In an overconfident world, is humility the key to success?

A new book argues that our obsession with self-belief is leading to a culture of narcissism, that we should be less like Berlusconi and more like Merkel. Confidence should grow from competence and not the other way around


When I was four, I was asked to leave my ballet class. I had such confidence in my own dancing powers, based solely on hours of prancing ineptly around my sitting room to Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, that I completely ignored my ballet teacher’s attempts to teach me how to do a proper plié. Strangely enough, my terrifying belief in my own abilities did not lead to a glittering dance career.

So I can confidently say that in Ireland, we have a problem with confidence. We tend towards self-flagellation, loudly bemoaning how selfish, small-minded and/or incompetent we are. Or else, as the last two decades have shown, we swing wildly in the other direction, congratulating ourselves on how charming, generous, creative and/or entrepreneurial we are while throwing all caution to the wind in the belief that what goes up will never come down.

Meanwhile we are constantly told by everyone from ambitious reality show stars to highly accomplished Michelle Obama (who told inner-city London schoolgirls that “your success will be determined by your own confidence and fortitude”) that confidence is the key to success. If you believe in yourself and ignore the naysayers, the argument goes, you can accomplish anything.

So can you? Psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic says it’s both more and less complicated than that. A professor of business pyschology at University College London, Chamorro-Premuzic’s fascinating new book, Confidence: The Surprising Truth About How Much You Need, and How To Get It (Profile Books, £12.99) argues that the world needs less confidence and more humility, and shows that levels of narcissism and self-obsession have risen strikingly over the last five or six decades.

The widespread belief that confidence is the key to success has, he says, created a narcissistic culture.

“It is a culture where most people are busy worshipping those who worship themselves,” he tells me. “Where arrogant employees are promoted to management positions at the expense of their more competent, but more humble, counterparts; where heads of state look more like Berlusconi or Mrs Kirchner than Angela Merkel; where entrepreneurs look like Donald Trump rather than Warren Buffett; where we are busy discussing what Miley Cyrus does and spending hours each day checking whether our fake friends like our unrealistically glamorous and positive updates on Facebook or retweet our self-referential or self-promotional messages.”

The benefits of low confidence
Now the world has seen the disastrous consequences of too much confidence – an economic catastrophe triggered by over-confidence in everything from the property market to individual ability to repay loans – Chamorro-Premuzic argues that it’s time to acknowledge the benefits of low confidence.

“[Low confidence] prevents reckless risk-taking – stupid fights, wars, accidents, gambling and debt are all more likely in overconfident than underconfident people,” he says. “[It avoids] major health threats – smokers, drinkers, drug-users, and compulsive eaters tend to be in denial about their unhealthy behaviours and overconfident about their ability to quit or be unaffected by the adverse health effects of their addictions. [And it] makes us more coachable – less confident people are more self-aware, pay more attention to negative feedback, and are more likely to be seen as modest and low-key by others, which makes them more likeable.”

Confidence born of competence
Chamorro-Premuzic doesn’t want a world full of self-haters. He knows confidence is important. But he believes the key to healthy confidence is basing it on competence, which is acquired not by sheer self-belief but by boring old hard work. Confidence is only useful when it’s based on increases in actual competence, produced by practice and discipline, and measured by constructive feedback from others. Supposedly confident people in the public eye such as Madonna or Richard Branson, he says, became competent first and supremely confident afterwards.

“In my view, this idea is just common sense. The fact that it seems so controversial is evidence for the persuasive power of the self-help gospel,” he says. “The argument is simple, though: even the messages that promote self-confidence do so because it will help us be more competent, so why not just chase the actual end goal, as opposed to wasting all our time and energies focusing on the [supposed] means: confidence?”

Natasha Fennell of consultancy firm Stillwater Communications believes that, in Ireland, most of us need a confidence boost. The crash may have been caused by over-confident risk takers, but Fennell believes its consequences on the Irish psyche have been hugely damaging. “If a country is uncertain about what it’s doing, it trickles down to the individual.”

Fennell began to notice a recurring theme when working with clients whose actual skills and competence were in no doubt. “What crept into our conversations was this notion of confidence,” she says.

Clients told her they were no longer able to trust their abilities, and didn’t know what they had to offer. “These people were already successful in their own right – you would think there’s no way they would lack confidence,” says Fennell. “They essentially didn’t believe in themselves.” Lack of confidence left them stuck in a rut, depressed and unable to work to the best of their proven abilities.

Fennell now runs workshops in confidence. But her approach doesn’t seem to clash too much with Chamorro-Premuzic’s beliefs. She suggests acknowledging one’s fears, figuring out what you can control and what you can’t, working hard to improve skills and acknowledging both weaknesses and concrete achievements.

“It’s okay not to be great everything,” she says. “But it’s important to try your best at the things that you need in your work . . . What people have a problem with is [actually] absorbing confidence from their achievements and believing they can do it. I get people to reflect on what they have to offer. It reignites the sense that ‘you know, I’m not that bad after all, I do have something of value to offer’.”

So it is possible to achieve a healthy level of confidence. It just takes a bit of, well, humility. “It is always good to seek feedback from others,” says Chamorro-Premuzic. “To compare ourselves with people who are better than us; to set slightly higher goals all the time. It requires effort and dedication, but the results will be positive.”

Hey, maybe with a bit of hard work, it’s not too late for me to be a dancer after all.

Confidence: The Surprising Truth About How Much You Need, and How To Get It by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is published by Profile Books

Fennell’s five: Steps to confidence

1 Examine your fear. “The anticipation of something is often worse than reality,” says Fennell. Acknowledge what you’re scared of and ask what’s the worst that can happen. “You can break down that fear.”

2 Find your locus of control. “What can you do something about, what can you not?” asks Fennell. “Lots of people, when they lose confidence, can’t distinguish between an external and internal locus of control. Find out what you can take into your own hands.”

3 Access your own courage. “You can give yourself that push forward. I clench my fist when I have to be really focused and it spurs me on.”

4 Mastery. “If you practise something hard enough, you will get better at it.”

5 Acknowledge your achievements. “Recognising that you have done well will give you the confidence to go to the next level.”

Natasha Fennell’s next Art of Confidence open workshop takes place on Saturday, November 16, in the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Dublin.

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