Although everybody loves the idea of being more confident, the relationship between confidence and career success are more complex than people think.
For starters, the overlap between confidence (how good you think you are at something) and competence (how good you actually are at something) is merely 9%. In other words, there is a big difference between having talent and believing that you do. I’m sure you know many people who illustrate this point compellingly. For instance, skyrocketing confidence is a reliable indicator of incompetent leadership.
Another important, yet usually ignored, issue is that extreme confidence is less useful than moderate confidence. Moderate confidence can inspire a healthy degree of experimentation and encourage you to go outside your comfort zone, while enabling you to remain aware of your limitations and make a realistic appraisal of risks. Extreme confidence, however, augments the probability that you are arrogant, deluded, unjustifiably pleased with yourself, and unaware of your limitations, threats, and risks.
The final nuance to consider is that there is both an internal and external dimension to self-confidence. The internal one is basically a threat-detection and self-awareness mechanism, designed to inform whether your capabilities match particular problems and challenges: e.g., crossing a busy junction before the traffic lights change, applying for a new job or promotion, and asking someone out on a date.
The external one is all about persuading others that you are capable. While this facet of confidence is extremely instrumental to career success, it is often co-opted by impostors, fraudsters, and con artists. It is not a coincidence that con artists and confidence have the same root. For example, a salesperson may fake assertiveness to persuade customers to buy their product, and a politician may self-promote or exaggerate their expertise in order to lure voters. In this way, confidence can be used to convey the illusion of competence to others, which tends to advance the career of the actor at the expense of everybody else, especially people who hoped for competence but ended up getting confidence instead.
Luckily, there is a compromise and a healthy balance between “faking it until you make it” (the self-serving, unethical choice) and being riddled with self-doubt (the existential neurotic choice).
Ideally, this would involve three strategies.
Align your internal confidence with your actual competence
Optimize for self-awareness or self-knowledge rather than self-belief, and understand that a surplus of self-belief tends to cripple self-awareness. The reason for this is that it is generally useful to know what you know, and what you don’t. In particular, if you are unhappy about the gap between your desired state of competence and your actual competence, you should have an incentive to work hard and close this gap. In contrast, if you live under the illusion that you know more than you do, and are more competent than you actually are, then your only hope will be that your delusion is contagious, so that it turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Quietly work on your weaknesses, without “hanging yourself” in public
If your confidence is not aligned with your actual competence (as per the first point), your best bet is to be somewhat insecure internally, but moderately confident externally. This is the best recipe for quietly working on your weaknesses and flaws, preparing as much as needed, even if it means overpreparing (a far better option than underpreparing), while not exposing your doubts and insecurities to others.
It is always useful to remember that other people are generally poor judges of our competence, and especially our incompetence. So, even when you know you have work to do in order to get better, try not to reveal this, unless you have to. For example, if you are asked the dreaded question about your biggest flaw during a job interview, it is still an invitation to showcase competence and modesty.
Keep your performance anxiety in check
It’s only normal (and human) to feel anxious and tense ahead of high-stake challenges, such as career-defining promotions, job interviews, and client presentations. There are some simple tips you can follow to manage your stress levels. For example, telling people that you are nervous, and even apologizing for your anxiety, can help to build empathy and rapport with the audience. And telling them that your nerves highlight how much the opportunity means to you will give you extra points for motivation.
Another good (and rather obvious) tactic is to rehearse with people. Practicing exactly what you intend to say or do, even if you just film yourself and watch yourself—ideally, a number of times—will increase your familiarity and performance, making you feel at ease. After all, there is no better way to increase your confidence than to increase your competence.
Remembering that there are more important things in life than the challenge you are about to face—people who suffer from real problems, such as hunger, poverty, war, abuse, etc.—can remove some of the fake existential angst attached to #firstworldproblems, such as tricky career challenges. And, if you can, get to a psychological state where you actually enjoy the challenge. It is, after all, an opportunity, so make the most of it. Your performance will likely get better.
A final recommendation: Whether you have too much or too little confidence, the best way to calibrate towards more accurate self-insight and self-awareness is to look outside yourself rather than inside your head. While we tend to associate self-awareness with deep introspection and self-consciousness, it is by being more receptive to other people’s feedback that we actually improve our understanding of ourselves. So, you don’t need to check into a meditation retreat or spend a year in an ashram trying to find yourself. Just listen to others, especially when they are making the effort to provide you with accurate and honest feedback on your performance, and even when it means coming to terms with somewhat uncomfortable elements of your reputation.
This may not result in fairy-tale levels of self-belief, but at least it will prevent you from being deluded, self-obsessed, and ensure you can build a realistic level of confidence that grows as you develop more competence.