Confident but not certain: the garden

Recently, I listened to a radio interview with Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, who is promoting her latest book. The interviewer asked her what quality she thought most crucial to a good leader. Albright has met many, many leaders; she is also a brilliant person. It was a good question to ask her, and she had an excellent and thought-provoking answer: A good leader should be confident, but not certain. (If you download the mp3 file in the link above, her explanation of this idea comes near the end of the program.) Powerful people who are both confident and certain of themselves, their aims, knowledge, and ideas, are too likely to veer into autocratic dictatorship. Those who are neither certain nor confident are too easily swayed by advisors with their own agendas or are unable to make decisive moves. A person who is open-minded–and therefore not certain–but who is confident in his or her ability to make a good decision once the facts are in, leads wisely and well even when mistakes occur due to faulty information or circumstances beyond anyone’s control.

We could all benefit from becoming more confident and less certain. It strikes me that Socrates might have possessed this pair of qualities. The philosopher continues to question and is therefore not certain; but the uncertainty isn’t of the waffling, inconclusive kind. Uncertainty in Albright’s use of the word means curious, inquisitive, searching. The confident person trusts his or her values (confidence, from fidere, “to trust”) but does not let dogma or single-perspective “certainties” obscure research, facts, other perspectives.

I will grant that this approach is difficult for us humans, and that is why so few leaders possess this pair of traits. While I have no interest in becoming a world leader, I plan to keep Albright’s phrase in mind and discover whether I can become more confident and less certain in my life.

This bust resides in the Louvre, and the image was found here:

Gardening is one area that relates well to confidence and uncertainty, though in a slightly different form of practice. I’ve been a gardener for over 30 years, and one thing you learn when you garden is that there are no certainties. Planning takes mental and physical effort and preparation, and then there are the endless obstacles involved in planting and overcoming soil deficiencies, insects, fungi, and weather inconsistencies just to name a few. Am I a confident gardener? Yes. Years of research, experiment, study, practice, trial and error–and successes–have made me confident. But there are always new hybrids to try, new species to plant, and there are problems that never seem to go away (why can’t I get carrots to grow here, when I have grown carrots every other place I’ve lived? How to keep certain fungi at bay using organic means?).

And one never has any sort of surety or pledge (the etymology of “certainty”) that those tomatoes will ripen without blossom end rot or fusarium wilt, that the pigweed will not take over during the gardener’s five-day vacation (well, that’s almost a certainty!), or that hail will not wreck the whole summer’s worth of plantings.

Ann E. Michael

June, 2009–after the hailstorm

This year, my vegetable garden is producing well despite overbearing heat, hard brief rains, and far too many weeds. I feel annoyed with its overgrown appearance, but one thing about gardens is you get another chance as long as you can wait a couple of seasons.

Meanwhile, with a little more thought and research, I’m confident I can plan an even better garden next year.

5 comments on “Confident but not certain: the garden

  1. gaiamethod says:

    ” Years of research, experiment, study, practice, trial and error–and successes–have made me confident.”
    I was confident in the UK and now I am having to learn all over again as things just do not grow the same way here in Luxor at all!!! But I’ll get there. And I’ve taught myself how to crochet!!! I might even be able to make some money from it!!!!


    • Starting anything new is both exciting and a bit fraught. Moving to a different region, environmentally or culturally, means all the confidence you had based on familiarity is gone. But the confidence gained by years of solving problems remains. Clearly you are using your experiences as you adapt!


  2. KM Huber says:

    A most enjoyable post, Ann. I, too, appreciate the idea of confident but not certain and will do well to practice such. I like to think that my curiosity usually leaves me not certain but I do know that my confidence is not always enough to trust. Also appreciate the Albright link.



  3. Try trusting your confidence a bit more. Just as an experiment! You might be surprised.


  4. […] a recent post, I mentioned Madeleine Albright’s definition of a good leader as a person who is […]


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