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Harnessing the Power of Self Delusion to Build a Green Home

The Power Of Self Delusion

I loved the book,* A Beautiful Mind, the story of John Forbes Nash, Jr. It was fascinating to read about how he approached mathematical problems, and even more fascinating to read about his descent into paranoid schizophrenia. Nash, who later got the Nobel Prize after decades of madness, had, shall we say, an unhealthy level of self delusion.

What I’d like to focus on here is the healthy side of self delusion. It is, after all, what’s allowed me to do some things in my life that, in hindsight, I don’t think that I could have taken on otherwise.

At 20, I rebuilt an engine in my ’61 VW Bug, thinking it would be a piece of cake. Having had almost no experience with mechanics, however, I struggled for weeks with it, sometimes walking away for a while so I could regenerate some more of that good ol’ self delusion. I got it done eventually, and the sound of that engine starting up for the first time is still one of the sweetest sounds I’ve ever heard.

“The human brain is a complex organ with the wonderful power of enabling man to find reasons for continuing to believe whatever it is that he wants to believe.”
~ Voltaire

Voltaire was right. I also believed that I could ride a bicycle from Shreveport, LA to St. Louis, MO, get a PhD in physics, and drive a car from the Grand Canyon to the San Francisco Bay Area with no clutch. Somehow, I ended up succeeding at all three, although I had plenty of moments of doubt and frustration along the way.

As it turns out, research now shows that this type of self delusion can be a good thing. According to an article from Science Daily about a study published in the scientific journal, Nature, “Researchers have shown for the first time that overconfidence actually beats accurate assessments in a wide variety of situations, be it sport, business or even war.” They also wrote, “People with unbiased, accurate perceptions usually fare worse.”

Need I say more?

My biggest successGreen home building: Self delusion on the scaffold, Allison Bailes might be using the power of self delusion to build a green home. It began in the spring of 2001 when I bought 66 acres of beautiful, wooded land west of Atlanta. We needed a place to live on it, and I figured that by the end of that summer, we’d have ourselves a house.

Then it got pushed back because of the delay in closing on the property. Permitting took a bit longer, too. Once we broke ground in late September, though, I just knew we’d be in the house before Christmas. We got the house (mostly) dried in by Thanksgiving, and then we were only two months out. Really!

Actually we remained two months out for the next year and a half. An unexpected delay came in January 2002. I was also teaching full time at the local university. I hadn’t expected to spend so much time outside my job on the project, but I enjoyed the work (and loathed my dysfunctional department) so much that I found myself making built-in bookshelves and laying tile till late in the night many times.

But, hey, I had to get that house finished in two months!

How have you used self delusion to make positive things happen in your life?


Allison Bailes of Atlanta, Georgia, is a speaker, writer, building science consultant, and the founder of Energy Vanguard. He has a PhD in physics and writes the Energy Vanguard Blog. He is also writing a book on building science. You can follow him on Twitter at @EnergyVanguard.


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*I also loved the book My Lobotomy, the true story of a someone who got one of the infamous ice pick lobotomies at age 12. What does this say about me? Nevermind. Don’t answer that. ;~)


Photo at top by Natalia Medd from, used under a Creative Commons license.


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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Love this… In between
    Love this… In between building jobs (i.e. at night, in the garage) I’m rebuilding a 1974 motorcycle from the ground up right now in prep for a cross-country trip in the spring/summer. Absolutely no clue what I’m doing – mostly just persistence and delusion.

  2. They say that we only use a
    They say that we only use a small percentage of our brains. But what if we folks (and I’m one of them) that try to live on dreams and ambition, and somehow (almost) always come out ahead, are actually acting on things that our simple minds do not fully comprehend (and we therefore chalk up to risky/naive behavior) and yet our “better” minds have actually accounted for in a very practical way – and we are simply not aware of it? Oh well, wait, I’m not sure which part of my brain is writing this….

  3. My only problem with this is
    My only problem with this is that you describe optimism not self-delusion. 
    When you achieve, and thus raise your confidence, this is not as a result of delusion but unreasonable pessimism that you vanquished – well done !

  4. Allison, 

    It sounds like we have some things in common. 
    Out of neccesity, I performed all kinds of major surgery on my first vehicle (an ’88 suzuki samurai) – it’s how I got started learning all the mechanical skills I enjoy having today. 
    I’ve always ascibed this tendancy to “bite off” more than most people would “want to chew” to having somewhat of an excess of confidence and being somewhat of a “go-getter”. 
    But I’m not so sure I would consider myself as being delusional for doing some of the things I’ve done… 
    Before tackling a project like building my own house, there is no proof either way that I am destined to succeed or fail – only in the attempt will I learn which it will be. 
    I would reserve “delusional” for someone that persists in actions or trains of reasoning in spite of empirical reality – ie, persistence despite proof of failure. 
    All this being said… 
    That our society persists in maintaining an economic system that is demonstrably at odds with its own survival begs the question of whether all of us, collectively, aren’t a very delusional species.

  5. Boy, this article made me
    Boy, this article made me smile! 
    My car was a ’69 Alfa Romeo. Fuel injected, dual overhead cams, aluminum block with cast iron sleeves, and way over my head. Took over a year as I recall. 
    My house (built with SIPS, so it should go up fast!) was two months out for about a year and a half!

  6. I have built my own house, my
    I have built my own house, my sisters house, a spec house, and a commercial building all to be as green as reasonable and somewhat innovative in many ways.On the commercial building I used several sub-contractors and the others were built without any professional help. All were substantially completed in less than six months but I did not hold any other job. I also did my own design so simplified things as much as possible. I found that my own house which had the simplest design and the most advance planning went up the fastest and easiest. Experience helped as this was my third complete build. Instead of contractors or cheap help I used two experienced laborers for 3 months and although not finished I was able to move in at just over 3 months. This was a nearly 1800 sq.ft. build. No matter what your confidence level I cannot over emphasize the importance of planning. In fact I spent much more time in planning than I did on the actual build. We are now planning a move and another new house in another locality and have already been planning (as well as purchasing material) for 2 months and more although I will not start actual construction until next may. We purchased the property 5 months ago. Counting everything the actual build time would be over a year but construction itself should not take too long. Of course in Alberta the prime construction period is quite short and winter can bring you to a dead stop or make building much more costly. I am a firm believer in preparing slowly and carefully to build very fast. I am of course self delusional in believing I can prepare for every eventuality and this has led to errors and poor methods in the past but every build goes smoother than the last.

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