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Death of a Know-It-All

Sean Sands | 4 Oct 2009 13:00
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Near my suburban home is a traffic light. Every day, I sit at this traffic light as it invariably turns red just as I arrive. There exists some quirk about the traffic pattern and its inevitable tidal flow that ensures, day after day, that I arrive to turn into my subdivision just as the light demands a stop. And it stays red for a long time, certainly long enough for me to pretty consistently decide I need to write the Department of Motor Vehicles a letter informing them of how poorly planned the whole thing is.

I had formulated this opinion confident in the certainty of my qualifications as an expert on municipal engineering.

It has only just recently begun to dawn on me the monumental complexity of managing traffic patterns, and as a result that perhaps, just perhaps, these idiots I had been maligning day after day as I sat fuming at that damnable red arrow might not be operating from a position of monumental ignorance after all. As traffic around me surged and flowed at impressive speeds for the sizable population of vehicles, I realized that there is subtlety and math at work all around me.

And, yes, part of the master plan involves me having to sit for a good three minutes waiting not-very-patiently for my turn, but the reward is a silky smooth drive for the majority on a heavily trafficked road. So, I am reminded again, as I have been a lot lately, that maybe a lot more of the world is populated with people who know what they are doing than I had originally suspected.

It's even possible that this means I'm finally growing out of my sophomoric trait of thinking I know everything about everything.

It used to be a lot easier. I would conjure some opinion, make others aware of this thought, either voluntarily or by force, and take unconscious comfort in the certainty of my statement. It's not that I was infallible; it was simply that I took an innocent-until-proven-guilty kind of mentality toward my opinions.

Unless otherwise proved wrong by a credible source - and the requirements for credentials are not easily attained - I simply assumed that whatever factoid, opinion, comment or anecdote I cared to espouse was so well reasoned as to be at least functionally true, if not empirically. I realize, of course, that this is its own special kind of conceit, but I don't imagine it's a particularly uncommon brand.

After all, I think being at least a little conceited is a job requirement for being a writer, particularly one paid to espouse opinions. I imagine most well-adjusted and right-mannered folks walk around having opinions all day and choose, either out of propriety or lack of confidence, not to go hassling strangers with those opinions.

This is, of course, less true on the internet.

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