It's a Guy Thing

Hesitation: Rejoice or Regret?

What seems a lifetime ago, aged sixteen, I was at college trying to figure out life, the universe, and what lay ahead. Cocooned with my college chums, often in the refectory smoking Gauloises cigarettes supplied by the rich Persian students, I realized that most of us didn’t have a clue what we wanted to become, and these two years were a convenient buffer zone before the reality of proper adulthood took hold. The people who seemed to have it all mapped out were marginalized as oddities, smart arses, and were, as I recall, rarely invited to the pub especially during lesson times. 

At this juncture, I want to put it out there that I once bunked off triple pure maths to watch the premiere of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Alien at the Odeon, Banbury. Rock ‘n’ roll or what? We talked vociferously about avoiding the rat race and other shit we didn’t quite understand. In my final year I did, however, start to apply for some jobs. 

I was somewhat surprised when I received a reply from the chairman of Northampton Town football club acknowledging my application for the position of first-team manager, only to be graciously dropped from the process in a further letter a week or so later. Emboldened by this process I subsequently applied for similar positions at Grimsby Town and Fulham. To be fair, both clubs responded in the negative, even though the latter was a poor photocopy, I suppose to cater for the other nut jobs who had also applied. When Aberdeen and Blackpool failed to reply I decided that football management probably wasn’t my calling. Looking at the job adverts in a national newspaper in the sepia-colored days before the internet I was drawn to one that was both alluring and pragmatic. The latter observation connected to the academic criteria – five ‘O’ levels and one ‘A’ level pass in either mathematics or physics. I had the first requirement and surely, I thought, a pass in one of my three A-levels was achievable, especially as one paper was multiple choice and my dad had, perhaps somewhat dismissively judged, that even a monkey could get forty percent right in that type of assessment. The attractive part of the equation was that this gig was for Gencor Mining in South Africa! 

In my only decent jacket and non-matching strides, I hopped on the train to London and had my interview in a plush office block location. I recall that the guy who conducted the process spoke with a strong Afrikaans accent, and sat on a chair, no desk, surrounded by heaps of papers on the floor. After a very brief conversation where I mainly replied ‘yes,’ he popped a videotape into the player and for the next ten minutes or so I watched transfixed as legions of miners, working deep underground extracted gold! This was truly the stuff of a boy’s own adventures. A year or so before Indiana Jones hit the big screen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I was ready to don my own fedora! Towards the end of the film, several miners were shown being searched with small nuggets of gold being recovered in clothing, hair, and mouths. To a kid, this was pure Hollywood and his continual reference to ‘Kaffirs’ was simply lost in the ether. Within a week I had an offer of employment as a junior mining engineer followed by a larger envelope containing flight details and who would meet me at the airport. I bottled it and didn’t go. 

Hesitancy seems too much of a light-touch word to use. Fear of what I might lose rather than the potential of what I had to gain paralyzed me. Over the years I often justified why I had chosen to stay put. Discovering that his favorite word was a shameful ethnic slur for black Africans gave me a moral rationale although many decades later when I sat drinking a cold beer in Cape Down watching in awe as the clouds spilled over the top of Table Mountain like a frothy coffee, I couldn’t help but ponder the ‘what if?’ Like Frank Sinatra, I did it my way but was this truly a regret? The one that got away? The first of many times when I had stumbled at the fork in the road and had decided to head back home? Were those friends who smugly stated that they never had any regrets ever been faced with the lure of gold? With some hesitation, I decided to investigate that very term. By the way, my dad was just about right as I scrapped a bare pass in ‘A’ level combined maths but bombed physics. 

My troop of research subjects were drawn from a variety of backgrounds but had one thing in common – they were all Facebook users. This social media platform often appears to me to be rather like the wild west of opinions where users fire from the hip with regular vulgarity and, on the face of it, a tangible lack of hesitation. My subjective analysis commenced with a feel for how naturally hesitant people were. A near-equal split emerged whereby one camp had no delay in admitting their inherent hesitancy whilst the other lot were conditional. The pragmatist declared, “There are two things which make me hesitate – spending large sum of money and jumping from any height.” A more philosophical perspective concluded, “I certainly don’t see myself as unsure, tentative and I certainly have never been slow in acting or speaking, quite the opposite at times but as I have got older, more sensible and a bit busted up, having had the opportunity to think about this topic, I believe I may have become slightly more hesitant.” My first volley, not unsurprisingly, had failed to reach any form of credible conclusion so I delved a little deeper, hoping that my quick-fire investigation would expose the tell-tale pauses. 

A fear of getting it wrong pulsed, summed up succinctly by the resident spendthrift, “Doing anything that causes a dent in my finances has to be justified and before doing so I like to know how I’m going to repair that dent!” The self-preservation theme continued with an earnest reflection on the initial connection with a big-ticket social dilemma. “I hesitated as a young man when I was offered cannabis, and other drugs, in the pub. Everyone was doing it, but I was hesitant, I refused and to this day I am glad I hesitated.” Repetition of certain acts appeared to reduce then tendency to dither, amplifying the Tony Robbins quote, “Repetition is the mother of skill.” As one of my happy hesitators put it, “Being an ex-teacher, I think I couldn’t afford to be hesitant; you have to be really sure of what you’re doing. However, that often comes with experience and repeated patterns or incidences. For example, you cannot be hesitant over things that happen in the playground, you have to be on the ball and ever vigilant. In the classroom, you must know your subject area.” This welcome academic steer turned my attention to the research and in particular the trio of boffins, Trautmann, S. T., Vieider, F. M., and Wakker, P. P. who, in 2008, concluded that we have a clear bias towards certainty over its alter ego doubt. But even this persuasive pitch isn’t as binding as it may seem. 

In the early sixties the American economist Daniel Ellsberg, whilst playing with his balls, found that risk aversion, the cousin of hesitation, could be lessened. In an experiment known as the ‘Ellsberg Paradox’ two urns contained a hundred balls each. In one there was an even split of red and black balls whilst the other had a haphazard mix. Participants were presented with a matrix of odds to bet upon. The upshot was that in instances where the probability of risk is made abundantly clear participants would more than likely engage as opposed to those cases where it was absent. So, if I had been furnished with more information at the time of my South African quandary would I have been more minded to hop onto that Boeing 747? Has today’s onslaught of information, false, true and those that fall in-between goaded us to become less hesitant and therefore more susceptible to articulating our thoughts without pause, reflection or trepidation? Those trigger-happy social media keyboard warriors may have had less oxygen when data was more decerning. 

Returning to my party of dilly-dallier’s I wasn’t that surprised that the jury was out on whether hesitation was a positive or negative trait. Although there was a litany of literature to belittle the power of the pause, typified by such luminaries as Oscar Wilde, “Hesitation of any kind is a sign of mental decay in the young, of physical weakness in the old”, and Steve Waugh, the powerhouse Australian cricket captain, “The minute you hesitate you are in trouble”, the evolving harmony of hesitation resonated more accurately with Ellsberg’s balls. Where our own slider of doubt rests on the continuum of hesitancy will always rely on other prompts, with reliable data and experience topping the list, echoed in these words of one keen reflector – “I’m also used to giving live television interviews. I must listen very carefully to the question being asked, then stop for a fraction to think before I answer. But I’m always OK as I really know my sports topic and can give informed answers. So, no hesitancy there.” 

To better understand the pros and cons of hesitancy I was keen to listen to a few case studies. Did they have any ‘South African’ moments too? I didn’t expect to receive the stories of hesitancy that were, often, a case of life and death. In the incredible words of one thankful procrastinator who decided to override this tendency – “On Wednesday 18th November 1987, around 7:30pm, I was traveling through London on my way to Waterloo Station to catch a train to Petersfield. I recall standing on the platform at Kings Cross St Pancras underground, waiting for the tube train, the atmosphere filled with nervous energy as crowds began to surge from behind pushing me towards the platform edge. A strange smell filled the air. I hesitated. I was concerned about getting onto a tube that would be so packed, so hot and so claustrophobic. An option was to leave the platform for the relative safety of the ticket office or get on for my next change which I did. Less than ten minutes later, thirty-one people were killed and over one hundred injured when the fire that started under an escalator, not more than a few feet from where I stood, erupted in a flashover, filling the underground ticket hall at the top of the escalator.” 

The gripping tone continued with a story from New York. “I was in New York State with my wife, my brother and sister-in-law on an open-top bus tour when it suddenly stopped. I hesitated, it was not my business, I was on holiday. I saw the tour guide outside on the street on his mobile phone in a panic-ridden state. I hesitated again. A few moments later, I stood up and went to see what was going on. An elderly man on the lower deck was slumped in his seat, and a lady was trying to give him CPR whilst he sat upright as she couldn’t move such a large man onto the floor. I dragged him from his seat and began CPR too. The man died in hospital. Did my initial hesitancy cost him his life?” 

Inevitably relationships entered the fray too. The ‘what ifs’ were abundant. The possible moments in time when a dollop of hesitation may have been the savior. “What if I hadn’t gone abroad, what if I hadn’t married a bisexual man, what if I hadn’t miscarried, what if I had returned to the United Kingdom would I have a partner now? What good is there dwelling on these questions, they can only bring me misery and pull me down?” Another lamented, “Waiting too long to see my dad – ‘waiting for the invite’ when I should’ve been more like my brothers and just gone.” 

In one last twist of the uncertainty gauge, I was interested to note how my hesitancy helpers viewed this trait in others, specifically in those that held public office. There was little room for empathy here, summed up forthrightly by, “They are thinking of a lie!” 

Pausing for a moment, I am more encouraged by the notion that hesitation can be crowned as both the champ and the chump depending on its eventual outcome. Humans may be predisposed to the safety of the known. Hot-wired to being risk-averse. This is not in itself an inherently bad quality since it has arguably shaped the dominance of the species. A turn left when, in hindsight, a right turn was appropriate doesn’t mean that hesitancy has robbed you. Perhaps, it should be seen more as an education. Although Clint Eastwood would, no doubt, always recommend that his pet Orangutan Clyde should always hang a right. 

Finally, if I have not convinced you of the rightful place of hesitation in our lives then be comforted by the theory of parallel universes. This hypothesis contends that alongside our own there are an infinite series of other universes in which all our life choices are played out in alternate realities. Ever since the big bang 13.7 billion years ago (coincidently when Notts County’s last one something of note. Should I have hesitated and followed the reds of Nottingham Forest?) scientists have grappled with the thought ‘are we the only universe out there?’ 

As I leave you to mull over that one maybe in some part of the universe I am sitting in a bar in South Africa, counting my Rands from my Gencor pay packet wearing a red shirt whilst singing one of Frank Sinatra’s all-time classics… 

Regrets, I’ve had a few 

But then again, too few to mention 

I did what I had to do 

And saw it through without exemption 

I planned each charted course 

Each careful step along the byway 

And more, much more than this, I did it my way 

(My Way lyrics © Jeune Musique Ed., Barclay Eddie Nouvelles Editions, Iway Holdings Sas, Chrysalis Standards Inc, Jeune Musique Edition Sarl) 

© Ian Kirke 2021