Leadership

The Problem With Extremely Confident People

I believe an expert is a person who has been wrong so many times that it permanently limits how confident they will ever get in their abilities. The master of a craft is more accepting of the fact that they could learn something new to further their knowledge. They don’t just say it, they feel it. The expert begins to recognize their limitations and they become more open to the fact that they may also be wrong.

I also tend to believe that no one truly masters the entirety of a subject area, they just get better at it than most people and begin to recognize their limitations. That may not be entirely accurate, but the amount of work that goes into becoming an expert in a particularly complex subject area often prevents most people from achieving a truly expert level of capabilities.

When it comes to confidence in ability and confidence in subject mastery, a highly confident person is much more likely to be wrong. This may be where I lose many of you, especially if you work on the business side of things, maybe as a manager. You want to be reassured with confidence. You want the person doing the work to believe they can do the work. Luckily for you, most people know this and can fake it.

In my own experience, I can only recall one person that was extremely confident in their abilities and had reason to be that confident. They were always right. If they said something with confidence, you could bet money that they were right 999 times out of 1000. I worked with this person for around 6 or 7 years, learning from them and being trained by them. I celebrated the one time I was able to prove them wrong and rubbed it in for a couple years after (not maliciously, more joking around than anything).  Near the end of our time together, I managed to get a second victory in.

Most other people I encounter with that high of a level of confidence are lucky to be half as right as the person I described above; usually far less. Why is that? I suppose it could just be my perception, but I think it may partially have to do with something known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

From your perception, it appears to you that you know a lot more than you do. Your perception gives you more confidence than your skills are worth. Almost everyone is impacted by the Dunning-Kruger effect as almost everyone fails to accurately estimate their skills.

Dunning-Kruger and the Plateau of Sustainability

The above image is a general diagram showing a simple and standard model of the expected knowledge gained versus how confident someone is. To learn more about the Dunning-Kruger Effect and each stage on this model please visit this article.

I believe there is a flaw in this standard model shown above. The standard model shows a smooth path of confidence up along the “Slope of Enlightenment” as one gains experience. If you have ever learned something new or grasped a new concept within a knowledge area that you already have a lot of experience in, I think you can relate with the below idea.

You don’t just move up slightly in confidence with each new thing you learn. Especially since most new knowledge is gained through mistakes. You screwed something up and you learned from it.

If you have worked at something for a while with very few minor errors, you may have gained some confidence and a false sense of belief that you have mastered something. Then this new piece of knowledge comes along, probably through an accident or a mistake on your part, and your confidence takes a nosedive. You just realized that you haven’t learned everything.

Dunning-Kruger Modified Competence Chart

Modified Model of the Knowledge Chart

The above model, I think, is a more accurate description of what happens. The person who begins to master a complex craft or skill area will go through many of these ups and downs. By the end of it, they are likely to be less confident than the freshly minted new person sitting on Mt. Stupid. They have been through so many of these ups and downs that it permanently shakes their ability to have a substantially high level of confidence.

 

Reflection

The more confident a person is, the more people tend to trust them and their judgment. But how confident someone is may not be an accurate guide to actual ability or knowledge. It is my opinion that an extremely confident person has yet to make enough mistakes to humble themselves to the possibility that they may not know everything. The problem with extremely confident people isn’t that they will make a mistake, it’s that they are more likely to give you a false sense of their actual abilities.

 

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