September 10, 2013

Summer Musings: Confidence isn't key

The rush to achieve confidence can result in empty answers and overly simplistic understanding.

Ever since preschool, we’ve been taught to “be confident” and “believe in ourselves”—to raise our hands and participate, and to at all costs avoid appearing standoffish, unfriendly, or even shy.

Back then, teachers favored the students who weren’t afraid to speak up. Even if they didn’t know the answer, by actively participating, they were able to prove that they were paying attention (even if they weren’t) and, most importantly, that they were trying. Indeed, even those kids who didn’t know half of what was going on could still garner most, if not all, of the teacher’s positive attention by simply showing up and saying something, anything.

Twenty-something years of inspirational quotes, pop culture, and participation-heavy grading later, we often find our young adult selves doing the exact same thing as our preschool classmates: rushing to provide answers where there are none, to overconfidently present ourselves as experts in fields where we’re anything but. In some instances, we even reverse engineer truth from confidence, making bold, unverified claims that sound like they’re right, and that tend to be misconstrued and treated as such until—if—proven otherwise.

This isn’t to say that confidence is in itself a bad or undesirable thing. In virtually every setting and profession, confidence is indispensable. Few people are going to buy into your arguments or products if you appear uncertain about the ideas you’re trying to get others to adopt. That much is clear.

But while confidence may be indispensable, overconfidence can be devastating. The problem is that it’s becoming harder and harder to tell the difference.

It’s true that most people prefer confident, point-blank answers to a slew of, nuanced alternatives. But what we want and what we expect—let alone what we need—aren’t necessarily the same thing, just when as we elect the audacious candidates with the most relatable, plain-speak platforms to positions where they’re expected to compromise on complicated, comprehensive pieces of legislation.

Researchers are now discovering that confidence and knowledge go hand-in-hand only up to a certain point. Past that point, the relationship between confidence and knowledge becomes reversed, almost like a convex parabola.

Impostor Syndrome, a psychological condition in which a person remains convinced that their success is borne from luck, timing, or deceit as opposed to genuine achievement, is most common among high-achieving academics and entrepreneurs—people who are long-established experts and leaders in their respective fields. Perhaps shielded from the societal scorn laid on uncertainty by the weight of their impressive titles, they are some of the only people cognizant of and willing to admit to gaps in their knowledge. That’s how comprehensive their expertise is: They know what they don’t know. They know how little they know. They know that they don’t know a lot—and that’s exactly why they always want to learn more.

Being able to appreciate the limitations of one’s knowledge is just as valuable as the knowledge itself.

That’s exactly why all of us need to become more willing to admit our ignorance, and to place greater value on acknowledging and addressing the complex subtleties we don’t understand. That could mean not overstating our expertise—and discouraging others from doing the same—or demanding more from our leaders than a black-and-white, fifteen-second stump speech. Most importantly, that should mean becoming more selective about where we air our confidence.

Because being bold should only be as important as the causes and ideas that we’re bold about.

Anastasia Golovashkina is a third-year in the college majoring in economics. Summer Musings is a Viewpoints blog that publishes on Tuesdays and Fridays through September 27.