Sunday, 23 June 2013

Prick up your nose, or never knowingly overestimated

Unidentified rose from my garden, possibly Roseraie de L'Hay
Everything’s coming up roses
Now is the time to appreciate roses. Pay court to Her Royal Highness, La Reine des Violettes. Or sit, if you dare, beneath a Rambling Rector. But wait until the evening, when old roses are at their most expansive, posing in mixed borders, or lolling over fences. Get close to a prickly old beauty, and inhale.

Henry Cecil, the legendary race-horse trainer, grew roses. When he had visitors to his stables at Warren Place, Cecil liked to show them his roses first. He knew all their names and habits, but he didn’t do any of the digging. Cecil had the same approach to growing roses, as he had to training race-horses. He knew what wanted, and he made suggestions. Cecil liked to win, and he knew how to get results by working through others.

Good growers and difficult deaths
I once had a garden with old roses, the prickly kind, with purple heads, and grey-tinged leaves. Unlike Cecil, I did all my own digging and pruning. I collected horse-manure in black plastic bags from urban stables. Friends, who knew about these things, said the horse-manure was not yet mature; warned me that it would burn the roses if allowed to come in contact with the stems. I put it on, anyhow. What I enjoyed was watching the roses grow, and flower, and fade. Each day there would be something new to see and admire, or fret about. Some roses look better when they are giving up the ghost. Others, like Albertine, don’t die well. After Albertine has flowered, the rose-heads stick around on the branches, and turn a stubborn brown.

Acting a bit sniffy
Since I moved house, I have had to rely on other people’s gardens for a rose fix. I want to be amazed, but even in the red velvet presence of a William Lobb, I feel indifferent. These roses are nothing to me. They are not yet in bloom, or they have just ‘gone over’. And even when the flowers are in peak condition, the perfume is pathetic, and the petals are too pink. None of the specimens in other people’s gardens makes me speechless.

Never knowingly overestimated
Why am I insensible to other people’s flowers? Is it a question of ownership? Something clicked, when, along with 500 others, I went to hear Rolf Dobelli talking about his book ‘The Art of Thinking Clearly’. Rolf was charming, modest and immediately disarming. He said he never expected so many people to come. According to Rolf, it is much more common that we overestimate our knowledge than we underestimate it.  Rolf is debonair. Swiss, he could pass for Italian, any day. In his book, Rolf describes different types of ‘bias’. For example, someone we know sets up their own business, and does extremely well. Because they are like us, we overestimate our chances of doing the same thing. We forget that most start-ups fail within a few years. Rolf calls this ‘Survivorship Bias’.

Now that Rolf has implanted the idea of bias in my mind, I think I may be suffering from ‘Ownership Bias’. Parents dote on their children, and people with pets – in my experience – are just as bad. So it is with me, and the roses that I have grown. Having prepared the soil, planted, fed, and pruned a rose, not to mention the hours spent tying back an unruly climber, I may well overestimate their good points. Naturally, I am amazed when a rose that I have grown flowers for the first time. I wonder if Henry Cecil suffered from ‘Ownership Bias’? Or did he just need to find a use for all that horse-manure? I think I’ll write to Rolf about this. I am sure he will be interested.

23 June 2103

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