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Confidence – The Joy Of Not Knowing What You Don't Know

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Poor Leonardo Da Vinci. 

In his heyday, he was known for his dashing looks, mathematical brilliance and painting genius. Not to mention inventing crazy flying machines and armoured tanks. 

But if he happened to be on your payroll, you'd probably have given him a good kick up the backside. Indeed, despite his talents, Da Vinci was notorious for not finishing anything on time. Or rather, finishing anything full stop, which explains why many of his masterpieces are incomplete.

These days, he might have been recognised as having dyslexia and ADHD – diagnoses that may somewhat justify his chronic procrastination. But based on what else we know of him, Da Vinci also appears to have been an anxious perfectionist, plagued by crippling self-doubt and a lack of confidence. 

A man who was so hard on himself that a line from one of his diaries reads: "Tell me if I ever did a thing." In fairness, he didn't actually do that many things. Some even argue that if he'd spent a little less time drawing penises in those same diaries, the poor Mona Lisa might have ended up with a decent pair of eyebrows.   

Da Vinci proves that self-doubt is timeless. If one of the greatest artists of all time can produce so little despite his genius, we can conclude that: a) confidence and competence don't go hand and hand, b) self-doubt is a killjoy when it comes to being productive, and that c) confidence has a big impact on emotional well-being. 

I'll discuss these points as part of this article and subsequent ones, but let's look first at what confidence is. 

Defining confidence

All of us believe that self-confidence is necessary and good for us. We crave it. Heaps of it. But also not too much, because we don't wish to come off as arrogant or grandiose. But what exactly do we want more of? Indeed, what is confidence? 

Confidence is nothing more than a cognitive bias. In other words, it's a belief we construct that's based on how we view ourselves and how we interpret reality around us. Like other emotional states such as 'contentment' or 'fulfilment', confidence is therefore hard to pin down. It's a subjective belief and therefore highly contextual. In other words, whether we show up as confident or not depends entirely on the situation. 

Genes and hormonal make-up play a role in why some people act more confidently than others. But as science evolves, that role seems to be getting smaller, with environmental factors and life experiences seemingly having a much greater impact. 

To better understand what confidence means, we need to consider two of its main components: self-efficacy and self-worth. 

Self-efficacy

Self-efficacy is having the belief that we can influence most of what happens in our lives. It means having the conviction that we can take ownership regardless of our circumstances. It's also trusting that, even though we don't know how to do something right now, we have the ability to find out. 

For example, I might not be able to bake you a beautiful black forest gateau at this very moment. But being a person of high efficacy, I also know that, as long as I find a good recipe, buy the right ingredients, and then follow that recipe – my chocolate-glazed cherries and homemade whipped cream will send you into a sugar frenzy. 

Self-worth

Simply believing you can achieve a particular task isn't enough to feed your confidence. You also need to feel your worthy of achieving it. This is where self-worth comes in. Self-worth (we can even call it self-compassion) relates to how we feel on the inside, how we talk to ourselves, and how we view ourselves in relation to others.

To gauge your self-worth, start paying attention to your inner radio station. Are you listening to a Joy Division mixed tape on FuckMyLife.FM, or is it Kanye West's Spotify Delusional Daily Mix on repeat? Ideally, it's something a little more nurturing, like this one. (You're welcome)

Too much self-worth leads to narcissism and grandiosity. But not having enough of it can indicate various other mental health disorders that make it hard to pursue your goals and maintain healthy relationships. 

My job as a coach is to help clients increase their self-efficacy, hence why that's the focus of this article. If you struggle with low self-esteem, however, you're best off addressing this in a more therapeutic setting. 

Confidence versus competence 

Da Vinci offers a great insight into the bizarre relationship between confidence and competence.

We can all think of a few people who seem unable to accept how incredibly talented and worthy they are of success. Maybe you're one of them.

Likewise, you can probably think of a few others whose sheer confidence has gotten them into places that objectively should have been way out of their league. The type of people whose unwavering self-belief somehow seems to have blinded everyone else to their incompetence. Having spent my entire previous career in politics, I've met a fair few of those. Trust me that Machiavelli was right when he said always assume incompetence first before looking for conspiracies. 

I might even be one of those deluded people myself. In all likelihood, I wouldn't even realise it because of the so-called Dunning-Kruger effect, which simply relates to the fact that you don't know what you don't know. It was coined by two social psychologists whose experiments showed that incompetent people are often not only poor performers, they're also terrible at recognising how poorly they performed. 

This lack of self-awareness is logical. The less we know, the less we think there is to know. Therefore, the easier we believe a task will be and the more confident we are in our ability to do it well. We're so unconsciously incompetent, and we suck so badly that we can't begin to understand what good actually looks like. 

An excellent example of this is when the IT guy comes over to your desk to tell you how to back up your files. You only listen with half an ear because he's not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, and you're busy fantasising about that Buddha Bowl you're going to have for lunch. Besides, if a loggerhead like that knows how to do this, then surely it can't be that hard for you to figure it out. That's the Dunning-Kruger effect in action right there. Also, you're being a dick.  

The benefits of self-confidence 

So, just because someone's confident doesn't mean they suck any less at life than the rest of us. But let's not exercise too much schadenfreude just yet about our more self-assured brothers and sisters. There's a silver lining.

Overall, confident people have a much brighter outlook on what they can achieve in life than those who lack self-belief. Their confidence-tainted glasses seem to filter the world into one of opportunities rather than one of threats. 

In psychology, they refer to positive illusions. These are unrealistic positive attitudes people have about themselves that allow them to assume a positive future outcome. They're a form of self-enhancement – self-deception even – but they help us feel good and maintain our self-esteem, at least in the short run. 

Being over-confident or even a little reckless on occasion can positively affect our motivation and well-being. It can be particularly beneficial if you're an entrepreneur or if your profession involves taking substantial risks. After all, nobody would trust a surgeon who lacks the confidence to put a scalp in someone or a pilot who doubts they can land a plane in one piece. 

The belief that things will work out for the best has evolutionary benefits too. Throughout our history, we've learned that trusting people generally gets us ahead of life. Societies thrive on that trust, and the vast majority of people operate on the basis that most of us tell the truth most of the time and that others aren't out to deceive us. 

That also explains why societies with higher levels of trust in their fellow citizens tend to have better social institutions and do better economically. On an individual level, people with higher levels of trust also tend to be more intelligent and happier

Cultural and gender differences in self-confidence

Earlier, I mentioned that confidence is contextual. But it's somewhat cultural too. Although research shows no significant differences across different nationalities or regions when it comes to levels of overconfidence, countries do seem to have a preference when it comes to having a preference for over or under-confidence in others. 

For example, many countries in East Asia de-emphasise confidence when it comes to judging competence. In Japan, for instance, self-enhancing people who promote themselves too obviously are majorly frowned upon. On the opposite end, you'll find the US where bragging isn't just accepted; it's expected. After all, how could anyone have confidence in you if you can't even have confidence in yourself? 

Gender plays a role too. There are often higher expectations for women in the workplace to prove their competence than their male counterparts. Women who lack self-belief face an even more challenging task when it comes to career progression. Not only are they up against plenty of institutional biases, but they're also at a particular disadvantage in those cultures that value confidence over competence. Research suggests that gender socialisation rather than hormonal differences appear to be the main culprit here.

In a brilliant article in the Atlantic, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman lay out some of the excellent research in the field of gender and confidence. They conclude that while men do doubt themselves; they don't do it nearly as often as women do. 

In addition, men are also typically more likely to veer towards over-confidence without even consciously trying. Ernesto Reuben at the Columbia Business School calls this phenomenon honest overconfidence. This type of overconfidence doesn't consist of bluster or the usual fake-it-till-you-make-it rubbish. It's a genuine belief that you're great in what you do. It's precisely this je-ne-sais-quoi attitude that many men have which allows others to put their trust in them. 

Down with the damn patriarchy already! 

Conclusion: calibrating confidence 

Confidence requires an optimism that things will work out in the end. More than that, it requires a belief even if things don't work out, you will be fine. 

So what's better – being under or over-confident? I'm sorry to say that 1,700 words into this article, the jury's still out. 

There are benefits to being slightly under-confident. A little bit of self-doubt incentives you to close the gap between your actual and desired competencies, which means you'll probably show up better prepared. You might be better liked too because people generally appreciate those who come across as humble. The caveat is that underconfidence often leads to inaction because we tend to hold ourselves back when we're not sure of ourselves. 

Paradoxically, research shows that those who display more confidence are often more admired. They're also awarded a higher social status than their less confident counterparts – regardless of their competence. A big caveat here is that pure arrogance and bravado won't cut it because most people can spot fake confidence from a mile away. But if your overconfidence is honest and matched by the right verbal and non-verbal cues, they will flock to you. 

As for poor Da Vinci, he was straddling the confidence fence as much as you and I are. He seemed to have made peace with his chronic perfectionism and self-doubt, realising that the only way out of it was to show up and deliver. Even if that meant sacrificing a pair of lashes and eyebrows along the way. 


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