What’s it about?

Perfectly Confident (2020) is an in-depth meaning of confidence and how we can leverage it efficiently. Having too much confidence can be just as bad as having too little. But how do you hit the proper balance and become perfectly confident? Drawing on psychology, economics, and his own research into business leadership, author Don A. Moore proposes insightful answers.

About The Author:

Don A. Moore is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. He lectures and advises on leadership, negotiations, and decision-making. Moore has co-authored a textbook on managerial decision-making and has published columns in several notable publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, and the Harvard Business Review.

A crash course in well-calibrated confidence:

Confidence is essential. Without it, you won’t inspire anyone – and you may miss out on significant opportunities because you’ll be afraid to seize them. No wonder, then, that there are thousands of books offering advice on how to boost self-confidence. But beware: overly simplistic advice preaching absolute confidence isn’t the answer, either. 

Opposite to what many think, overconfidence isn’t safe:

“Think you can or think you can’t – either way, you’re right.”

-Henry Ford

This quote suggests that faith is everything and that your ability to succeed depends only on the amount of trust you have. But is this true? Well, yes and no. Believing in your ability is fundamental for success, and underconfidence can result in missed chances. But it’s not true that victory comes down to simply believing in yourself. There are examples where overconfidence can be more dangerous. 

Opposite to what many think, overconfidence isn’t harmless. It is critical for making decisions. Decision-making is arduous. People rarely have enough knowledge to create a truly educated decision, and so they depend on their intuition to make choices, even major ones. But intuition can – and usually does – lead to mistakes. 

Our life is full of tragic events because people make snap decisions that vastly overestimated their ability. Take the 2008 financial crisis; for example, everyone was overconfident that they knew the value of the subprime mortgages they were buying. The fallout when people realized they didn’t, however, is “A global economic crisis.”

The effect of belief was studied by psychologist Gabrielle Oettingen on outcomes. She found that people who fantasize more about future successes are less likely to accomplish them. Scales both large and small can see this effect. A student who thinks he understands a test’s topics might not be educated enough to do it and end up with a poor grade.

People underconfident about complex tasks often ignore that others are struggling as well:

What are your talents? Maybe you’re an outstanding cook. Or perhaps you’re an exceptional driver. Whatever the situation is, one thing’s for sure: you practice your talent activity and frequently. It makes sense, right? Think about it – nobody would describe themselves as a good golfer if they didn’t golf.

But now think about the reverse. The things you’re not good at are probably the things you don’t frequently do. If you’ve never juggled, you wouldn’t be confident in your ability to juggle – and you’d likely describe yourself as a worse-than-average juggler. It may seem like an obvious point, but it’s essential to keep in mind because it’s a significant underconfidence source.

Underconfidence is most common when people simultaneously know the limits of their abilities and don’t know others’ boundaries. If something is complicated for you, but you can’t see others struggling, you might gain a false sense of your incompetence. Say you’re studying a new language. You know that everyone in your class speaks the language better than you do. And so you conclude that they’re just better with languages than you are. But you’ve failed to recognize the unseen time other students are spending mastering grammar and vocabulary. 

briefly, you’ve become discouraged not because you’re struggling more than others but because you didn’t see others working. This inability to “see” what others are going through causes all sorts of issues. 

For example, think about your own naked body. You can probably name scars and blemishes and other flaws – but everyone’s body is imperfect in these ways. Here, underconfidence comes from the fact that you are quite literally unable to see others’ imperfections.

This feeling of inferiority can be incredibly persistent. Even some of the planet’s most celebrated writers and artists feel like “impostors” because they don’t have a sense of how hard others work.

Even Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck said, “I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people,” then imagine how difficult it must be for others. What you should take from this is not that you should swing in the other direction and assume that you’re great at whatever you do. Just remember not to compare your hard work with others’ finished products. 

Make estimates that reflect a variety of possible results to evade overconfidence:

Things ease if we could see into the future. Since we can’t, we have to make choices based on our beliefs about what will happen. Whether you’re choosing a business plan or buying a new house, every big decision involves you drawing upon a forecast.

The problem? People are generally pretty bad at forecasting. We tend to be too specific in our predictions. To counteract this tendency, try to allow uncertainty. If you’re planning a wedding, don’t assume that precisely 100 people are going to come. Sure, have a plan in place for 100 guests – but also have backup plans for 80 guests and 120 guests, just in case.

Expected value is a powerful tool for forecasting. It’s pretty simple: instead of choosing a single outcome, assign probabilities to various products. For example, instead of thinking this project should take ten days, try to figure out how likely it is that you’ll achieve your goals in less than six days, six to eight days, eight to ten days, ten to twelve days, so on. When you have a probabilities list, you can then average out the outcomes and get a mathematical estimate when you finish.

It is a handy way to improve your foresight because it forces you to consider all the possible outcomes for a project instead of making a single assumption that’s likely to be wrong. And there’s another benefit as well: you can save your forecasts and return to them after the fact to improve your thinking. If the project ended up taking 14 days, you can look back at your projections and understand why you were overconfident.

To keep alternative outcomes in mind, think about “which” choice you want to make instead of “whether” you want to make a choice or not. One study demonstrated this by asking some participants whether they wanted to buy a DVD or not while asking other participants which course of action they’d instead take – buy a DVD or keep their money to spend on another item. Seventy-five percent of people presented with the choice of “whether” to buy the DVD chose to buy it, but only 55 percent of people told of the other options purchased the DVD. When making a choice, you can’t be sure you’re making the right one unless you know what all your options are.

Consider others’ prospects to help challenge your prejudices:

Imagine you’re shown a large jar of jelly beans and asked to guess precisely how many beans the jar contains. Do you think you’d guess correctly? Probably not, right? If you were with some friends and they guessed too, they would probably all be wrong as well.

But here’s the thing – while no single person would be exactly right, the average of everyone’s guesses would almost certainly be an accurate approximation of the number of beans. No one could be overly confident about their guess, but together, the entire crowd might come close to the real answer. It holds for things far more critical than jelly beans. It may seem paradoxical, but a group can be smarter than a single expert.

Consider others’ prospects to help challenge your prejudices.

Far from being an obstacle to knowledge, disagreement can be an essential tool in improving our forecasting ability. Learning how and why others disagree can help us expand our thinking and balance out the errors each person tends to make. Sometimes this can be as simple as averaging both sides of an argument; if two people argue over how much something costs, the chances are that the correct answer is somewhere in between. Quick and easy, sure – but it brings results.

It can be a useful principle even if you’re by yourself. One study asked volunteers to estimate the date of various events throughout history. After making an initial guess, they asked some people to consider why they might have been wrong – and then make a second guess. These second guesses were more accurate than the first; averaging the two produced a number even more accurate than guessing! Sometimes, the new perspectives can help balance you out are your own.

That said, when trying to draw upon the wisdom of a crowd, it’s important to remember that you want a range of diverse opinions. If you only ask people with the same biases as you, you aren’t achieving a more balanced estimate. Good organizations bring together people with a range of perspectives to raise alternate ideas and produce better decisions. Think about Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, which he deliberately filled with people who disagreed with each other. It takes courage to invite such disagreement, but the result is better decision-making.

Excessive confidence isn’t reliable; ability is what gains trust:

People that get to the top of their fields are rarely lacking in self-confidence. Think of global sports superstars like Michael Jordan and Cristiano Ronaldo – they seem larger-than-life, so confident in their abilities that it comes as a surprise when they fail. And this seems like a desirable trait. Who wouldn’t want to possess such supreme confidence?

But be careful about trying to mimic their behaviors. Remember: Usain Bolt doesn’t run fast because he’s bursting with confidence – he’s confident because he can run ridiculously fast. Enthusiasm can impress others, but it has to be backed by something.

Of course, pure confidence can inspire trust. Imagine you’re explaining a concept to someone. The person listening to you is entirely unfamiliar with the subject; all he has to go on is your word. In a scenario like this, confidence does make a difference. Research shows that all else being equal, expressing confidence increases perceived credibility.

But that only goes so far. Anyone can fake self-confidence, and many do. We even have words for those who fake confidence without backing it up: con-artists and scammers. Think of a salesperson trying to pass off fake goods as legit or unprepared students trying to bluff their way through an oral presentation. The moment you start digging into the substance of whatever they’re talking about, their credibility collapses, and they become untrustworthy. In the long run, confidence means nothing if it has no basis in reality.

Needless to you should be overly critical or pessimistic. The middle path is to communicate honestly about what you don’t know while drawing upon your experience and ability to convey credible and well-calibrated information.

One study looked at which analysts were most trustworthy when it came to predicting the outcome of games. Analysts who projected false certainty are trustworthy, but so were those who said they weren’t sure. The most credible were those who were able to give probabilities along the lines of “one team has a sixty-five percent chance of winning,” which displayed both their uncertainty and a level of more in-depth knowledge. It’s this kind of well-deserved confidence that truly resonates in the long run.

For confident leadership, set clear examples and be open to new information:

Perhaps no area of life is more closely linked with confidence than leadership. A leader without trust isn’t a leader at all; if you don’t believe in your ability, you’ll struggle to make decisions and earn the respect of the people you’re leading. So can a leader carefully calibrate his confidence?

The answer lies not in putting forward a false front but in being open to information and awareness of what you don’t know. Clarity is essential, both for yourself and your team.

Vague and uncertain standards can lead to incorrect self-images because everyone has different personal experiences. If you ask a person if he’s a good driver, he’ll likely answer yes; everyone has their idea of what “good driving” is. However, suppose you ask people to rate their ability to parallel park, merge into traffic, navigate highways, and other specific skills. In that case, you’ll get a complete analysis of their driving abilities.

It is essential in leadership contexts since a common source of conflict in a team setting is when people have different ideas of what’s needed. Set clear, measurable standards, and both leaders and team members will have a more accurate picture of where they stand. For example, a teacher who shows her students examples of well-written papers will get fewer complaints about grading, as both sides understand what level of work they will expect.

That said, setting clear goals isn’t enough. Leaders also have to make sure they’re receiving all the available information – not just the things they want to hear. It can be easy for authority figures to fall into the trap of only accepting adulation while ignoring the news that doesn’t align with their desired outcomes. Indeed, research shows that people naturally apply different levels of scrutiny to information depending on whether it follows with what they want to listen to or not. If you’re looking for proof that you made the right decision and the first piece of evidence you find supports that, then great! No need to look any further, right?

But that doesn’t make for effective leadership. Good leaders build organizations to raise questions and concerns, even if they go against what the administration initially believed. It’s difficult to remain truly open to all information but remember: the more information you have, the more perfect your confidence will be.