Image Credit: “Be Not Wise in Thine Own Eyes,” engraving, Currier & Ives (1872), Library of Congress
Dec. 1, 2019 | 4:06 pm ET
The most dangerous of all people is the fool who thinks he is brilliant.
I should know: That describes me at age 18, arriving at Columbia University for my first week of college. And, I have no doubt, it describes me equally well on countless other occasions since.
I was raised in a rural village in northern New York State with a total population of 40 people, 300 cows, and four Jews, and I thought I was a literary genius. I had been valedictorian of my class and was one of only a handful of students from my tiny school anyone could remember ever being accepted to an Ivy League school since the Korean War.
Perhaps it should have occurred to me that those achievements were vitiated by the fact that around a fifth of my 35 classmates at the beginning of senior year didn’t end up graduating; several flunked, some were in jail, and even the salutatorian was a visibly unwed mother on the graduation dais. (I was not the father.)
But a realistic view of my qualifications would have required more objectivity and skepticism than I could muster at the age of 18.
I had spent close to two hours a day every day since I turned 13 straining to become a man of letters, writing hundreds of pages of poems, short stories, essays, a journal I believed to be profoundly introspective, and a novel about a Jewish boy growing up as a sensitive literary genius in a rural village in northern New York State with a total population of 40 people, 300 cows, and four Jews. I raced through my school’s perfunctory reading lists, appetite unsated. On my own, I read Poe and Plato, Melville and Chekhov, Emerson and Whitman and Thoreau, Dickens and Balzac, Hawthorne and Hardy and Hemingway, Doyle and Dreiser. My three favorite books, which I read so often that their pages had developed a fine velvety pile under my touch, were Crime and Punishment, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Look Homeward, Angel.
My senior year of high school, I had written to a half-dozen of the best novelists in America, including William Styron, Bernard Malamud and John Updike, notifying them that I intended to win the Nobel Prize in Literature before the age of 30 and asking them to read samples of my work. I was appalled that not a single one of them had the good judgment to write back — until, one day, a letter arrived from Norman Mailer. With uncharacteristic restraint, he politely declined the opportunity to read my work in progress, although he did say I sounded “awfully bright” and added that “if you prove to be very good I’ll read you then.”
When I arrived at college and found out that, like all first-year students, I was required to take Freshman Composition, I exploded in high dudgeon: “I’m not taking a class that teaches me how to write! I already know how to write! I’m a writer already!” (The class is, I’m told, now called “University Writing.”)
I grabbed a fat manila envelope from my desk and charged off to find the office of the head of the Freshman Comp department. I sat there for who knows how long, steaming mad, until he was finally free to see me. In I marched; I doubt I even sat down. I tossed over the giant manila envelope with a flip of my wrist calculated to elicit a resounding thump when it landed on his desk.
Prof. Cyril Knoblauch elevated an eyebrow, asked me my name, and shook my hand. “What can I do for you?”
“You can exempt me from Freshman Comp, sir,” I shot back.
“Why don’t you want to — “
” — I don’t want to take the class because I don’t need to take the class,” I said. “I’m already a writer. I’m already almost halfway through writing the Great American Novel.”
He cleared his throat. “I can’t just exempt you because you think you’re a good writer, young man.”
“I don’t think I’m a good writer, sir. I know I am.” I shoved the manila envelope toward him. It was the collected oeuvre of Jason Zweig: a book of short stories, dozens of poems, my novel-in-progress. “You can see for yourself,” I added brightly.
What he did next shocked me. He shoved the envelope back toward me — so hard it almost fell off his desk. “I’m not reading that,” he said without bothering to disguise his disgust, as if I had tried handing him a sheaf of papers that had been strewn on the floor of a public restroom.
“You’re — you’re — you’re not going to read my work?” I couldn’t believe my ears.
He ignored me. “What did you get on the AP test?”
I stared at him in fear.
I’d never heard of an AP test; I had no idea what he meant.
“Well?” he demanded. “What was your AP English score?”
I thought fast and came up with the only answer that could possibly make any sense: “I suppose they have a bureau in Albany, but I’m not interested in journalism. Why would I take an Associated Press test?”
Prof. Knoblauch stared at me. To this day, I don’t know how he restrained himself from bursting into laughter. Finally he said, “Young man, take your envelope, please, and go register for Freshman Comp.” He added drily, “I think you will find, when all is said and done, that there was something even you could learn from it.”
I stood there, too shocked to move. “You may go,” he said.
I grabbed my envelope and ran, on the verge of tears, back across campus to my dorm. My roommate was there. “Mark,” I wailed, “what’s an AP test?”
He looked at me with bland surprise. “You don’t know what an AP test is?”
I shook my head, trying not to cry.
“Advanced Placement. It’s a standardized test,” said Mark, who already knew I was a hick. “Let me guess. Your school didn’t offer them?”
I shook my head again.
“Your AP score shows whether you’ve already done enough coursework to place out of a college-level class. ‘Place out’ means to get exempted.”
“My school didn’t have AP tests,” I said. “I’ve never heard of them.”
“Well, too late now, I guess,” said Mark.
“I guess so,” I said. Haltingly, I told him what had happened. When I told him how I’d guessed that AP stood for Associated Press, Mark laughed. “Man, you are such an idiot,” he said in his gentle voice. “If you didn’t know what an AP test was, why didn’t you just say you didn’t know?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
Mark’s laughter was contagious, though. I felt a little better. Maybe I did need to learn a few things, after all.
The next day was the first day of classes.
The summer before college started, I had read Bulfinch’s Mythology and E.V. Rieu’s rendering of The Iliad. I also created a meticulously drawn and hand-painted map of the ancient Mediterranean to prepare myself for the beginning of Literature Humanities, Columbia’s notoriously challenging introduction to poetry, drama, and fiction.
I walked into LitHum class that day in September 1977 ready to take the intellectual world by storm.
The scarred mahogany or rosewood table seemed as long as a transcontinental highway. Around it sat 15 or 20 of the sorriest, most awkward, zit-infested, bespectacled slobs I had ever seen. We sat in edgy silence. The boys who had grown up in the city knew how to look at everyone else without seeming to be looking at anyone. I just stared brazenly at them one at a time, fighting my face to keep the smirk I felt inside from showing. The rustling of gum wrappers and a couple of suppressed coughs gave us all dispensation to flick a glance at the person who had made the noise. But no one said anything; we were all waiting for the professor.
And then Nathan Gross swept into the room. He looked like a toucan out of a cartoon: his face was all nose, and the weight of it seemed to tilt him forward, leaving his head and body looking as if they were always trying to catch up to it. The oddity of his appearance imparted an ironic momentum to whatever he said or did. He sailed to the head of the table, pulled out his copy of The Iliad, clomped it down onto the table, then asked each of us our names. I still remember the frisson of delight I felt when a pockmarked kid said his last name was Gyurgyu and Prof. Gross parroted his name back in such perfectly enunciated Romanian that we all were startled, Gyurgyu most of all.
Prof. Gross cracked open The Iliad, and we all turned to the beginning. He began reading from the first book. We all looked down at the first page and then up at him in astonishment: He was reciting the opening of The Iliad in ancient Greek even though all he had in front of him was the same Richmond Lattimore translation we all. I could see his copy of the book; there was no Greek written on it. Prof. Gross, tenured in the French department, had memorized the Greek.
He stopped after a couple dozen lines and said, “I wanted you to hear what it sounded like in the original.”
Everyone knows that diluted, faintly copper-like taste of blood you get in your mouth after you accidentally bite your lip or cheek. That’s what the fear in the room was like at that moment.
Prof. Gross turned to one of my pathetic classmates and asked him to read a few lines — “in English, of course.” He got as far as the word Apollo, and Prof. Gross cut him off.
“Who,” he asked the room, “was Apollo?”
I looked to my right and to my left. I looked, one face at a time, from one end of the table to the other. Every kid was examining his fingernails as if his life depended on figuring out whether they needed cleaning.
Slowly, with a dawning sense of triumph, it sank in: Here I am at Columbia. At Columbia! And I’m the only one in this roomful of Einsteins who knows who the hell Apollo was.
I summoned all my willpower to keep myself from jumping up and crying out “I know! I know!” Seconds more ticked by as I flicked my eyes back and forth at a roomful of losers who knew nothing except how to look at their own fingers. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore.
I stuck up my hand. Prof. Gross looked at me in aquiline triumph and pronounced my name as if we were in fin-de-siecle Vienna. “Mr. Tzveigk, I believe. Tell us then, who was Apollo?”
“He was the Greek god of light!” I exclaimed.
The entire class tittered in unison. That was the only word for it, then and decades later: They tittered.
Prof. Gross’s eyes were sparkling. “And tell us, Mr. Tzveigk. What would you say a god was to the Greeks?”
The trap closed on me with a steely clang. What was a god to the Greeks? What was a god? How the hell did I know?
In that moment, I was reborn. The realization hit me, with the force of a donkey’s hoof kicking me in the forehead, that for all my vaunted precocity I knew next to nothing. I hadn’t even understood that I was about to make a fool of myself, and the only consolation in being such a fool was that at least I could suddenly see that I was one.
I stammered something incoherent; Prof. Gross gave me a baleful glance and moved on.
My stomach was churning, and my ears felt as if they were about to burst into flame. I felt every one of my classmates staring at me. To spare myself the humiliation of seeing the smirks that must have been on their faces, I stared at my fingernails.
I don’t think I heard a word the rest of that first class, but I’ve seldom learned more in a single morning.
To say that these episodes cured me of overconfidence would be an absurd lie. More than four decades later, I still regularly commit the same blunder of presuming I know more than I do, more than the people around me, more than the people who came before me, more than the people who have spent decades studying a topic or working in a field. I underestimate the difficulty of problems and overestimate the ease of solutions. I assume reality is simpler than a lifetime of encountering complications should already have taught me it must be. I impute single motives to people who must, I know perfectly well, be motivated by more factors than they themselves can count.
The mystery remains: Even knowing that I don’t know can’t cure me of acting as if I know. That intuitive Aha! is as irrepressible as my breathing or my heartbeat. Overconfidence is the feeling of knowing — even when part of me knows, or should know, that I don’t.
I love saying “I don’t know,” but I don’t love it nearly as much as I should; just as water is the universal solvent, “I don’t know” should be our universal first response to nearly every hard question.
What I learned, those first days of college so long ago, wasn’t how to stop being overconfident. (I’m old enough now to realize that I’m unlikely ever to learn that.) What I learned was the power of feedback, the importance of throwing yourself open to being corrected in public. That doesn’t eliminate error and misjudgment. It does teach you to do your homework, to consider the historical and social contexts of your evidence before you draw conclusions, to evaluate the quality of your information before you act on it, to go back and check your work again before you commit, and above all to think twice. Making your decisions as if you will be publicly judged on them can, perversely, lead to a different kind of overconfidence: the belief that you’ve now been so careful that you can’t possibly be wrong. But you will at least reduce the risks from the most common upstream sources of error, like making snap judgments, relying on faulty data, and overlooking relevant evidence.
The humiliation I went through in my first days of college seems to have had another effect: Looking back, I find the arrogance of my younger self as funny as it is alien and bizarre. That kid, preening over his imagined brilliance, seems so different from me, and so absurd. Yet he was me; in fact, much as I cringe at the thought, he is me. Laughing at him then frees me to laugh at myself now, whenever I act as if I know more than I do — which is, and probably always will be, all too often.
I try not to be sure of much, but I am sure of this: The only thing more ridiculous than a know-it-all is a know-it-all who doesn’t know how ridiculous he is.
For further reading:
Benjamin Graham, The Intelligent Investor
Jason Zweig, The Devil’s Financial Dictionary
Jason Zweig, Your Money and Your Brain
Jason Zweig, The Little Book of Safe Money
Articles and other research: