Your Overconfidence Is Hurting Your Productivity

You’re far from perfect. Unless you are clinically “narcissistic,” you probably recognize this and easily admit it. But you may not realize that overconfidence may be your most damaging fault of all.

Overconfidence is sneaky, first because nearly everyone has some of it – yes, even those who suffer from low self-esteem and imposter syndrome. No matter how far down the scale you judge yourself to be, there’s probably at least one skill, category of information, or natural talent where you reek of overconfidence.

Secondly, overconfidence is sneaky because it comes in three different flavors, although they often bleed into each other:

Overplacement – the mistaken belief you are smarter, more talented, more experienced, more attractive, or in some way better than other people. This is the form of overconfidence most often practiced by narcissists. But we all have it. Why else would pretty much everyone think they’re a better-than-average driver?

Overestimation – the mistaken belief you are more capable, more skillful, or better suited for a particular task than other people. This is the trait often shown by winners of the Darwin Awards, the tongue-in-cheek recognition given to people who helpfully (and often humorously) remove themselves from the human gene pool.

Overprecision – the mistaken belief your evaluation, judgment, or answer to a question is more accurate than it actually is. This is the form of overconfidence most often practiced by people enjoying authority or high social status. It’s probably why bosses micromanage, and why experts’ predictions are so often stunningly wrong.

Captain Edward Smith, who ran the ill-fated Titanic at high speed through a zone of icebergs, at night, almost certainly fell victim to a combination of all three forms of overconfidence. Tellingly, he had blundered at sea at least once before.

Overconfidence is most often driven by an inflated ego, wishful thinking, or a desire to feel better about yourself (or to persuade others to feel better about you).

Whatever its source, overconfidence’s impact is probably more harmful to your level of productivity and success – as well as those working with you – than you may realize.

Here are some ideas on how to identify and root out your overconfidence:

Get Specific

It’s fairly easy to believe you’re something special, such as a great athlete, financial wizard, or ultimate parent. But it’s harder to remain overconfident about any of your skills, talents, and abilities when you delve into the specifics.

For example, try to support your (over)confidence level by making a list of the great things you’ve accomplished in your specialty. If your actual track record supports your level of self-confidence, you may be justified in your grandiose self-evaluation. If it doesn’t, ….

You can also test attributes like your judgment or evaluation abilities. For example, you could try guessing, then actually counting the pennies or jellybeans in jar. If your guess is fairly accurate, your feelings about your precision may be validated. If your guess is way off, however, ….

Second Guess Yourself

One theory of overconfidence asserts that people tend to make an initial guess, often without adequate thought or research, and from then on stubbornly seek to support that guess by cherry-picking favorable facts, analyses, and perspectives. As part of this process, people willingly ignore or downplay everything that may suggest their first guess was wrong.

You can avoid this common pattern by consciously making a second, and perhaps even a third guess.

For maximum benefit, try to consciously discard or ignore your first guess and come again to the problem, question, or situation with as fresh a perspective as you can manage. You might try a different line of reasoning, a different analytical method, or even a different set of assumptions.

Having two or three opinions to choose from will weaken the human tendency to defend a first guess against countervailing facts, analyses, and perspectives.

Argue Against Yourself

Another way to fight overconfidence is to cultivate the habit of seeking weak points in your own judgments, opinions, and answers.

This is an offshoot of the time-honored tactic of responding to a difficult question by arguing both for and against various possible answers. Taking first one then the other side of debate not only builds your mental agility, it helps you identify the strengths and weaknesses of each proposal. Even better, detailing each side’s arguments helps unearth their internal contradictions, inconsistencies, and deficiencies.

More to the point, however, arguing against yourself is highly valuable for undermining any overconfidence you may be harboring.

Overconfidence is a particularly pernicious bias because it makes us feel so good, we often lose interest in recognizing and releasing it.

But shedding overconfidence is important because it’s likely to lead you astray, entice you into less than optimum choices, and thereby reduce your overall level of productivity and success.

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