avatarLeon Macfayden


How to Develop Just the Right Amount of Confidence

Overconfidence is as bad as none at all.

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Overconfidence turned me into a monster. A new start at University and my taking up Karate and Boxing had made me feel invincible. I became the person I’d always dreamt of and was no longer at the mercy of bullies.

But I went too far. I’d confront someone for any perceived slight, no matter how small. My ego was fragile. When a fellow Karate student said my kicks were worse than my punches, I challenged him to a kickfight.

Looking back, I became a bully to my housemates. At the time, another “tough guy” and I thought we were playing pranks on them, but they saw it as harassment. Eventually, they moved out. I should’ve known how my behavior was being received. They even asked me to stop. But I was too jazzed on my feeling of self-importance. The feeling of being the one in control at last felt intoxicating.

I ended up leaving University with a mediocre Law degree. I didn’t study and spent all my time training and working out. I thought I’d breeze through the exams, so I didn’t attend lectures and gave myself no time to revise.

That’s the thing about confidence. Without it, you’ll lead a horrible life. You won’t inspire people, and you’ll miss out on opportunities because you’ll be too scared. This is the aspect of confidence that thousands of authors always write about.

But there’s a dark side to confidence. When you feel invincible, you overestimate your competence, and things go wrong.

Overconfidence is dangerous.

“Think you can or think you can’t — either way you’re right.”

Henry Ford.

I disagree with this quote because it sounds like confidence is everything. Success is about more than believing in yourself.

The main danger of overconfidence lies in decision-making. People often depend on their intuition — their “gut” or their “heart” — to make decisions. But this method can lead to huge mistakes.

The 2008 financial crisis was caused by people overestimating their ability. Everyone thought they knew the value of subprime mortgages, but they didn’t.

A psychologist named Gabrielle Oettingen has studied how confidence affects outcomes. She found that people fantasizing about future successes are less likely to accomplish them. Like me when I thought I’d pass my degree with flying colors, yet I just scraped across the finish line. Or when I thought I knew how to make friends, I pushed them away when I mistook aggression for confidence.

Confidence is a great starting point. Harness its power to help you start the work needed to succeed. But accept it won’t get you to the finish line.

Never forget others are struggling, too.

People who are underconfident about complex tasks often forget others are also struggling.

When I joined the police force, it was a huge culture shock. On the night I attended my most traumatic incident, everyone else looked fine. It looked like I was struggling to hold it together alone.

I later found out several other officers were struggling with their mental health. They thought I was fine, too.

Most of us are aware of our limits. At the same time, we overestimate those of other people. Underconfidence occurs in that gap. You might feel incompetent if you find something difficult, yet everyone else seems ok. You have no idea what’s happening behind the scenes.

You know how you FEEL, but you only see how others ACT. You aren’t struggling more than others. You don’t see them struggling.

Some of the greatest minds struggle with imposter syndrome:

“I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.”

John Steinbeck.

Avoid overconfidence by thinking in ranges.

People are too specific in their predictions. This could be solved by allowing for uncertainty. Instead of choosing a single outcome, assign probabilities to a range of outcomes.

A project might take 20 days, but what if it takes 12? Or 24? When you work out the probabilities, you can average out the outcomes.

Later, you can return to your forecasts. If you overestimated your ability, you can look at your projections and understand why.

Stop thinking about WHETHER to make a choice and start thinking about WHICH choice you want to make.

I used to play poker online. Thinking in terms of ranges was the most significant factor determining game success. On the TV, people “read” their opponent and get the exact hand they hold every time. In the real world, you must assign a range to an opponent. Based on their betting action and behavior, how likely is it they have such and such a hand?

Bad poker players play their hand. Good players play their range.

Consider the perspectives of others.

A crowd is often more intelligent than a single expert. Disagreement is an essential tool to improve our ability to forecast a range of outcomes. We expand our thinking when we figure out why others disagree.

A study asked participants to estimate the date of certain events in history. After the first guess, they were asked to consider why they might be wrong. Then, they made a second guess. The second guesses were more accurate than the first. Averaging out the two guesses was even more accurate.

Remember to get a diverse range of opinions. Don’t take too much notice of a crowd with the same biases. Abraham Lincoln filled his cabinet with people who disagreed.

Ability trumps confidence.

Be careful about mimicking the behavior of people who are top of their field. It’s a case of the chicken and the egg. Usain Bolt doesn’t run fast because he’s confident. He’s confident because he can run fast.

Exaggerated confidence doesn’t instill trust as much as proven ability. Exuding confidence without being able to back it up is the domain of scammers and con artists.

Find the middle ground. Be honest about what you don’t know and use your experience to convey credible information. Saying “I don’t know” can add to your credibility.

Final thoughts.

No one is denying the power of confidence, but it has to be deserved. When making decisions, open your mind to a broader range of possibilities. False bravado gets exposed quickly.

Confidence lies in knowing what you don’t know.

Humility will keep you in check and stop you from becoming an egotistical monster.

Have the confidence you deserve — no more and no less.

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