Confidence and Expertise vs. Overconfidence: What Happens When You Get Too Confident. Developing your leadership skills requires you to get very real with your own perception of your knowledge skills and abilities.
This is always something I think about around weapons handling for example. Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the Independence Gun Range in Boise Idaho. I was able to get back on an MP5 for which I have an Instructor level certification. I spent many years developing my skills to become a master with this tool.
When you’ve been doing something competently for a long time, it can be easy to develop a sense of confidence. After all, you’re well on your way to becoming an expert, so a bit of confidence is warranted, right?
Yes and no…
Confidence is always a good thing, as it can help you to overcome challenges and cope with the stress that comes with a busy life. But OVERconfidence, an excessive amount of confidence, can lead to mistakes!
There’s something called the “overconfidence effect”, described as: “a well-established bias in which a person’s subjective confidence in his or her judgements is reliably greater than the objective accuracy of those judgements, especially when confidence is relatively high.”
Basically… you aren’t all that and a bag of chips just yet!
When we feel confident in our abilities, we tend to overestimate our actual performance, consider ourselves more experienced and expert than others, and express an over-certainty in our beliefs. We may think we can get something done far faster than is realistic or that we can accomplish something despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This overconfidence effect can lead to serious problems—when we overestimate our skills and expertise, that’s when we usually start down the road to serious failures.
As one psychologist puts it: “Maximal confidence about your future earning potential is likely to lead to unsustainable spending. Maximal confidence about your popularity is likely to make you insufferably annoying. And if it leads you to take more risks, maximal confidence in your immortality may actually decrease your life expectancy.”
So what we can do to avoid overconfidence? How can we build confidence in our expertise without going too far and straying into the realm of excessive confidence?
Established wisdom dictates that it takes around 10,000 hours to become an “expert” at something. How many hours do you really have? 2,000? 5,000? You can start drawing close to expert the more hours you get, but just because you feel confident in your skill, that doesn’t make you an expert.
What I would tell a new SWAT operator at their graduation ceremony from basic training is… it is just the beginning.
Expertise isn’t a feeling—it’s not that “I can do this easily” attitude you get when facing a challenging task and mastering it. It’s simply the expert knowledge in a skill or field that helps you overcome said challenges despite their difficulty.
The “Dunning-Kruger effect” is a cognitive bias where “people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is”. Be aware of this bias and realize that you may be overinflating your expertise as a result of your LACK of expertise.
This is probably one of the hardest things for many of us to do, given how much emphasis there is on being confident and taking pride in our achievements. We’ve dedicated so much mental energy to building our pride and confidence that we go too far.
Humility will help to keep you in line—it will acknowledge the experience you do have in certain areas, but it won’t stray into the realm of pride and overconfidence. If we can be humble enough to admit that there are things we don’t know, we’ll be willing to ask for help, consider other perspectives, and be aware that we can make serious mistakes.
Humility will help us to temper our confidence with caution and prudence—that’s a winning combination!
No matter where you are in your journey, there will always be more to learn. No one is ever the “best” at anything, but there is always some other area where they could be better. The best authors in the world may know next to nothing about marketing their novels.
The best salesmen in the world may be terrible financial planners or investors. There is always more you can learn to round out your knowledge base to enhance your expertise. The more you learn, the more you’ll realize you have a lot left to learn.
Take it Slow
Overconfidence almost always manifests in the form of speed. When you know how to do something, you tend to move by rote, each action familiar, so you don’t take your time to focus as much on what you’re doing.
That can cause you to go so fast that you make mistakes. One of the things most experts know is that going too quickly can ruin anything, no matter how much experience you have. If you’re getting the urge to move fast and speed things up, fight that urge.
Slow down, take your time to make sure you’re doing the right thing and have the right information before you act. Quick decisions tend to be based more on bias than sound judgement.
If you want to know just how much of an expert you are, take the time to test yourself and your skills. You may find that the testing reveals you lack the skills your overconfidence bias tells you that you have. It can be a hard pill to swallow, but that’s part of being a mature professional. When you realize you might not be as awesome or expert as you originally believed, that’s when you gain humility and are open to new ideas and suggestions.
Listen to Criticism
This separates legitimate operators and leaders from those who will only ever remain average in my opinion. Sometimes it can be very difficult to hear. One of the hardest things for overconfident people to do is accept suggestions and advice, especially when it comes in the form of criticism.
No one likes to be criticized, but often those harsh words hide a grain of truth—truth you really need to hear. If you can get past the feelings of being offended and examine the message of what is being said, you may find that the criticism hides real value.
Plan for Pitfalls
Always take time to look ahead on any project or plan and see if there are pitfalls that could derail your progress or contribute to failure. Give it some real thought and find those factors, both internal and external, that could cause things to go off the rails. By being prepared for failure, you’ll avoid overconfidence—after all, you’re as much as admitting that things can go wrong, so you won’t be too confident that you’ll succeed.
The road to mastering your craft is one that is filled with challenges. Be open, disciplined and stay focused as you build your skills and confidence.