Jul 28, 2020
Don Moore holds the Lorraine Tyson Mitchell Chair in Leadership at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. His research interests include overconfidence, including when people think they are better than they are, when people think they are better than others, and when they are too sure they know the truth. He is only occasionally overconfident.
He is the author of Perfectly Confident: How to Calibrate Your Decisions Wisely.
“We let ourselves get carried away when we think that somehow believing in ourselves is enough to ensure success. It’s not.”
Don found himself at a Tony Robbins course, Unleash the Power Within that he believed would change his life. The life coach had been enormously influential in lots of people’s lives. Don had read his books as a young man and was thoroughly inspired.
The four-day course challenges those in attendance to think big about their goals and their lives, to confront the challenges that are holding them back. To help them figure out how to break through those challenges so they can live their highest ideals and the best life that they could imagine for themselves.
At the end of the course is the famous final firewalk. Before it started, Tony Robbins whipped the crowd into such a frenzy. The people in attendance were practically exploding out of the convention center, ready to walk across hot coals. They marched outside to find these huge burning pyres and embers laid with glowing coals that they were to walk on.
In his enthusiasm, Don somehow failed to take account of the cautionary safety warnings that Tony Robbins had offered. Don was confident and ready to prove to himself and the world just how brave I was. So he marched bravely across the bed of hot coals.
At that moment, overcome by enthusiasm and overconfidence, Don burned the hell out of the soles of his feet. It turns out that those glowing embers stick to the tender flesh.
Tony Robbins had instructed them to get their feet hosed down and wipe them off thoroughly. But in his bravado, Don felt that he didn’t need to do all that. And so he suffered for his overconfidence.
Whenever you find yourself feeling ready to cross the finish line victoriously, and you feel sure that success is guaranteed, that’s the time to take a pause and ask yourself, how might this go wrong? How might I fail, and is there anything I can do to protect myself now against those risks? What are the other competitors thinking about their chances?
When you’re confident that you can do it, that you can succeed, stop for a moment, and imagine failure. Imagine your investment has turned out to be a catastrophe, you’ve lost money, you’ve disappointed your investors, you’ve lost credibility in the markets, etc. Imagining failure can help you identify risks, and maybe help you think about ways that you can hedge those risks and avoid the full exposure of to those dangers.
Yes, it can feel good to be overconfident, but it can get you into a whole bunch of trouble. How confident should you be? You should be as confident as the truth can justify.
Managing your confidence doesn’t mean you should sell yourself short or lower your aspirations. Many times people are underconfident, they decline to take risks, they fail to initiate relationships, to try new products, or take risky job positions because they’re afraid that they’ll fail. The imposter syndrome is all about underconfidence, the belief that we can’t do it when, in fact, we can.
Our mind is mighty, but there are times when the mind doesn’t help our body. Sometimes the mind will give the body a different signal.
Think of confidence as a hammer. It can help you build a house, but you can’t build the whole house with one hammer. Confidence is a tool that has its limits but has its usefulness.
Ask yourself why you might be wrong, and in doing so, consider the advice from your critic, your enemy, whose skepticism and grouchiness always grates on your nerves. That person has a gift of inestimable value to offer. Their negativity can help temper and strengthen the confidence you feel by injecting a little bit of reality in it.
This approach has been called by psychologists the most general-purpose useful and powerful debiasing strategy there is. It invites you to consider what you’re neglecting. It encourages you to imagine how things could turn out differently. It helps you find other courses of action and think probabilistically about the uncertainties inherent in a complex future.
Don’s goal for the next 12 months is to see his book, Perfectly Confident: How to Calibrate Your Decisions Wisely, get out in the world, and have an influence. It’s a message that he sees as particularly poignant at this time when overconfident world leaders have gotten their countries in so much trouble—calibrating our confidence about getting out into the world in the presence of a virus and how confident we can be about opening our economies up again.