Niagara Gazette

January 12, 2014

SINGER: The perils of underestimation

By B.B. Singer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — On paper many things — maybe most — sound easier than they turn out to be. I think of England’s Chamberlain back from Munich, optimistically waving a piece of paper and declaring that Hitler wouldn’t annex the rest of Czechoslovakia he hadn’t yet gotten. In Parliament Churchill said he would, and was proven correct some five months later (March 1939).

Or take the beguiling matter of slowing Iran’s march toward nuclear arms, via a pact that’s problematic due to cheating possibilities, especially given what Iranian authorities elect to “acknowledge” as functioning facilities. It all sounded easier when it first hit the news.

Closer to home, there have been much-discussed projects for urban renewal and hotels; but again, they’ve proven easier said than done.

By the way, I’m not preaching from on high. I myself have frequently taken what turns out a complex route, underestimating big time, while admiring those who go more A to B. A famed architect, Mies van der Rohe, once said that less is more, and when students have the choice of sprouting an essay on a restricted subject, or on something from Plato to NATO in a few pages, one gets a sense of differing personalities.

Those who bite off more than they can proverbially chew were often pushed by parents, always enjoining them to do more. The obvious result can be “thinness” and a paradoxical reworking of van der Rohe’s celebrated phrase, as “more is less.”

So I guess there are two conjoined themes here: don’t underestimate and try to keep things simple and straightforward. That includes even in your golf swing, which most can shorten! Do that, before worrying about pronating the wrists, etc. Descartes in his “Discourse on Method” also said it’s best to start with smaller difficulties and problems, working up gradually to more intractable ones.

But again, I’m not preaching from some moral summit, given how I’ve embraced certain enterprises that turned out unduly daunting, when they didn’t need to be. Trying subconsciously to impress someone? But one shouldn’t — better to value oneself by putting fences around things you do, keeping within manageable parameters.

Because you and your rational choices matter, not old demands handed down from parents, nor the people in your current milieu you feel you must wow. I’ll give you a story from childhood on exceeding one’s grasp — a tale that interests my grandchildren via its vulnerability, but which also shows the inception of a pattern. In school around age 11 we had to do a project on a country of our choice, and the normal way to do so was making a cardboard thing to hang on the wall, and if it was, say, Colombia, putting a bit of coffee in one packet, maybe some sugar in another, stencilling a title on the thing, and you were done.

But deadlines must have been elastic and I’d seen this non-descript guy in class create an unexpectedly marvelous tunnel with lights flashing and somehow, all the requisite stuff that elucidated Russia, Turkey, or whatever country it was.

And I thought: why not me? So I decided to do something similar. Not wishing to face the fact that I wasn’t very technical, I let things go. Finally, needing to submit my project, I took an old cardboard box, slathered paint on it, glued in some pages on my chosen country, and for good measure, dropped a flashlight into the box! I would have been far better off, including grade-wise, with a simpler, more direct approach.

We all underestimate on larger issues, too, thinking, for instance, that “the economy” (the very term simplistic) can just be fixed in Washington. Examples abound right in your own backyard, or in places like Rockford, Illinois, once a thriving manufacturing center sprouting the electric garage-door opener et al., but now leading the way in underwater mortgages!

There are so many facets to deindustrialization — not just global competition from hungry competitors, but also our own choices (my kids can’t continue in coal mining, when law or social work promise a better life) and spending proclivities, not to mention huge tax bites, entitlements, and so on.

In sum, one shouldn’t underestimate? But I guess we’ll all keep doing so, and that includes yours truly!

B.B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.