“You have to be confident if you want to succeed.” That seems to be the mantra of our slogan-obsessed culture. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like self-confidence has become a pretty hot topic in the media with hundreds of self-help books across hundreds of bookstores all promising to help you find your inner goddess, embrace your shark values or whatever clunky metaphor the latest Hollywood scam artist can dream up. (Note to self: do a blog on self-help books).
As with any other topic that becomes firmly entrenched in the dominant ideology, there is a grain of truth in all the slogans – to some degree, confidence is important – but as usual, we’ve moved well past the realm of truth and have settled into a nice spot somewhere between hyperbole and insanity. We’ve become obsessed with confidence to the point where it is now more important to look competent than to actually be competent. You’ve got a million people selling sizzle but not an ounce of beef in sight.
Contrary to popular belief, confidence does not improve one’s objective performance in any given task; there is a correlation between confidence and measurable performance. A negative correlation! That’s right, too much confidence can actually hinder your performance in school, work, relationships and many other areas. Don’t believe me?
Let’s start with this 28 second video:
Overconfidence in a nutshell.
Dr. Anique de Bruin of Maastricht University in the Netherlands has studied the effects of overconfidence from the point of view of an educational psychologist, and she has come up with some pretty interesting findings. First, in the interest of fairness, let’s talk about some of the benefits of overconfidence. Research has shown that students with unrealistically high confidence levels do, in fact, learn faster. Presumably because they experience less anxiety when confronted with new material. But the story doesn’t end there.
For instance, these same overconfident students often perform poorly on tests precisely because their self-assurance makes them less inclined to study. In one of the more interesting experiments that she describes, de Bruin illustrates the effect of over-confidence with regard to standardized testing. She administered a test to a group of college students and divided them in half. The control group was asked to rate their answers as either “not correct, partially correct or fully correct.”
The other half of the class was given a stricter criterion. “Do you believe your answer is one hundred percent correct?”
De Bruin discovered that the control group displayed overconfidence in their answers roughly sixty-four percent of the time. The experimental group, however – those who were asked whether or not their answers were one hundred percent correct – displayed overconfidence only twenty-two percent of the time. Why the change? Because students who were allowed to rate their answers as partially correct gave themselves partial credit for answers that were completely wrong.
Stop and think for a moment what that says about us as a species. We give ourselves partial credit even when we’re completely wrong. Why is this important? Because we’re living in a culture that nurtures overconfidence. Not confidence.
Here’s a smattering of career advice that I found while toying around with Google for five minutes.
“One of the biggest challenges for those who are selling-themselves challenged is an inability to separate who they truly are from who they are as a product. There’s you — imperfect, conflicted, fallible — and then there’s the “you” you’re selling — awesome, cool, superhuman.”
Superhuman. An interesting adjective to choose since it is in no way accurate, and therefore the candidate who follows this advice is not only selling himself but also doing so by means of false advertising. Appeals to honesty aside, I’m more interested in what happens when people start to believe their own press.
“Successful selling begins in your head and in how you see and value yourself. If you’re not convinced of your own value, no one else will be. Banish all fears about not being worthy of the job or promotion you want.”
And if those fears happen to be valid? Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t you think we should at least assess our capability in any given position before pursuing it with so much gusto? I’m not trying to say that ambition is altogether evil; the moral of this entry is not “Blessed are the meek.” I’m trying to point out the numerous ways in which we are encouraged to turn a blind eye to our to our own shortcomings.
Why is this a problem? If I may quote Naomi Klein – a respected author and activist – “Putting fear of failure out of your mind can be a very good thing if you’re training for a triathlon or preparing for TED talk but I think people with the power to detonate our economy and ravage our ecology would do better to have a picture of Icarus hanging on the wall. I want them thinking about failure all the time.”
Klein makes some excellent arguments that demonstrate how overconfidence has played a major role in just about everything from financial meltdowns to environmental disasters. You can find her talk here:
Perhaps it is not confidence that we should nurture but humility. Every once in a while we should remind ourselves of the limitations in our knowledge and the limitations of our capability.
Hey, looking for some great fiction? Check out Symbiosis, the book reviewers have called the illegitimate love child of Star Trek and Buffy.
Now available on Kindle
It’s had some great reviews!