How a Lack of Confidence Can Help You Be More Successful

Jan 20, 2014
8 Min Read

What would the world look like if people had less confidence? In his new book, author Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic contends that if people had less confidence, they would begin each day better prepared, there would be fewer arguments and mistakes, company leaders would be less corrupt and we’d all be more competent.

This certainly goes against other assertions that confidence is the cornerstone of any successful person’s life, but Chamorro-Premuzic contends we too often downplay things like talent and hard work.

Recently, Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at the University of College London, discussed his book, “Confidence: Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity, and Self-Doubt” with Anita Bruzzese.

AB:   You say that successful people like President Barack Obama and Sir Richard Branson did not become great successes just because they have confidence. That appears to fly in the face of everything we understand about how we need confidence to be successful. Can you explain?

TCP: There has never been any evidence for those claims in the first place! If you look at the actual research evidence you will see that the correlation between self-perceived and actual abilities is marginal, meaning that confidence is almost totally unrelated to actual competence. Yes, Obama and Branson are no doubt very confident, but there are millions of people in the world who are as -- or even more -- confident without having achieved even 1% of what they did.

A second important point is that confidence is more influenced by actual competence than vice-versa; so, while it is true that many exceptional achievers are confident, their confidence is a realistic consequence of their actual accomplishments. The simple truth is that achievement is mostly the product of hard work, and people who work really hard do so because they are aware of their limitations – when you feel that you are super competent you will not have any incentive to work hard.

AB:     Is there such a thing as having too much confidence? If so, what is the result?

TCP: What do you think? Most fights, accidents, wars, health epidemics, addictions, and financial problems are a direct consequence of overconfidence. Furthermore, excessive confidence threatens self-awareness and self-knowledge. Most people think they are better at pretty much anything than they actually are, and this confidence surplus leads to arrogant and narcissistic decisions while hindering self-improvement and genuine competence gains.

AB:   If someone is not confident and full of self-doubt, can he or she ever become successful? Can you actually benefit from insecurities?

TCP: Of course. If they really care about their self-doubts and lack of confidence, all they need to do is work hard to get better! Our lack of confidence is a critical signal that highlights a discrepancy between the person we think we are and the person we want to be. It is therefore fully adaptive and a key ingredient for improving. The fact that the typical decision in such situations is to consume a self-help book that makes us feel better by distorting reality and enhancing our self-views, is completely absurd. More often than not, low confidence is the result of genuine problems that need to be fixed, and for sure they will not be fixed if we try to enhance that person's confidence (which would only make them feel better about their problems, instead of fixing them).

AB:   Are there ways to fake confidence when you really need to? How?

TCP: Yes, you should only do it when you are not competent or when you cannot fake competence. I have a simple rule: when you are competent, fake modesty (it will make you even more likeable) and when you are not competent, try to fake competence (it works as a short-term solution).

Quite often, faking confidence can help us come across as more competent. But if others find us out then we will be punished and considered a fraud. So, it often pays off to admit one’s limitations instead of faking confidence.

Finally, if you cannot fake confidence, then you should just be honest -- others will appreciate it. For example, if you have to give a presentation to a big audience and you are feeling nervous, just admit it and apologize in advance - it will put some pressure OFF you and others will be more likely to give you positive feedback and less likely to challenge you. Since we live in a world (at least this is true for the West) where displays of hubris are the norm, humility can go a long way!

AB:   Can you share a time in your professional life when you lacked confidence and how you responded?

TCP: I lack confidence all the time. Whenever I have to prepare for a talk, a lecture, a TV show or whenever I have a big meeting ahead. But that is why I prepare so much. My biggest mistakes were made not for lacking confidence but for having too much of it: in the past I was much more secure and tended not to prepare that much for big assignments and believe that my natural skills and charms would suffice. That is a recipe for disaster.

My advice to everyone is to remain humble and self-critical, no matter how much you achieve. The biggest accomplishments of civilization are a function of relentless ambition and hard-work, and the more confident we feel, the less motivated and driven we will be to work-hard and keep improving.



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