Some people I know tend to have an air of confidence around them. They wield their Steve Jobs reality distortion field, commanding attention and persuading people. They almost always act like they are certain of everything.

My natural inclination appears to be the opposite: I tend to be careful until I have done a careful analysis. I only act confident when I am sure, which can take a while. I think a lot about whether I am doing the right thing.

Experience has given me reason to believe that I am more self-aware than many other people. Yet I have also learned that this self-awareness comes at a price. Thus, I have been wondering why I am like this, and what I should learn from self-certain people.

Research has led me to this article by dr. Sherman and this article by Sonya Derian, which triggered me to write my own article on the subject.

Confidence over content

According to dr. Sherman, people in general are swayed more by confidence than by content. The inverse is also true: showing doubt invites doubt from others. Thus, confidence is an important aspect of being successful.

Experience has taught me that self-certain people are not necessarily right. In fact, one of them admitted that he doesn’t know for sure either. Another one was sure of himself even though his arguments — which sounded good at first — turn out to be full of holes.

And that’s why this confidence-over-content thing irks me. I am someone who advocates what is right. I cannot — in good conscience — act confident before I have figured out what is right.

I cannot, in good conscience, act confident before I have figured out what is right. Yet self-certain people do just that.

And yet self-certain people act confident even though they have no reason to be so. Since confidence-over-content is a real phenomenon, I am often at a disadvantaged position during debates with self-certain people. Not only is the audience more easily swayed by the confidence and by the quick-witted replies of the self-certain, even I myself am affected. I have found that I am inclined to doubt my position when the other party is confident, even when their arguments are shoddy. This is especially the case when the other party is a person close to me.

Mission of the self-certain

How can self-certain people act like that and not feel bad about themselves? Dr. Sherman’s article sheds some light on this matter.

In a debate, the self-certain only have one mission: to win, whatever it takes. Playing “dirty” is fine — even virtuous — if it allows them to prevail. People like me have two missions: winning and advocating what is right, which means wondering what is right. The self-certain can entangle me in self-doubt by challenging me, but I cannot retaliate because they will deflect all challenges.

The self-certain often truly believe they are on the side of truth and virtue, despite challenges. Many people only think they are self-aware, but they aren’t really. Indeed, I know a self-certain person who has an uncanny gift for twisting all challenges and criticism into a form that fits in his world view where is he is right about all things.

Two-way street

Dr. Sherman says that self-awareness can both be good and bad. It is bad because it can make us slow and inefficient, paralyze ourselves in doubt. My self-awareness can get in my way when it comes with dealing with self-confident people and swaying an audience.

But self-awareness is good because it can help us learn better. Over the past year I have gained many insights through long introspection sessions. Furthermore, when I am confident I am most probably actually right, not just faking-it-or-kidding-myself right.

Acting self-confident

Events from the past year have shown me that I tend to be too modest. Peers, colleagues and mentors have told me that I tend to undersell myself, but I have more than enough credibility.

“It is more important to be sure than it is to be right.” — a mentor of mine

Should I adopt self-certain behavior more often? Confidence-over-content is a thing, so the answer is yes. Which means:

  • Self-doubt and introspection should be reserved for private moments, or within trusted circles.
  • I should more often just act confident even if I don't really believe it myself at that moment. My gut feeling is more often right than I give myself credit for.

The latter is easier said than done, of course. Both Dr. Sherman and Sonya Derian have some advice on that. These are the ones that struck me the most:

  • Often times, there is not only one right way to do things. I will do things differently than others who have different temperaments. And that is OK. Thus, I should go easy on myself and limit self-doubts.
  • Not having done the right thing is also OK. Often times it is impossible to know beforehand what the right thing is. Course correcting is a natural thing: even airplane autopilots also do that.
  • Stop entertaining the idea of having made a wrong decision. There is no power in that. Focus on that which gives one power to move forward.
  • Go easy on oneself. We are always under construction. Thus, focus on growing and learning.

Acting confident is just the beginning though. I should have a way to defend myself against quick-witted remarks from self-certains. Next up, I need to become better at the art of persuasion.

Captain Picard

Do as Picard would

When faced with an important decision in the face of insufficient data, captain Picard famously said “We cannot afford to second-guess ourselves. We stay on this course until we have reason to change it.” (Star Trek: The Next Generation, episode 5x18 “Cause and Effect”).

I should act more like captain Picard.