I’m a newly qualified crew boss with my twenty-person crew on a wildfire in Wyoming. My crew is assigned to mop-up an area—to slowly move through and extinguish everything that is burning. The command team is less worried about the fire at this point and more worried about how slippery the roads get after storms—morning briefing includes the warning, “When it rains, these dirt roads will be nothing but slimy mud. Be aware of the potential of getting the trucks stuck. Watch out.”
The sky is clear except for one tiny cotton ball cloud. I stay up on the ridge as a lookout and watch my crew drive down the rough road, park the trucks, tool-up, and start working.
I watch them for hours, keeping track of the squads and monitoring radio traffic and the weather. The cotton ball cloud is motionless, but it becomes an irritant, poking at me and not leaving me alone. Why? I don’t know. I can’t stop watching it.
I call my squad bosses and ask, “How’s it going?”
“Going well, working mainly on stump holes well inside the line.”
My hackles are up and I know the cloud is involved. The feeling won’t go away no matter how much logic my mind throws at it. You are being ridiculous, my mind claims. That is the smallest cumulous ever.
I look at the sky, the crew, and the steep dirt road. The trucks won’t climb the road if it gets wet. But the cloud isn’t building. It is a tiny, fluffy, beautiful summer day cloud. Why am I agonizing over it? I want to pull the crew up the ridge—part of me knows that, but another part is uncertain. I have no substantial reason, only a small puff of water vapor. The cloud is white, puffy, and innocent. Relax, I tell myself.
I consider the meteorological concepts I know. Statistically, how likely is it that cloud will turn into something? What if I’m wrong? If I leave the crew down there and it rains, they may not be able to get back up the road for hours. If I pull the crew up and it doesn’t rain there is lost work time and I have to explain why I brought them up—overreaction to one tiny cloud. I risk feeling overly cautious, ridiculous, out of touch with reality, certain I am an impostor in this job.
My gut will not stop urging me to bring the crew up. My brain is uncertain.
I call a squad boss, “Hey, load up the crew and bring them up the ridge.”
“Are you sure?” he responds. “Another hour or two and we can be finished down here.”
This doesn’t help.
“Come on up.” My voice is solid, but a part of me is now convinced that I’m going to regret this silly, nonsensical decision.
Gusty winds begin just as the trucks are cresting the ridge. The innocent cloud swells so fast I can easily watch it grow. Within moments rain and hail pour down. It’s a microburst, complete with heavy rain and strong winds. The road surfaces turn slick as snot.
“How’d you know that was going to happen?” my squad boss asks, just as the Division Supervisor radios to me, wanting to know if the crew is still down the hill.
“No,” I respond to Division Supervisor, “We pulled out just before the storm.”
My decision was correct in this instance—was I skilled or was I lucky?
I look at my squad boss, but I have no answer for him. How did I know to pull the crew up?
Is that confidence?
Here’s what confidence means to me: Confidence is simultaneously acknowledging that I have legions to learn and that I’m a capable and skilled person, and being able to hold both of these ideas without conflict. Confidence is not being oblivious to others’ pain or efforts; it is acknowledging that we all have hidden struggles. I want to challenge myself, yet I don’t want to assume that I know things I don’t. I pray to the gods of complex mountains, deep rivers, and sudden microbursts to help me tell the difference.
Confidence happens when we stand in the moment of uncertainty before the certainty of decision. There is no “I don’t know” choice—not acting is itself a choice. There may not be a right or wrong choice, only the decision that forms the future. It is easy to judge decisions after the fact, once the outcome is known. But it is in the uncertain decision point, the future-creating point, that we exercise confidence, acting on our reading of the situation and our decision. It is in this moment that we shine our flashlight into the fog of uncertainty and stand in our decisions, stand in our confidence.