Confidence is a great attribute in a person and in a nation. It makes people and nations stronger because it allows them to accept their own fallibility, and drives them to develop plans taking account of the possibility that they might be wrong. In confident countries, there’s no shame in being wrong. Error is a sign of original thinking and mistakes are proof that people are trying out new ideas that might turn out to work or might not. In successful societies, risk-taking is encouraged because that’s what leads to advances, and when things go wrong, nobody is blamed. That’s the chance you take when you push the boat out.
That’s what a mature society is all about.
Years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend several weeks in Scandinavia on work-related matters. Every day involved presentations by local officials or business people who, in the main, spoke far better English than the group of which I was a part, and I learned many useful lessons from these talks. Being human, I retain very little of the precise details now, at so many years’ remove, apart from one thing. A single word.
I went the whole way to Denmark and Sweden to come back with one single word, and yet, despite what you might think, this word made the whole trip worthwhile.
The word was “possibility”.
Everywhere we went, people were talking about possibilities, and it was always in the context of acknowledging that they might be wrong. I was amazed with the contrast between us and these Scandinavians who lived in small countries just like our own. Our crowd made a plan and stuck to it no matter what, but the reasonable Scandinavians had a completely different approach, grounded in the acceptance that people are people and might easily be wrong. Over and over again, I heard the same thing as they explained what they did: –
We design it in such a way that if it does not work out, we have the possibility to do this instead. And if this also does not work, we have the posssibility to do this.
Possibility. Constantly, the word possibility. It came to embody the concept of confidence and I began to realise that these people were not hung up on their own importance. They felt comfortable admitting that they might turn out to be wrong, unlike us, and their humility was the ultimate statement of self-confidence. It stood in severe contrast to the society I came from.
We Irish are not a confident people. We make a good effort at pretending to be so, but it never quite comes off, although up to a point, we’re able to put on a facade. When times are good, we can be brash. Put us in a uniform or give us a position of power and we can become arrogant bullies. Give us some sort of celebrity status and we can be the worst poseurs the world has ever seen. Give us a bit of success and we can lecture the world — just look at Bono if you don’t believe me. But we just don’t seem to possess the quiet confidence of other nations.
Instead, we seem to admire the vulgar, the flashy and the loud. Why are we so impressed by people who happened to make a little money from their businesses? Ireland, after all, is a country where the Sunday newspaper society pages are filled with photos of the leathery old wives of cardboard-box makers who caught their accents off a sun-bed.
I don’t understand why this is, but it offers a clue to our current economic difficulties. We lack assertiveness and a sense of belief because at heart we don’t yet believe in ourselves as a nation. In September 2008, a somewhat lumpen Irish prime minister, Brian Cowen, caved in to the demands of the banking elite during a midnight meeting. Cowen assented to the unprecedented guarantee that led directly to the current economic disaster and he did so almost on his own, committing the Irish state to enormous costs, staggering sums, without calling a cabinet meeting, because he believed the empty threats of the bank bosses. It’s not entirely clear that he had the constitutional right to make these decisions in the absence of his cabinet, but certainly, in years to come, Cowen’s capitulation to the financial elite will be seen as the most flaccid response in history to political lobbying, with an entire nation becoming hostage to the wishes of four or five private companies.
Cowen’s collapse could easily be read as assent to a coup d’etat, with the support of a finance minister obsessed by his own place in history.
Contrast that with Iceland’s refusal to fund the losses of their privately-owned banks. Look at the quiet confidence with which Icelandic people came out on the streets in peaceful solidarity and look at the current situation, where Iceland is on the path to economic recovery while its former prime minister is facing prosecution.
We Irish don’t do assertiveness on that scale. We don’t have that sort of quiet, incandescent Icelandic fury, as we’ve demonstrated by our acceptance of recent outrages, and this in itself is a measure of our confidence. A society that tolerates as much corporate malfeasance as we did has no self-confidence.
Advertising can be a useful barometer of society, of its hopes and aspirations, of what it thinks it is, of where it hopes to go, and if you asked me to choose one particular ad that summed up the pretentious nonsense that defined the Celtic Tiger era, it would have to be the one on radio where the guy comes home and says Mmmmm. Ciabatta!
I don’t know what the ad was for. All I remember is thinking how cringe-inducing it was in a country where most people grew up on bread in all its shapes and forms. Why did an advertiser think that one particular kind of bread was worth mentioning just because it had an Italian name? The message it sent to me was simple enough. This ad had been conceived by some character in an agency who was unconsciously betraying his own insecurity through the words of the actors.
Mmmmm. Ciabatta. Foreign is good.
We are not a self-assured people and, as with all such societies, we substitute braggadocio for confidence. We want to be somebody else. Our radio presenters speak with American accents. Our children talk like Yogi Bear. Most of us no longer use our own language, though we blame others for that abandonment.
Isn’t it about time that we started to adopt new, successful strategies for moving forward?
We need to start instilling critical thinking in our society, self-confidence and assertiveness. Most of all, we need to introduce the great strength and flexibility of accepting our own falliblity.
This is the new movement in modern business thinking, the idea and revelation that people are people, fallible, unpredictable and prone to all manner of mistakes. Future successful business will be built on this principle, but more importantly, if Ireland is to pull itself back from the precipice, this is the same principle we must apply to government and to public administration. Ireland must reinvent itself, and so must the public service in a way that values original thinking, because by its very nature, original thinking relies on error to be successful.
That’s not the model we worked on for generations. Instead, we preferred to pretend that nothing could go wrong despite the evidence in front of our eyes, but we no longer have that luxury after September 2008. Nevertheless, let’s not despair. The collapse might have been calamitous but catharsis carries its own benefits, and therefore, even though the economic collapse has brought all sorts of hardship, it might also offer the opportunity to rethink the way we do things. This is a chance to become strong by embracing our ability to be wrong.
All BTR posts on Reinventing Ireland