Editor's Note: This story contains one of our 11 New Years resolutions you can actually keep in 2014. For the full list, click here.
Maybe everything you've been led to believe about being a successful business leader is wrong.
What if confidence is overrated? What if faking it until you make it actually does more harm than good?
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London, thinks so. His new book, Confidence: Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity, and Self-Doubt, isn't just another touchy-feely book telling you that you are good enough, smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like you.
In fact, Confidence says the exact opposite.
"Although society places a great deal of importance on being confident, there are no genuine benefits except feeling good," Chamorro-Premuzic writes. "In fact, lower confidence is key to gaining competence, which is the only effective strategy for gaining genuine confidence—confidence that is warranted by one’s actual competence."
Drawing on his own research studies and those of others, Chamorro-Premuzic finds that overconfident people are less popular than those who are realistic about their abilities.
Most "confident" people are also deluded. Some 90% of us think we are better than average drivers. Almost 100% of university professors rate their teaching skills as better than average. Chamorro-Premuzic notes that even dictators often tout their high moral character.
We don’t lack for self-esteem. What we often lack is the actual abilities that would back that self-esteem up.
But, as Chamorro-Premuzic writes, "the truth is often painful, but less painful than ignoring it." Realistic self-doubt has some big advantages. "It is a motivating force, because being dissatisfied with yourself is the best reason for wanting to improve." If you’re aware that you have limitations, you’re open to feedback on how to improve. You understand that there are things you need to practice.
Even that widely disliked trait—anxiety—has some upsides, leading people to make smarter decisions. The more anxious people are at age 15, the less likely they are to have died in accidents by age 25. In a study of people who lived in a flood prone region, only the anxious ones had actually prepared for what was highly likely to happen to all these residents. It may not feel good to buy flood insurance, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
Chamorro-Premuzic draws an example of the power of low confidence from his own life.
"[When I first started teaching] I was so confident in my ability to edutain (educate + entertain) that I never even bothered preparing. Although the classes were fun, the best students quickly worried about the lack of structure and content....On the other hand, the less ambitious students thought the class was great, because they assumed that there was nothing to be learned or studied. I was so pleased with myself that I dismissed any negative feedback from the students and instead focused on the positive comments: ‘Finally someone decided to make the lectures entertaining.’"
But eventually, the negative evaluations from the best students became so common that he had to take a hard look at what he was doing. "My teaching confidence dropped, which also made me question my overall competence for academia. However, that unpleasant realization helped me take the first crucial steps toward improving my teaching." He started planning lectures and tying them to the materials subsequent courses would assume students knew. He never regained his initial confidence—but his actual competence, and student feedback, improved substantially.
That’s a good thing. Indeed, in life, if you want to accomplish great things, you are better off being your own worst critic than your own biggest fan.
To be sure, this constant self-criticism isn’t all that fun. I wish I had the confidence to just get on stage and give a speech like some more natural public speakers I know. But because I lack that confidence, I work hard on writing my speeches and I practice them multiple times, even if I’ve given any individual speech before. I watch videos of myself so I can see my awkward hand gestures and practice getting rid of them. Likewise, while I wish I was the sort of person who could walk into any party and instantly make everyone my best friend, I know my own introversion. So I study guest lists and email remotely familiar names beforehand so I can say hello, and sort of know people when I get there. I’ve learned to ask questions as a way to make conversations, figuring that other people probably enjoy sharing details of their lives.
Obviously, low confidence can be taken too far. Some people are so perfectionist in their self-criticism that they become paralyzed. If you take the knowledge that you won’t give a perfect speech to an absurdist level and never even try to speak in public, that will limit your career in all sorts of ways. But a healthy balance is good—being sure of the things that you are, objectively, good at, but being willing to improve where improvement is possible. For most of us, improvement is possible in a great many things. That’s what successful people know—and it’s how they become successful.