January 4, 2011
Confidence is a good thing, right? Everyone wants confidence. It makes you more attractive to others. It helps your performance. It makes you feel good about yourself. It allows you to set high goals. It’s good stuff.
It’s also an illusion.
The reality is that there are only two conditions you can be in. You can either have an accurate view of your own abilities or an inaccurate view. Confidence is similar to will power in the sense that neither of them exists and yet society is quite certain they do.
Will power isn’t a real thing because humans simply act based on the greatest impulse in their brains at the moment. The guy who can best resists eating cupcakes is the one who enjoys them the least, or is the least hungry. Will power never enters into the equation. It is a rationalization after the fact.
Confidence and will power feel as if they are real things because we have words to describe them, and we usually agree when the words apply. That’s why the illusion is so persistent. If the words didn’t exist, I don’t think the illusions would be so troublesome.
I came to this view of because people insist on viewing my various behaviors through the framework of confidence. When I have a realistic view of my ability to do some particular task well, I am labeled confident, as opposed to simply accurate. When I predict that I would be below average at some particular task, based on years of knowing myself, I am labeled unconfident when in fact I am simply right or wrong. Where does confidence come in?
Suppose a drug existed that could give you the sensation of confidence independent of your actual ability to perform tasks. Would that be a good thing? Actually, we know the answer to that question because the drug is alcohol and it kills 37,000 people per year in automobiles alone, just in the United States.
But what about the self-fulfilling nature of confidence, you ask? Doesn’t the feeling of confidence sometimes make you perform better? A confident public speaker, for example, is a better speaker. A confident quarterback will make better decisions, and so on.
I would argue that in some cases your performance can be enhanced by generating in yourself just the right amount of illusion about your own performance. A quarterback might imagine himself able to throw the perfect pass 100% of the time in order to succeed half of the time. He would be using confidence as a useful illusion because it keeps his energy in balance after some bad misses.
Generating a temporary illusion of confidence in yourself can be a good thing so long as you are aware of what you’re doing. The quarterback needs to understand that he’s just using a trick to pump up his performance. Otherwise he’d feel like a failure for completing only half of his passes.
Confidence is an illusion, but a useful one.