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Heads Up

February 16, 2015

Here's an exotic physics experiment you can do at home: Get some corn starch from Walmart (or any other store of your choice), and mix it with a bit of water, then leave it for a minute. Don't expect any explosions though, because you'll be sorely disappointed. What forms instead is a liquid, a mixture of corn starch and water, that behaves mostly like water. If you pour it or stir it, you won't really be able to tell the different between it and any other similarly-tinted liquid. But once you start applying any kind of force onto the mixture, it'll behave less like water and more like a hardened gel. If you try pushing the liquid down quickly or drag your fingers across it with enough force, it'll resist the stress like a piece of gel rather than a liquid. But take that pressure off, and it'll flow right back to being a normal liquid. What you'll have is, in physics terms, a shear thickening fluid. Translated into plain English it means that it thickens under shear, or force. This allows heavy enough objects to sit on top of the liquid and people to walk on the liquid's surface.

Corn starch with water resists intuition, because it gets firmer with more pressure. But this isn't so uncommon in our lives. (credit: From Quarks to Quasars)

Shear thickening fluids are exotic because it goes against the more intuitive way the world works, in which things become weaker under stress. Almost everything we encounter daily breaks, bends, or somehow gives up under enough pressure*, and that's the basic logic behind staying within safe zones of daily lives. I think we accept this general assumption about limits and boundaries without question, that pushing against the limits of what you ought to do is generally not appreciated. This is why you don't see a lot of people wearing shirts with swearwords or offensive drawings on them, why not everyone appreciates crude, politically satirical cartoons**, and also why most people try to fit in with the rest of the crowd -- because being on the edge sort of stinks. While figures such as Steve Jobs and Gandhi are hailed by the world for standing on the edge of the norms and pushing against it, when put on the spot most people are skirmish to the idea of themselves being on the boundaries of acceptance, because like the poor bent iPhone in your back pocket, being pushed to the limits carries with it its risks. In other words, confidence is risky.

But I think having confidence is risky in more than just one way. For starters, there's a fine line between being confident and being narcissistic or overconfident. While being confident in what you say or how you act, you run the risk of coming across as ... well, full of yourself. And if you're doing it right, there will always be some group of people in the world who won't like what you're doing and will call you out on it***. But I think the difference between confidence and overconfidence is the focus of the trust. In being confident, you're putting your trust in the things that you do. You invest your time and effort into an idea or a goal because you trust that it'll be successful. In contrast, you can't be overconfident in your actions or choices; your overconfidence centers on yourself, the actor, and your ability (or what you think is your ability) to do something. So naturally, you come across as narcissistic. Confidence isn't, contrary to the popular idea painted by the media, believing that your intuitions and thoughts are somehow more correct or more legitimate than others, because no matter who you are, you're probably wrong. Confidence isn't about yourself, but about the things you do and the choices you make. In my opinion, you can't be confident in yourself or any other person; the notion of confidence applies to your choices but not your person, just as your stupid decisions over the years don't make you a stupid person.

Confidence isn't about yourself, but about the things you do.

But in striving to be different, to lead, to be confident, the most elusive aspect of the deal may be that, like corn starch in water, you can only trust in what you choose to do when you continually push against the limits of your doubt. It isn't terribly different from building a strong relationship with anyone -- relationships see the most growth not at times of butterflies and sunshine, but through struggles, when the strengths of the relationships are pushes to the limits. I think confidence works similarly, because in a strange way, your confidence in your actions is your trust in them, and your relationship to yourself. While it might not be the best feeling in your life to stand outside your comfort zone when you aren't confident yet in what you're doing, I think it's important to keep in mind that the confidence in your choices that you very much need only comes when you push against its boundaries.

Earlier in the post is a picture of people running on corn starch and water, a liquid, like you would on any old track. This scientific sorcery is possible because of the fact that the corn starch mixture strengthens and refuses to give only under higher pressures. So if, on the same liquid, you were to attempt to walk carefully on top of it, it would just slip out from under you, and you would go under pretty quickly. I can't help but think that this is such a perfect metaphor for confidence. The more you tread carefully, with hesitation, the more likely it is to break and bend. On the other hand, if you push and struggle against its limits, it becomes stronger, if only for a moment, and it allows you to stand on top of it. If you have a goal of any magnitude or any feasibility at all that you want to chase, rather than treading carefully on top of it, I think the better solution is to run confidently, and run fast. And maybe you'll be running on water before you know it.

* even metal-mastered iPhones

** The notion of free speech is wonderful, but that doesn't necessarily make insulting people of a different religion from you moral.

*** Just.... Shake It Off?