Day #56: Confidence Game

A father of three, a loving husband, and a failed pundit, Edward Samuelson was not ready.

For years, he’d struggled far from the limelight. He wrote position papers, articles and even books on a wide variety of topics he thought were fascinating. He also believed his takes on these diverse areas were accurate, insightful and interesting.

And they were.

But despite it all, he never achieved any traction. No major networks picked him up. Not even local radio deigned to interview him. He was like the weekend rocker. His day job was just fine, but when it came to his passion he was a wipeout.

And then, out of the blue, something he wrote hit a vein. Out of the blue, he was invited to do a major interview on network television. Well, not an interview – a debate. And a debate with an old hand in the business.

And he wasn’t ready. He hadn’t been through the years of small-time struggle that trains TV personalities. He hadn’t gone mano-a-mano against anyone about anything. But here he was, the makeup people doing the best to make him seem polished. The host prepping him politely – encouraging him even. I guess anything would make the wolves happier.

And then, before he knew it, the lights were on and the camera was rolling.

“Today,” said the host, his bronzed face and perfectly maintained hair beaming into the camera, “We have a remarkable program scheduled. The highlight of today’s program is a no hold-barred death debate between Edward Samuelson, author of the hot new bestseller, ‘Death to Hope.’ And Jim Hewitt, one of this country’s top motivation speakers. I expect you’re all looking forward to that one. But first, I want us to get involved in a little political talk….”

The host droned on about some topic Edward couldn’t care less about. But he did his best to look interested. His thinning grey hair tried to bob as he nodded his head eagerly. Unlike Edward, Jim was an old hand. His stained black mane seemed to fly in every direction as he got himself involved in every segment of the show. Edward was happier hanging back, waiting for his segment to begin. And eventually it did.

“And now,” said the host, “Our feature stand-off. ‘Death to Hope’ author Edward Samuelson and motivation speaker Jim Hewitt.”

Off camera, the studio audience cheered enthusiastically. Edward noted that the studio was far from full – there must have been some kind of technology that multiplied the few voices that were there.

“-Edward?” came a sharp voice. It was the host. Apparently, Edward had missed something.

“Yeah?” he asked.

“Edward,” said the host, “Are you ready to take on the one and only Jim Hewitt.”

Edward nodded, “Sure,” he said – trying to convey enthusiasm and conviction. He guessed that he failed.

Edward was expecting the host to answer, but Jim jumped in instead. “What about killing hope? I mean, how can you be here much less think you’ve got a chance if you think hope oughta die.”

Edward looked at him and paused for just a second – a terrible sin in network TV. You end up looking like a run-over deer.

Jim laughed, “Eddie boy,” he said, “You’ve got to have hope. Without it, nobody goes anywhere.”

A flush of animation came into Edwards eyes. He may not be ready, he thought, but he’d put up a fight.

“Jimmy boy,” he replied, “Did you read the book?”

“Sure,” said Jim, “What of it.”

“No, you didn’t,” said Edward, “I mean – it looks like you didn’t even make it to the subtitle. Let me read it for you. He picked up a copy for the camera – ‘How a lack of confidence can lead to smarter outcomes.’ Sound familiar?”

“A lack of confidence?”  said Jim, “Confidence is what makes it all happen. Confidence is why people don’t think they’ll fail at everything all the time.”

“And overconfidence leads to idiots like you thinking you can debate a topic when you’ve read the top-part of a book title. You think you’ll succeed at everything all the time.”

“Have you listened to my speeches?” as Jim, hunting for a comeback.

“About 70 of them,” said Edward, “I did it before coming here tonight. It was a struggle to stay awake though.”

“Bullshit,” said Jim, beginning to get animated.

“Not at all,” said Edward, “I mean your delivery is fantastic, but everything you said in the 35 hours I listened to could be summed up in one sentence. And that’d save a whole lot of time and money for your audiences.”

Jim didn’t want to ask what the sentence was. He knew.

“So you want to kill hope?” he asked. A change of topic was necessary, no matter the risk.

Edward smiled, “No,” he said, “I just think the kind of hope we’ve got around here deserves to die.”

“Hope,” said Jim, “Is what brought us the railroad, the telephone, electricity, running water, airplanes, spacecraft, the internet, decent medicine and on and on and on. You want to kill that?”

“Think about it,” said Edward, “We’ve got the railroad, spacecraft and Internet. And for the first time in our millions of years of existence, we suddenly think we control our world. Kids are brought up to think they can achieve anything they put their minds to. And that somehow, somewhere the real world will just put itself in a headlock if they really really want it to.”

“And it will,” said Jim, “We keep inventing new things and improving our lives every day.”

“And we keep pouring money down useless rabbit holes,” said Edward, “Following the weird idea that if you spend enough money, any problem can just be solved.”

“So what?” said Jim, “We do solve a whole lot of problems.”

“Oh, sure,” says Edward, “All but the big ones. The once the most powerful human forces decide they can tackle head on. We keep thinking we can just force our way over nature and reality. But nature isn’t stupid. Anybody who attacks a fortified enemy straight on is asking for failure.”

“Ohhh,” said Jim, derisively, “Metaphors.  What the hell are you talking about?”

“We spend and spend and spend on fighting cancer, we spend and spend and spend on phalanxes of educators and administrators, we spend and spend and spend on new energy projects. We keep thinking that if we just spend more – if we just commit more, cancer, education and energy problems will just disappear. But they don’t. Problems fight for survival.”

“They aren’t people,” said Jim, “They don’t maneuver for position. Innovation will overwhelm them.”

“Maybe,” said Edward, “But nature sure packs a punch. While we mount our frontal assault on cancer, it is evolving constantly. And on the sides of healthcare, superbugs are developing themselves at a frightening pace. While we shove money into our education system we are actually weakening their responsiveness. And our eagerness to throw money at energy issues has resulted in assaults on fossil fuels that I’d call suicidal.”

“So what would you do?” asked Jim, “Just walk away.”

“Certainly not,” said Edward, “But I’d want us to recognize – at every level, that our big-time enemies aren’t inherently stupid. We can’t just expect we’ll defeat them if only we throw enough scientists and lab equipment at the problem. Just having a bigger army doesn’t guarantee victory. We’ve got to relearn that we’re actually the underdogs – and that we’ve got to think like underdogs do; scrapping, clawing, thinking and straight out fighting for victory.”

It was Jim’s turn to pause for a second. Then he answered, “So you want to kill hope?”

“My publisher picked a hot title,” said Edward. “I don’t want to kill hope. I want to kill its ugly stepchild – unbounded confidence.”

“The last word?” asked the host.

Jim went first: “When it comes to killing confidence, I hope you fail.”

“Unfortunately,” answered Edward, dourly, “I believe that I will.”

“And now,” wrapped up the host, “A word from our sponsors.”