only that, we’re someniscient about our somenipotence. We don’t know everything about what powers we have. We’re all guessing. Can I pull this off? Is it in me to just do it?

We have some knowledge and some power. So why do people talk so much like they absolutely know? And why do people say they absolutely can-do when they’re just guessing if they can? Why is "maybe" so hard for us?

With the can-do attitude, it’s obvious. Sometimes—not always, despite how much fiction argues otherwise—a can-do attitude is enough to get us across a finish line. We give ourselves pep talks: “I know I can do this.” “Knowing” we can do it may explain why we act like we know more than we do.

Better to apologize than ask permission. Likewise, better to rationalize your failure of knowledge or power to cross a finish line than to doubt yourself at the starting line.

Still, pretending we’re omnipotent and omniscient comes at a cost. Here’s an illustration of the cost, perhaps somewhat familiar to you:

1. You’re born into or have chosen an ambitious religious, spiritual, political, or social moral code. The code holds people to a high absolute standard: We all absolutely can and should do what we absolutely know is right. Call it “correctness,” whether political, spiritual, left, right, whatever.

2. Despite having embraced it, you’re still a somenipotent human. You still face and fall for temptation. Over and over. You’re not walking your talk.

3. So you get good at rationalizing your failures.

4. Eventually, your ambitious moral code becomes useful for rationalizing your failures to live up to your ambitious moral code.

It may even offer you a rationalization for rationalizing. Reasons why it's perfectly fine for you to rationalize since at least you're on the side of absolute right and righteousness. You can even use it to scold anyone who exposes your failure to live up to it. They don’t live up to it, and they should.

A high-minded, ambitious, can-do attitude can turn people into unbounded hypocrites. It has happened a lot throughout history. Take but one example: Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism. He embraced very ambitious human goals and found that he couldn’t live up to them. He beat himself up about it until he found a solution: It didn’t matter whether he lived up to them so long as he embraced them—grace by faith alone.

We can’t live up to "God's" ambitious moral code. We’re human, as the Calvinist offshoot of Protestantism describes its most fundamental principle, "total depravity": 

"[T]he teaching that, as a consequence of the Fall of Man, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin as a result of their fallen nature and, apart from the efficacious or prevenient grace of God, is utterly unable to choose to follow God, refrain from evil, or accept the gift of salvation as it is offered” (Wikipedia).

Luther was a heroic revolutionary, the first in over a thousand years to succeed in overthrowing the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church. Diverse sects were inspired by his revolution. His response to them was merciless. Of the peasants who saw in his teachings reasons to rebel against their feudal overlords, Luther said:

"Let everyone who can smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you." (Massing, Michael. Fatal Discord (p. 651). Harper. Kindle Edition.)

Luther did intellectual battle with Erasmus, who had a different approach. He argued that people should try to live by the Bible’s teachings. Countering the total depravity and grace by faith approach, Erasmus argued for a can-do attitude. We can live right and righteous lives.

They ended up debating free will, Erasmus arguing for it, Luther arguing against it. They did so within a hidden assumption that it was all or nothing: We are either totally depraved and incapable of living right, or totally free to will ourselves into the behavior we absolutely know is right.

In between is where we live—someniscient and somenipotent. We can’t do everything we put our minds to. We can do some of it and are always guessing which some.

Lest this look like a challenge to the religious right only, here’s an article from this week’s New Yorker, detailing how the same dynamics played out in a left-wing, feminist collective home for battered women.

It’s not about this ambitious goal or that, but about what in social psychology is called "the aspirational gap,” the gap between what we aspire to, and what we do—the gap between our can-do talk and our maybe-can-do walk and about the risks that come with faking it til you make it. Often, not making it given our limitations, we end up just faking it. 

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