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Debunking Myths 7: Confident People Are Always Sure of Themselves

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Bush and Blair were convinced that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Harold Camping was fairly adamant the world would end in 2012 in line with Mayan prophecy. In 2007, Ben Bernanke rubbished the idea that the sub-prime mortgage market was an accident waiting to happen.

Just three examples of people who seemed pretty damn sure of themselves, but were entirely, entirely wrong.

Last year I was running a mammoth project for a huge client (their name rhymes with Shmoogle), a potential innovation and undertaking that would make a huge splash, but in an area that I knew pretty much nothing about. In a short space of time I had to plan out the whole thing. How we’d approach the work. How long it would take. What we needed to make it happen. How much it would cost.

It was one of those high pressure deals; short timeline, huge challenge, big curve to climb. You know the deal.

At first, I was doubting whether I could do it, thinking “Holy shit, how am I ever going to pull this together?”. Then it hit me. Steve, stop thinking about what you don’t know and trust the process that you do know.

3 weeks later I had everything I needed. A plan, a budget, a team, an approach. Ultimately, the project didn’t happen (it was too much of a moon-shot even for GoogleShmoogle), but by shifting my attention away from being sure of the outcome (and worrying about it) to starting at 0% and heading towards whatever 100% might end up looking like, I was able to get shit done.

Bush, Blair, Camping and Bernanke were certainly sure of themselves, having confidence in the outcome of the narrative they espoused. I, on the other hand, had no such surety of how things would turn out or where things would lead. All I was sure of was my ability to place one foot in front of the next.

And so when people talk about how confident people are always sure of themselves, I just can’t wait to get some debunking done.

BEING SURE OF AN OUTCOME DOES NOT REQUIRE CONFIDENCE (AND RARELY REQUIRES EVIDENCE). CONFIDENCE IS LETTING GO OF THE EXPECTATION OR NEED OF CERTAINTY AND INSTEAD, EMBRACING SELF-TRUST.

Being sure or certain implies a certainty of outcome that’s completely beyond our control. You, me, Bush, Blair, Camping and Bernanke simply don’t know what’s going to happen from one moment to the next, and while the appearance of knowing precisely what’s going to happen or how things will turn out can be reassuring and sometimes even expected, it’s just vapour.

Confidence means not judging uncertainty as unwanted. Even if you’re striving towards something important or working to make a change happen, uncertainty is all around. Being sure of yourself in the conventional sense, i.e. maintaining that you know exactly what’s going to happen, is betting on a horse that may not even have been born yet.

So let’s shift the meaning of “sure of yourself”, to mean someone who embraces uncertainty and prioritises self-trust over the need to be (or appear to be) certain.

Wouldn’t that be refreshing?

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