I like to see myself as a pretty clued in, reasonably astute person who is able to think fast, clearly and strategically. So when told by someone recently, “You seem confused” I took it rather badly. What exactly did they mean by “confused” and is being confused different from seeming to be confused? Where did they get off being so arrogant? I felt as if they saw me as intellectually challenged, someone to be pitied and patronised. I felt belittled. Who did they think they were? I decided deeper reflection was required and this post is the result; I hope you find it useful.
Two things may be happening here. First, they may indeed be an arrogant egotist who sees everyone as inferior to them. Second, they may be right and I was in fact confused. Clearly both possibilities can occur simultaneously as they are not mutually exclusive. So what is being confused?
As regular readers of this Blog will know I like to be clear about the meaning of words. Words have a much deeper power to them than just the literal. Over time society unconsciously selects the exact combination and order of sounds that meet the need to describe abstraction, emotion and human connection.
A quick look at “confusion” reveals the definition of a confused person is to be, “Unable to think clearly”. This was not my state of mind during the conversation rather it was the exact opposite, I was thinking incredibly clearly and quickly. My questioner had misjudged my silence as confusion. Other words describing my state might have been synonyms like “perplexed or bewildered” but they do not do me justice either. I was in fact processing, integrating; you know THINKING. The confusion was all theirs and not mine.
When faced with complex issues such as global warming, molecular interactions inside cells, business development or human relations, “confusion” comes in two main flavours. At one end of the spectrum there is so much information, often conflicting, that at first it seems impossible to find structure or meaning from the mess. At the other end there may be a few pieces of apparently unrelated information yet there is still an imperative to determine their interactions and extrapolate to the complete complex system in which the function.
In the first case where there is information overload, the goal is to identify some simple patterns of interrelation where for example certain people, events or entities seem more highly connected than others. These nodes are vitally important for the overall function of the system. One way to look at this is to think about the structure of the internet. The essential nodes are the internet service providers (ISP) which integrate millions of dynamic connections and do so in real time. At the very end of the web is your personal computer or smartphone. If your PC goes offline, not even your closest friends will notice immediately. The world notices instantly if the ISP goes down. If you didn’t know about internet’s existence and were faced with this enormous complexity you would inevitably be confused and rightly so. However, if you asked one simple question, “Which elements had the most connections?” (reflecting its function) the beginnings of understanding would spring from your initial “confusion”. The challenge here is to reveal functional simplicity by identifying some simple yet powerful questions capable of revealing meaningful connections. In such cases you do not actually need to be an expert in a particular field to perform this kind of analysis successfully. In fact, a deep knowledge may introduce bias based on your personal position on the issues driving you to unwittingly support pre-conceived ideas (looks a bit like politics to me).
What if we look from the opposite direction where you have little primary information and suspect that this under represents the real complexity of the system? Imagine if you will five people picked at random from across the globe. Your challenge is to find out what connects them. I am sure you have come across the six degrees of separation rule. Simply put, no-one is more than six handshakes from every other human on the planet. Not only this, the system is dynamic. For example, at one time I was four handshakes away from the President of the United States of America; at that time George Bush. Then two things happened. First, Obama was elected and second he met a friend of mine. Now I am only two handshakes away. I look for the invitation to the White House but I may have to wait a while! Sorry I digress.
Let’s get back to the five people. How can we identify their connections? Simply ask them who they know directly, then ask their contacts who they know and so on. This process is repetitive and pedestrian but with enough time and computational power the lines of connection will be found and you have created a social network. This is the concept behind social networks such as Facebook and Friends Re-united.
Was I really confused? Damn right I was confused! The more I think about this more I realise how often I am confused. I am becoming very comfortable with being confused. I find it reassuring. Confusion means on the one hand I have an immense ocean of information into which I can dive and look for the beauty of connections and meaning or on the other I have laid out before me a tantalising detective story where I must describe the complexity from a few apparently unrelated start points and solve the whodunit.
I am sitting in a popular coffee emporium writing this post and listening to the hubbub of conversations all around me. I watch the complex dance of people looking to find an open seat, the outside roar of traffic and the movement of pedestrians heading towards the London Underground all on their unknowable journeys to work. The complexity around me appears infinite, chaotic and totally confusing. However, when I took a minute off from writing this post to ask my neighbour at the next table one simple question, “How are you today?”, it was like finding the first thread with which I could untangle this Gordian knot of human complexity. This little tug triggered a tale of his family, friends and the things that bring him joy. A small start but my confusion lessened the more I listened.
So what of my questioner? I wanted so much to reply by paraphrasing Winston Churchill’s riposte to Mary Braddock when she accused him of being drunk. “In the morning I will be less confused but you will still be arrogant, opinionated and a bore”. As it happens I was far more polite (and frustrated).
Confused in normal, confused is good, confusion is required. Confusion is the start of process of discovery towards insight, understanding and meaningful action. Confusion is your wellspring of novelty, daring and eventual enlightenment. Embrace your confusion!