Feeling insecure is no fun in its own right, but to top that off, many people feel ashamed of their insecurities. On the other hand, that may still be preferable than the alternative; psychologists know that only psychopaths are insecurity-free and genuinely fearless.
For the rest of us, the trouble comes from living in a world that tends to reward us for hiding self-doubt regardless of our actual talents (and their limits). Even really talented people are often underrated when they don’t show confidence. But if confidence pays off, it’s often a decoy–a way of presenting ourselves that lets us enhance our status by persuading people we’re competent, even when we’re not.
From managers to CEOs to politicians, there’s no shortage of successful people who succeed largely because they’re so good at hiding their insecurities. In fact, scientists suggest that confidence may have evolved as a survival strategy for deceiving others. If true, this may help explain the ubiquity of self-deception, too: It’s always easier to fool others when you’ve already managed to fool yourself.
Nevertheless, embracing insecurity rather than running from it may have some counterintuitive upsides to our careers–at least in measured doses. Extreme insecurity stops you from trying, inhibits your performance, and undermines your reputation with others. But being a little bit insecure–and allowing yourself to be–might actually be a good thing. Here’s why.
Just like you wouldn’t want your taxi driver or heart surgeon to be overconfident, it can be good for you professionally to stay focused on not screwing up.
Projecting confidence may help you appear more competent, but feeling insecure can help you minimize risk–and the benefits of the latter may outweigh those of the former. In fact, psychologists have found that in healthy people (those with more or less realistic views of themselves), insecurity functions as a vital threat-detection mechanism, alerting them that something is wrong or nudging them to avoid certain actions.
If you want to avoid embarrassment, failure, or even premature death, you better be able to deal with some self-doubt. Many people think it would be great to be completely uninhibited and shameless, not only at work but in life. But while the idea may sound liberating, the truth is that people totally devoid of insecurities are generally reckless, obnoxious, and no fun to be around.
In any domain of performance, achievement depends on both ability and effort. The two are often negatively related: the more ability you have, the less effort you make, and vice-versa. So when two individuals are equally capable, their relative performance depends on the amount of effort each one puts in. And if you want to perform as well as people who are harder-working than you, you better be more talented than them!
Since insecurity alerts us that we aren’t as capable as we’d like to be, it tends to motivate us to work harder. In other words, if you genuinely are just as talented as your peers, it’s to your advantage to feel less talented than they do, because it drives you to compensate for that perceived loss with additional effort, whereas your more secure peers will more likely be complacent. Unsurprisingly, many high achievers aren’t just perfectionists, they’re also remarkably self-critical.
Many of us tolerate arrogance more than we should, particularly in the West, yet people are generally more likable when they seem humble.
It is common to forget this when we assume–usually wrongly–that humble people are less competent than confident ones. But as soon as we’re able to correctly evaluate someone’s actual competence, we tend to prefer them if they don’t come with a confidence surplus. In other words, if you think of two people with the same level of talent, but one of them seems arrogant while the other seems modest–so much so that she underrates her talents–you’ll still like her better.
The short-term effects of charisma tend to wear off over the long term, eventually leaving us to prefer people who are humble. And since insecurity is an antidote to hubris, it’s also a tool for preserving our long-term likability. For all the suggestions that we should fake confidence to get ahead, it may actually be more useful to fake a degree of insecurity. It’s the reverse of trying to seem confident when you aren’t that competent, which usually backfires: When you’re both competent and confident, showing a little modesty can win others over.
In addition to these personal advantages, insecurity can also benefit the group. In fact, any system that rewards people for ignoring their insecurities tends to promote reckless risk-takers and freeloaders at the expense of humble, honest, hard-working people.
Imagine two groups in competition: One group is led by people who are smarter than they think, the other led by people who are dumber they think. If you’re a follower and your welfare depends on outperforming your rival group, which leaders would you rather have?
After all, our careers don’t unfold in a vacuum, or rise and fall solely on the basis of our own abilities. If your team or company does well, you’re likely to benefit. And if tapping into a certain degree of personal insecurity helps you to get ahead, it makes sense that leaving room for self-doubt is a smart leadership strategy, too. Questioning your wisdom now and then is a wise thing to do.