A Little Foolishness Helps

It is usually assumed that wise and far-sighted people can accomplish any project better than the rest. While it might be true in general, I have observed that having a certain dose of foolishness goes a long way towards achieving great results.

In the recent past, I finished writing an 800+ pages book in my field of engineering. The whole project took 3 years of work along with a full time job and a family with young kids. After the announcement, one of the famous writers emailed me saying that a reader does not have any idea how much time it takes for an author to write a book. This is even more true for technical books where drawing only a figure sometimes took 1 to 2 hours of my effort. All in all, it is like building a house from scratch by a single person.

When I look back now, I think that having known in advance the exact amounts of energy, time and commitment that was required, I might have been scared to just start the project. In the modern world, we can ask the participants of the Lords of the Rings trilogy if they knew in advance how much they would have to sacrifice for completing that film. A certain foolishness in seriously underestimating what it takes has helped creators accomplish a great many endeavours. This is a funny reality of this world.

This is a manifestation of Daniel Kahneman’s planning fallacy. According to Wikipedia,

Planning Fallacy

The planning fallacy, first proposed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979, is a phenomenon in which predictions about how much time will be needed to complete a future task display an optimism bias and underestimate the time needed.

In short, one has to be blinded by the greater vision and/or the pull for the cause that would bring meaning and joy to their lives.

I do admit that not all such results are rosy and history is full of efforts that went into vain, at least apparently. The most famous example is that of alchemists when many spent their entire lifetimes in trying to turn base metals into gold. The theory of electron cloud around a nucleus containing neutrons and protons was unknown to them and hence they could not know the amount of energy required to disintegrate an atom. Looking back, they should not have even started!

In conclusion, it is difficult to exactly know in advance the difference between the following two cases.

  • A positive outcome: being a fool in taking first steps towards a huge undertaking and eventually finishing it.
  • A negative outcome: being a fool in spending a significant part of your life in a mission that is either impossible or useless if completed.

In this context, this is in the category of other similar open questions such as when to give up and when to not give up, where the latter is not always the right choice. On a funny note, from the second case above, procrastinators at least sometimes get it right in not `wasting’ their time on fruitless ventures!

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