Why Overconfidence May Keep You From Doing Your Best

There’s an optimal level of self-belief, and then there’s having too much of it

Dmytro Grybach
Sep 10 · 6 min read
Photo by Dušan Smetana

Statistically, a lack of self-confidence is a common reason for depression, inaction, and low productivity. So the most obvious way to eliminate those effects is to eliminate their cause.

The equation seems pretty easy:

Confidence × Effort = More chances to succeed

And it actually works just fine… until it doesn’t. At some point, confidence may turn from a moving force into an engulfing quagmire. If you’d imagine the ratio chart between confidence and productivity, it would probably look like this:

Confidence isn’t a constant, and without self-reflection and adequate challenges, it could heavily alter one’s perception of reality. Eventually, it will transform into overconfidence, and then it’ll simply become arrogance.

And besides turning people into narcissistic snobs, it could lead to much more dangerous consequences, such as:

  • Overestimating your skills and abilities
  • Underestimating the complexity of problems
  • Lowering your prudence and self-awareness
  • Becoming ignorant due to lack of self-improvement

And depending on the situation, those traits could play a very grim joke on their way-too-proud owner.

My Own Cringe Story

Let me share a piece of personal experience as an example of where overconfidence could take you if you ignore the issue.

Back in the day, when I just turned 20, I was climbing up the advertising corporate ladder as a creative writer. I was young, enthusiastic, and overconfident. Let’s just say if I gave away half of my confidence I’d still have been one slightly overconfident kid.

My job mainly consisted of creating advertising campaigns and presenting them before my agency’s potential clients. And I was quite good at both coming up with creative ideas and being able to persuade people to pay for turning those ideas into reality.

With each and every successful case, I was becoming less attentive to details and investing as little effort in my preparation as I possibly could. But, it all continued to work out. Sometimes scrappy, sometimes with a fight or two — but at the end of the day, I always won, as I thought.

Then, I developed a habit of starting to brainstorm two days before the deadline — on a good day.

With that being said, when my creative director gave me a task to develop a campaign for our big potential international client who was about to kickstart the whole agency’s and my personal career — I didn’t even bother to read the brief until the end of the week.

To make a long story short — the presentation had been booked on Monday morning and I started to work only by Saturday evening. By the late-night, I realized that I just couldn’t squeeze a single worthy idea out of myself, and the picture of me presenting obviously weak concepts in the room full of people just didn’t get out of my head. I tried to postpone the meeting, but it was already too late.

I still remember that morning: my shaky voice and sweaty palms, bored and judgemental looks of our never-to-become clients, and my ashamed and disoriented team. It was awful. And right after that shame, I was confronted by my colleagues. So, without blinking an eye, I had to make up a story of me being secretly but heavily sick for the whole week.

I left the company several months after. I wasn’t fired or anything; I just received a better offer. But besides a nice recommendation letter and mostly good memories, I took with me three more things:

  1. Anxiety and a creative crisis that lasted roughly two months
  2. An awful habit of doing a big chunk of work right before the deadline that messed with my time-management for years before I finally sorted it out.
  3. Reasonable doubt in myself.

If the first two were just well-earned negative outcomes of my own actions, the third became a really useful tool for staying in creative shape.

The Preventing Mechanism

So based on this and some other experiences, I’ve developed a handful of rules to prevent me from being too confident and lowering my working standards as a result.

Here they are:

Respect the job. If you think that the job is too easy for you — there’s a problem with you, not with the job. It means you either underestimate it or are prone to accepting simple tasks to avoid the challenge. So by treating it with a lack of respect, you will only disrespect yourself. So be professional, no matter how basic the job is.

Leave room for a maneuver. Don’t build your estimates based on the best-case scenario. Be clever and add a couple of days to your deadline before announcing it. Don’t take responsibility for something you’re not sure about. Discuss terms and expectations thoughtfully. If everything will be smooth, you will overperform, leaving a good impression. If not, you will have the time and ability to work it all out.

Constantly improve yourself. If you think everything is fine and you’re just as good as yesterday, it means you’re in stagnation. And while others move forward, you’re falling behind without even getting worse. There’s a ton of methods to keep yourself in shape, no matter the profession. Besides, many of them are completely free.

Ask yourself questions. Try to keep your finger on the pulse of your flow. Am I doing fine? Do I progress in what I do? Am I happy with how things go? If not, am I part of the problem? Those questions will help you to monitor your progress and adjust missing parts if there are any. The only but is that you should be honest with yourself, not too harsh — yet not too forgiving.

Be around people who can say the truth. It’s a great privilege to have someone who can be objective when things come to your flaws or problems. You don’t need to be close friends or relatives. In almost every job, office, or group of buddies, you might find that kind of person. Interact with them from time to time and try to be mutually useful. They won’t let you become an arrogant prick without it being noticed on time.

Upgrade your ambitions. The most common reason for getting overconfident is when everything in your life becomes too easy to pay attention to it. What’s the problem? Try to go further and raise the bar instead of being proud of having a life that restricts your abilities and robs you of the possibility to get better.

Have clear middle-term goals. Every three months I sit and write down all the goals for the next quarter. At the same time, I review how I did with previous goals. If there’s anything that was left undone (and there’s always something), what are the reasons and how it could be improved? Having defined goals is one of the best ways of being down-to-earth and having a clear picture of your intentions and productivity. It will definitely save you from having unreasonably high self-esteem.

Celebrate your wins. Really, it’s not only about control, reasoning, and rationalization. When you do something cool, have some fun, cheer yourself up. If you treat your achievements like it’s totally normal, your perception of the achievement as a concept will shift. And besides, it’s just goddamn boring to always be reserved and focused.

And one more thing, last but not least:

Don’t compare yourself to others — compete with yourself alone. Your only aim is to be better than you were before, not better than someone is right now.

Better Marketing

Advice & case studies

Thanks to Danny Forest, Sean Tseng, and Niklas Göke

Dmytro Grybach

Written by

Storyteller, Branding Expert, Awful Swimmer.

Better Marketing

Advice & case studies

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