Scientists who’ve spent a lot of time in research labs will have noticed that self-confidence seems to pay big dividends. If you think back to the people you’ve worked with who got the most things to work (especially the difficult things), you’ll likely also recall them as people who set up experiments relatively fearlessly, with expectations of success. Meanwhile, the tentative, gosh-I’m-just-not-sure folks generally compiled lesser records.
You can draw several conclusions from these observations, but not all of them are correct. For example, a first-order explanation would be to assume that experiments can sense the degree of confidence with which they’re approached and can adjust their outcomes accordingly. And sometimes I’m tempted to believe it. I’ve seen a few ring systems that seem to have been able to sense weakness or fear, that’s for sure, and other molecular frameworks that appear to have been possessed by malign spirits which were just waiting for the right moments to pounce.
But besides being nuts, this explanation is complicated by the few (but statistically significant) number of confident fools who thing everything they touch will work, no matter how ridiculous. These people tend to wash out of the field, for obvious reasons, but there’s a constant trickle of them coming in, so you’re never without a few of them. If self-assurance were all you needed, though, they’d be a lot more successful than they are.
No, I think that confidence is necessary, but not sufficient. Brains and skilled hands are big factors, too – but they aren’t sufficient by themselves, either. You need all three. Most people have them in varying quantities, of course, but you can learn a lot by looking at the extreme cases.
For example, I’ve seen some meticulous experimenters, not fools, who were undone in the lab by their lack of the confidence leg of the tripod. Their tentative natures led them to set up endless tiny series of test reactions, careful inch-at-a-time extensions into the unknown. This sort of style will yield results, although not as quickly as onlookers would like, but will probably never yield anything large or startling. Still, you can hold down a job with this combination, which is more than I can see for the next category.
Those are the confident fools mentioned earlier, who lack the brains part of the triad. They get involved in no-hope reactions (and whole no-hope lines of research) because they lack the intelligence to see the fix they’ve gotten themselves into. The whole time they essay, with reasonable technical competence and all kinds of high hopes, experiments which are doomed. As I said above, these people don’t necessarily have such long careers, but in the worst cases they can pull others of similar bent in their wake (while their more perspicacious co-workers leave, if possible, when they catch on to what’s happening).
Then there are the folks who lack the skilled hands. “Lab heads,” I can hear a chorus of voices say. “These are the people who become lab heads and PhD advisors.” There’s a lot of truth to that. Plenty of people can have good, bold ideas, but be incapable of physically carrying them out at the bench. Even controlling for age and lack of experience, there are plenty of Nobel-caliber people you wouldn’t want near your lab bench. Some of them are out of practice, but many of them were just as destructive when they were younger, too. Surrounded with good technicians, though, they can do great things. Many just face facts and confine themselves to the blackboard and the computer screen.
But if you have reasonable amounts of all three qualities, you’re set up to do well. Confidence is perhaps the limiting reagent in most natures, which is why it stands out so much when it’s combined with the others. A scientist with a lot of nerve is more likely to discover something big, and more likely to recognize it when it comes, than someone who undervalues their own abilities. They’re more prone to setting up weird and difficult experiments, knowing that the chances of success aren’t high, but that sometimes these things actually come through. That’s probably the source of the correlation that I lead off this post with: it’s not that confidence makes these ideas work. Rather, if you don’t have it you probably don’t try many such things in the first place.