On believing you can do anything

While I don’t mind a genuinely inspiring quote, I can’t help but roll my eyes with the Pollyannaism of some of ’em. (I’d previously written about my qualms with “The best is yet to come”.) Another thing I question is the persist belief in “If you can dream it, you can achieve it”-type quotes (that quote is by Walt Disney, by the way.).

I’m all for self-confidence, having large goals, and coming up with ideas. However. I believe that there has to be an element of reality in it.

For one, self-confidence in a domain has to be rooted in actual skills in that domain. My friends and I used to watch “American Idol” auditions. I’d be incredulous seeing people proudly proclaim about how they were amazing singers, but when they started singing they were ridiculously off-tune. When faced with the harsh reality that they weren’t advancing to the next round, they would protest that their friends and family said they were the best singers ever and the judges were clueless. These people had obviously been fed with too much, “you’re an amazing singer, you should totally audition, you can do it!” even when they were clearly were sub-par.

I believe in having confidence about my abilities and my capabilities to grow and learn, but there also needs to be self-awareness about the things that I’m good at and I’m not. Covering everything with a blanket “I’m great, I can totally do anything!” is not helpful.

Secondly, I’m all for setting big dreams. But there has to be a way to get there, and the person has to be willing to put the work in. There has to be the flexibility to pivot and acknowledge that goalposts may need to shift, not a stubborn attachment to the vision whilst saying, “I have this vision, so I know it must come true, I just need to stay positive and believe.”

I was reminded of all of this whilst reading John Carreyrou’s brilliant book, “Bad Blood“, about the startup company Theranos. For the unaware, Elizabeth Holmes started a blood testing company to make low-cost, less invasive blood tests that could run a large number of tests on a small amount of blood. Unfortunately, her technology didn’t work. This didn’t stop her from making deals with companies to use her technology. She was unwavering in her original vision and wouldn’t listen to her teams when they told her they needed more time to test and develop. Instead, she pressured them to deliver. This resulted in the development of faulty technology and techniques that put patients’ lives at risk and contributed to the suicide of her former chief scientist, Ian Gibbons.

Apparently, she was a fan of those kinds of quotes — the ones that told her that as long as she believed, she could achieve. It’s also evident in her quotes, some of which take an eerie quality now, reading them after all this has happened:

“I wasn’t weighted by influences that I couldn’t do it or that I shouldn’t do it.”

“I think that being able to communicate to young children that there is nothing they can’t do and to treat them like that at a very young age is incredibly powerful. I think I was very blessed to grow up in a family that always encouraged me to believe that there was nothing that I couldn’t do.”

“I think that the minute that you have a backup plan, you’ve admitted that you’re not going to succeed.”

“I think a lot of young people have incredible ideas and incredible insights, but sometimes they wait before they go give their life to something. What I did was just to start a little earlier.”

Her last quote reminds me of a conversation with my friend T, a game developer. She told me that people came up to her all the time, telling her they had a great idea for a game. But what they actually had was just a basic storyline for a game. There were so many other things to consider — of which the narrative was just a small part.

I’m a big fan of ideas, but I think merely having one isn’t the solution. Usually a lot of people have similar ones, but it’s the devil in the details, the implementation, that actually makes the difference.

In short, I believe that having confidence, a vision, and an idea are necessary, but insufficient, to actually make stuff happen. I guess there are people who get genuinely inspired by quotes that tell people that all they have to do is to believe in their vision, but I’m not going to rush out and buy a poster or a mug with a cheery platitude on it.

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