The gift of doubt

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Albert O. Hirschman

When reviewing my colleagues’ experience in improving the water and sewerage system in Baghdad, using the Outcome Mapping method, I realized one thing: The really big learnings, changes, breakthroughs happened when something went wrong, when people made mistakes, not when everyone was doing things perfectly. For example only the bad reactions of the public to initial newspaper articles made the team understand that they had to listen more than preach. If the initial communication had been o.k. – though not great – and no one would have even noticed or complained, there would have been little learning.

Today I read an inspiring article which shows me that aparently I am not the first to see this – the literary economist (who prefered to quote Kafka to doing math) Albert O. Hirschman made a science out of researching this. His biography is out, and this New Yorker article gives you a first flavor:

“Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.”

“Developing countries required more than capital. They needed practice in making difficult economic decisions. Economic progress was the product of successful habits—and there is no better teacher, Hirschman felt, than a little adversity. He would rather encourage settlers and entrepreneurs at the grass-roots level—and make them learn how to cope with those impediments themselves—than run the risk that aid might infantilize its recipient.”

4 Responses

  1. It is pleasing to know that there are many who believe that a little adversity would assist any human being to put to work their Godly-given ingenuity. Brene Brown puts it simply that, “Vulnerability is the Birthplace of Creativity”.

    • I really like your quote. Because vulnerability is not so much what the outside world throws at us but whether or not we have some cracks in our shell through which we let it in.

  2. I do agree with Prof Hirschman about his suggestion that settlers and entrepreneurs at the grass root level be left to learn impediments by themselves. But from the experience of a country like Nepal, they also need to be made careful of the possibility of being manipulated by the so called leaders, who think that they are the ones who to be heard and listened .

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