June 19th, 2011
09:00 AM ET

Letters to the President: #881 'My father's doubt'

Reporter's Note: President Obama, like me, is the father of two girls.

Dear Mr. President,

One thing I have noticed about every president is that it is virtually impossible for them to admit any doubt. I understand that maybe you all feel as if you have no choice - as if the nation does not want, nor can it tolerate a leader who seems unsure. That’s a shame. I think the smartest, best people I know are full of doubt and every day it makes them stronger.

It comes to mind on this Father’s Day, because my father taught me to doubt - not in a destructive, self-abusing way but in a creative, constructive, wonderful way. One of my favorite memories of him was when he had pressed me into some Saturday project. We would plant trees, rake gravel, dig holes, clean gutters, you name it. I called it “Saturday Recreation,” which he found endlessly amusing. In any event, in the midst of these projects, he would stop frequently to pull out a tape measure and recheck the dimensions, or a scrap of paper to recalculate the position, or he would simply look over whatever it was we were doing and say, “Tom, do you think this is going to work out right?”

He knew that I did not have the answer. He was also a terribly smart man. But asking the question out loud helped him focus and consider what mistakes might be hiding in the weeds. He knew that being smart means constantly being aware that even the smartest people sometimes do stupid things.

Many times over the years I would see him look back at some project we had tackled and say, “You know, I think if we’d done that another way, it could have been better.”

I often say the difference between merely smart people, and really smart people is that the really smart ones relentlessly question their own wisdom - always updating, always refining, always being sharply aware of what they don’t know . . . rather than trying to show off what they do know. Doubting allows us to get past our first inclinations and ideas, which may be obvious, but are not always the best. Doubting allows us to truly consider the wisdom of the group, the ideas that others may have.

My father would fiercely defend basic tenets that he knew to be sound. The fighting spirit of the Chicago street kid he once was would flare instantly and brilliantly when someone trampled on a principle such as fairness, justice, kindness or decency. No matter the odds against him, my father would speak up loudly for “right.”

But I know afterward he considered again the position of the opposition. He asked himself why they believed something else, and if he might have yet been wrong. Like any child with a good father, I admired his strength, skill, and certainty. But as I grew older, I respected so much more his bravery in admitting his mistakes, confessing his doubts, and ever urging me to recalculate my own certainties. In doing so, he taught me how to teach myself.

The best leaders aren’t always right, and aren’t always certain. Indeed, the best people in my book are always doubting themselves, and thereby making it possible to keep learning. My girls will give me gifts today. That’s one I want to give to them. It was, after all, a gift to me as well. And their grandfather would like for them to have it. Of that, I am certain.

I hope you have a wonderful time with your family today. I intend to with mine.


Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

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