That feeling of "what on earth was I thinking" when you remember something embarrassing you said or did is universally unpleasant. But it comes with a silver lining. Seeing our own errors in judgment is a sign of progress and a testament to improved self-awareness. We just need more of it in our lives.
In her 1922 biography, The Truth about Henry Ford, author Sarah Bushnell recounts a story about a lawyer, Rackham, who happened to be Henry Ford's neighbor. In 1903 Henry Ford sought Rackham's help not just to incorporate the Ford Motor Company but also invited Rackham to invest $ into his fledgling auto business.
Given the novelty of automobile technology at that time, Rackham was naturally worried about investment risk. So he consulted a leading banker for advice on whether he should proceed with investing his hard-earned money in the Ford Motor Company.
The banker took Rackham to a window and, pointing to the street, said, "You see all those people on their bicycles riding along the boulevard? There are not as many as there were a year ago. The novelty is wearing off; they are losing interest. That's just the way it will be with automobiles. People will get the fever, and later they will throw them away. My advice is not to buy the stock. You might make money for a year or two, but in the end, you would lose everything you put in."
Then he added these words,
The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty — a fad.
The $5000 bet
After some thought, Rackham ignored the banker's advice, borrowed $5000, and decided to invest it all in the Ford Motor Company anyway. It turned out to be a good call. By 1919 Rackam's investment was worth 12.5 million dollars.
As of this writing, there are about 200 licensed carriage horses in New York City (mainly as a tourist attraction to a bygone era) and close to five million registered automobiles. It does make us wonder where the banker's conviction that horses, not autos, are the future of transportation came from, doesn't it?
Like many, the banker in the anecdote above was a victim of a fallacy we all fall for sometimes—he was a little too sure of himself.
Maybe you come across a picture of yourself from the 80s wearing shoulder pads large enough to make you look like an upside-down triangle. Or an old tweet of yours, like the one from Felicity Huffman (of the college admissions scandal) asking for "back-to-school hacks," resurfaces. The result? Cringe.
We all say, do, and act in ways that seem just fine at the time but age poorly and make us cringe in retrospect. And thanks to technology—Facebook memories, Google photos, or just the unfailing memory of the internet—there is no dearth of cringe material in our lives.
So, what causes us to act in ways that make us want to do over some of our past thoughts, actions, and behaviors?
First, before we indulge in what we should've, could've done, let's acknowledge that Hindsight bias is real. We simply could not have known then what we know today.
What seems obvious to us now is only because we've been through both the process and the outcome. It's like not being able to see something at all, but then once you see it, it becomes impossible to unsee.
Hindsight bias causes us to be caught in an endless cycle of what-ifs. The result: No closure whatsoever. We can't move on if we keep feeling we could go back and fix every mistake we made.
That said, there's one thing that can help us have fewer cringe moments later on—it's our ability to develop self-awareness to stop taking ourselves too seriously.
Self-confidence is wonderful, but self-awareness is even more so.
Like touching a hot plate after the server warns us not to, cringey moments are unpleasant and best avoided. But sometimes, we just can't seem to help ourselves. So why do we act in ways that don't age well?
A common threat across almost every cringeworthy moment is that we sometimes take ourselves a bit too seriously. We are a little too self-assured and convinced about our own opinions, thoughts, and actions.
Here is an example.
In a 2019 poll, 71 percent of Gen Z respondents said they wouldn't fall for an internet phishing scam. Older adults and boomers weren't so confident. It makes sense, right? Gen Z'ers, after all, are digital natives. But here's the problem:
Although 71 percent of Gen Z respondents said they wouldn't fall for a phishing scam, just 44 percent even knew what the term phishing meant. In comparison, older respondents, including Boomers, weren't so confident about not falling for phishing scams because they better understood the term's meaning.
In short, too much self-importance is almost always a recipe for disaster, or at least, future embarrassment.
The difference between self-awareness and self-doubt
Many famous movie stars don't watch their own films after they're done shooting. Some of it's because they feel it doesn't add to their craft, or sometimes they are quite modest and don't like to watch themselves. But often, it's because they can see their performances in a critical light that often makes them cringe.
Actor Jesse Eisenberg explained that when he sees himself from the outside, he only feels fully satisfied with about two percent of each performance.
What Eisenberg describes happens when the self-awareness pendulum oscillates wildly to the other side leading to unhealthy expressions of self-doubt.
Self-awareness is much lighter, and it's about knowing both our weaknesses and our strengths. But more importantly, it's the ability to acknowledge that we have no way of knowing what we don't know and to stop taking ourselves too seriously.
Do not take life too seriously. You will never get out of it alive —Elbert Hubbard
To stop taking ourselves too seriously, we must first be aware of our shortcomings and strengths. It may not be natural for most of us, and it's easy for us to reinforce our existing beliefs and behaviors without questioning them. Here are a few ideas on how to cultivate self-awareness.
Don't be afraid of questions
I am particularly fond of "stupid" questions. A stupid question asks about things so fundamental that everyone assumes the answer is obvious. Donald Norman
Assumptions are usually at the root of many mistakes. Feeling confident enough to ask questions, even those that could be considered stupid can save many errors in judgment. It's better to be safe than sorry.
Never say never
I'm not advocating a religious (or non-religious) doctrine here, but it's best to adopt the methodology that agnostics use toward religion. Agnostics have made up their mind not to make any assumptions about the existence or non-existence of God.
Similarly, instead of being too sure of ourselves, simply allowing for the possibility (or not) of a different point of view existing can help us from many future cringey moments.
Self-deprecation in small doses
I'm so clever that sometimes I don't understand a single word of what I'm saying- Oscar Wilde
During his presidential campaign, John F Kennedy faced accusations that his wealthy father was using his money to buy votes. In a speech that year, JFK said he'd just received this message from his father.
Dear Jack, don't buy a single vote more than is necessary. I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide.
Being able to laugh at ourselves is a blessing, and it can keep us centered, approachable and really stop us from turning obnoxious.
In a way, looking up on our past and finding how ignorant or clueless we were, has a silver lining. It means we've grown and matured. That's a good thing. So, instead of constantly berating ourselves about how naive we were, why not look at our cringey past selves with some compassion and gratitude, knowing how far we've come? And use these moments as reminders not to take ourselves too seriously.