Mindy Kaling

“Where do you get your confidence?” was asked of Mindy Kaling at a Q&A in New York City (link). She acknowledged the support of her parents, and the benefit of a successful career path. But she stated unequivocally that hard work, knowledge and competence were the most important aspects of being confident.

She referred to confidence as being derived from a sense of entitlement – not the nasty self-entitled celebrity-TV attribute, but the kind that comes from years and years of commitment and diligence. “Confidence,” she says, “is like respect; you have to earn it.”

I like this viewpoint because it identifies confidence as a state of being rather than a to-do list of behaviours. That is, confidence is more than just delivery; it is about content.

Regarding delivery, much has been written about how to present oneself confidently (link). Women are told to avoid ending their sentences with up-talk (voice rising like a question) or using vocal fry (glottalization, i.e. finishing phrases in a drawn-out low register, a-la-Kardashian). Fidgeting is bad, a calm demeanor is good. We are told that a deeper voice has more credibility and that eye contact with an entire audience sends a strong message.

Regarding content, studies done in the area of confidence examine the Dunning-Kruger effect (1999), wherein “unskilled individuals tend to have a higher illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate.” Conversely, “highly skilled individuals may underestimate their relative competence, erroneously assuming that tasks that are easy for them are also easy for others.” (link)

Is this the dark-side of confidence? What about misinformation that is spread in a confident tone giving the illusion of truth and credibility? Donald Trump and Rob Ford are examples of extremely confident personalities that do not let facts get in the way of a strongly delivered opinion. For me, nothing inspires more trust than a confidently delivered “I don’t know.”

We tend to fit new information into our existing belief systems, a framework typically established at a very young age through experiential abductive logic. Tests have shown that individuals receiving the exact same information can form completely opposite opinions on a subject (link). The same tests indicate that there is a negative correlation between the increased confidence level of unskilled individuals versus skilled individuals. That is, just a little bit of information boosted the confidence level of the unskilled to a vastly disproportionate degree, creating an internal illusion of expertise on the subject. In fact, both skilled and unskilled individuals were capable of delivering their opinions, often extreme and varied, with the same high degree of confidence.

Dunning has since drawn an analogy: “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.… [T]he skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.” (Wikipedia)

  • Confucius – “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”
  • Bertrand Russell – “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”
  • Charles Darwin – “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

Taking the dark-side-of-confidence analogy one step further, who are the most vulnerable to this type of communication? It is much easier to accept information based on its delivery than its content and we tend to believe things that fit into our established framework, often without question.

Primary school teachers have typically mastered the fine art of delivery. It is impossible to know all things in all subject areas yet primary teachers are put in a position daily to deliver effectively the content they know. An unspoken story regarding jury duty involves the reluctance of attorneys to choose teachers as jury members. It is not that lawyers deem teachers incompetent; in fact, the opposite would likely be true. Teachers have honed the skill of persuasive delivery and may therefore have an unfair advantage in swinging a bias in the jury decision; based on the Dunning-Kruger effect, this confident delivery may have nothing to do with the presented facts.

Politicians get elected based on their ability to present with confidence. The content is often irrelevant, a mix of skewed agendas and manipulative verbiage. When the expertise of an individual is based on their ability to be persuasive, it may be best to ignore the delivery and get to the content as soon as possible. But that takes a lot of work, and if we wish to look at who might be most vulnerable to this type of communication, the answer would be everyone.

Confidence is often conflated with success, leadership, knowledge, and expertise. Steve Martin was asked in a Charlie Rose interview his secret to success, and his response was “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” The truth is that there are no short cuts to attaining any of these objectives, yet most people look for the quick fix to avoid the hard work. Building confidence is about doing the work and knowing your stuff.

Delivery is one aspect of confidence and it has its place, but it is content that develops true confidence. Like respect, confidence is earned.