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Much Confidence, Little Competence

By Linda Sapadin, Ph.D

Confidence and competence don't always go hand in hand. Some people are very confident when they really shouldn't be, while others display little confidence despite being very knowledgeable.

Many years ago, when I taught in college, I became aware of a curious flip-flop factor. Some students (mostly young guys) who did quite poorly on exams were supremely confident that they had aced the test. On the other hand, other students (mostly women returning to college after raising a family) aced their exams yet were constantly worried about whether or not they did okay.

Perhaps this phenomenon is best explained by Darwin who said: "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge."

To sum it up, it's not unusual for a person to be a nit-wit and remain blissfully unaware of it. It's also not unusual for a person to be bright yet believe he's not smart enough or good enough. Let's look deeper into these phenomena:

Confidence Without Competence - Greek tragedies are noted for their portrayal of hubris. Many a character with arrogant pride and overbearing confidence brings about his own ruin. Pretentiousness prevents him from reflecting on what he doesn't know or on the possibility that what he does know may be dead wrong.

In the modern world, we have many examples of hubris in the lives of the "masters of the universe" who were "earning" stratospheric income in pre-collapse Wall Street. Did they know their own shortcomings? Did they seek to consider that they may be wrong? Or, did they simply display utmost confidence in a house of cards?

Highly confident people may remain ignorant of their faults for three major reasons:

  1. They surround themselves with those who are beholden to them and whose job it is to reinforce their position.

  2. They don't pay attention to those who disagree with them, labeling them as disloyal or incompetent.

  3. When feedback finally becomes unavoidable, (i.e. stock is down 50%, a student receives a failing grade) they attribute the failure to external causes. It's the other guy's fault or the system sucks.
Competence without Confidence - If you begin life with little self-confidence, you may hold on to that belief system even after you've become quite accomplished. Particularly if you're a perfectionist, you will tend to focus on what you don't know, what you haven't achieved and how others are more knowledgeable than you.

Such thinking intensifies feelings of incompetency, possibly even leading to the "imposter syndrome". (You're faking it and if one just looked hard enough, he would see how incompetent you are.)

Competent people with little confidence remain that way for three major reasons:

  1. They discount the positive feedback they receive while nursing the negative feedback.

  2. They attribute their successes to luck and their failures to their own fault.

  3. When feedback becomes unavoidable, (i.e. a good grade, a prestigious award), they downplay its significance by attributing it to dumb luck, a mistake, or the competition was piss poor).
How do you know if someone is both competent and confident? This person is smart, yet not afraid to admit what he doesn't know or what he's not sure of. He has no hesitation about declaring the limits of his knowledge and has no need to cover up his ignorance. This kind of person comes across as "real". This is the kind of person, I hope, you will strive to be and to enjoy as you interact with him and her in all walks of life.
Copyright © 2009: Linda Sapadin, Ph.D
Linda is a psychologist and personal coach in private practice who specializes in helping people enrich their lives, enhance their relationships and overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior. For more information about her work, contact her by email or visit her website at PsychWisdom.

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