Confidence-The Double-Edged Sword

To succeed in life, you need 2 things-ignorance and confidence

Mark Twain

Sam Altman, CEO OpenAI wrote about Elon Musk, on his blog after visiting a Spacex factory:

The thing that sticks in memory was the look of absolute certainty on his face when he talked about sending large rockets to Mars. I left thinking “huh, so that’s the benchmark for what conviction looks like.”

Confidence is often considered a vital requirement for success in any field a person chooses.

However, it can also be a “double edged sword”.

The journey often starts with ignorance and those interested in excellence build upon their confidence by gathering knowledge through experiment, discovery or learning from the experience of others.

However, there are always people around who are confident even if ignorant.

Jimmy Kemmel, the late-night talk show would often catch unsuspecting people on his segment “lie witness news” and ask them questions with false premises.

For example-Whether the 2014 film “Godzilla” was insensitive to survivor’s of 1954 giant lizard attack on Tokyo (never happened) or whether Bill Clinton gets enough credit for ending the Korean war (which by the way ended much before Bill Clinton’s time).

Some of the people on the show would say just about anything to hide their cluelessness, others would say anything to please the host instead of saying- “I don’t know”.

There is obviously some psychology at work here.

Confidence masquerading as “knowledge”

Often working with investors, I have noticed that once something is explained, the investor always seems to convey that they already knew the details being shared when most of the time they don’t’.

Often people will nod vigorously to convey their understanding or knowledge even if they don’t know anything about the subject being discussed.

It is this false bravado and need to show-off that creates the “double-edged sword”.

When things go their way, it was always their decision, when they don’t its always the expert/advisor’s incompetence.

The Advisor Dilemma

In a poignant scene from the Hindi movie “Anand”, the lead character berates his doctor friend for playing the patient’s anxieties to make money and his friends tells him-If I don’t’ someone else will.

Advisors are often asked for predictions and are expected not to say- “I don’t’ know” which then results into literal bullshit that might not make any sense but sounds smart.

An expert/advisor who says “I don’t know” is considered incompetent.

The crook uses it knowing most will not remember the incorrect prediction, in the deluge of news and information that’s flowing by the minute, simply because they are playing to the confirmation bias.

They then rely on confidence to get away with the handicap of making predictions that often they themselves know will not come true.

And of-course if they don’t, they will not be called next time-so they might as well feed people what they want.


And that’s where things go wrong for the person at the other end.

Overconfidence is persuasive, letting person get away with inaccuracies and if the information is not easy to verify or needs competence the recipient doesn’t have, confidence will win the day.

The expert’s confidence can create an environment where non-acceptance can be seen as a weakness coupled with the pressure to come across knowledgeable as a recipient of information.

What must you do?

While on one hand confidence is an issue, on the other hand ignorance can make people feel less confident internally and vulnerable to show-off.

Ultimately everyone has different set of priorities and so experts are needed, however that should not mean you should trust their expertise blindly.

Here are some tips:

  • No question is a stupid question
  • Don’t feel shy asking questions, even if it conveys your ignorance.
  • It is better to be seen as ignorant than losing your shirt

Asking meaningful even if simple questions is not disrespectful and even if the other person feels it is basic, you might come out of the discussion more enriched.

Thank you for reading

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