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On talking out of my hat

Apologies firstly for the long lacuna on this site. I have been utterly consumed with the completion of my studies in psychotherapy which in part required me to squirrel myself away in the garden shed with green tea and a laptop and emerge three months later clutching a 27,000 wad of academic scribblings.

The dissertation is now safely submitted and my brain is gently releasing from the seizure of footnoted and properly-referenced thought that gripped it for the whole of the Spring. Now, the trees are in full flush, the garden’s crazy with birds and I am busy pruning it back from its jungle growth with avid secateurs.

I realised half-way through that I have spent most of my 44 years talking ‘out of my hat’

The whole process of writing the dissertation was quite impactful. I realised half-way through that I have spent most of my 44 years talking ‘out of my hat’. That is sounding authoritative but essentially making things up. Sometimes this serves me well – but often it’s an obfuscating habit that prevents real learning since half-hashed ideas take up space that proper information might more usefully occupy.

Reading extensively and trying to analyse dozens of research papers and working for weeks to sift through the data contained in five one-to-one interviews made me realise that new knowledge requires a certain amount of effort.

These days authoritative opinion is only a smartphone swipe away. It’s easy to scour the seabed of the internet in seconds and drag up some definitive fact. The effort of actually coming up with something authoritative out ones own cerebellum is much harder. I have to collect several versions of the same story, compare them, think about what axes are being ground, sift out what I want to hear from what I don’t want to hear. And finally, I can present all these things without having to sound authoritative at all.

This is the great benefit of the scientific method. It’s not really about being right all the time but being honest. “We did this and this happened. We were expecting this – but look, how interesting, the opposite occurred.”

I like a good sound-bite and probably won’t shake off my love of the pithy know-it-all phrase

For years, I have felt the need to be right. To win the argument. To have unassailable Truth sitting on my shoulder. But the grinding and humbling work of writing a big academic piece – with all its hedging and counter-claims and relativising footnotes – makes me suspicious now of grand narrative and authoritative anything. For a start, listening to five gay men talking about their experience of therapy made me aware of how much I falsely assume about a) people’s experience of therapy and b) the experience of being a gay man.

The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gives a lovely TED talk about the danger of the “single story”. The easily swallowed narrative about people from Africa, or the EU, or poverty, or depression that hides the dazzling multiplicity of all these things. The single story is a political act of repression. And writing about people’s experience of therapy can’t – in good faith – engage in repression.

So, much as I like a good sound-bite and probably won’t shake off my love of the pithy know-it-all phrase, I’m hoping that Mindsprings post-the-dissertation will be a little less sweeping and more inclined to posit rather than to pontiicate. Hear’s to doffing the hat.

I’d love to know your thoughts about talking out of your hat. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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