There’s a story floating around in my brain that dresses itself up as a memory because it’s been told to me so many times. When I was around 3 years old, my mother realized I was extremely shy. Foreseeing the hardships ahead, she decided to intervene and make me the star of my own show.
She would take me with her to visit friends and make me dance and sing in front of them until she saw a vibrant and confident personality emerge. Their living rooms became the stage upon which I developed self-esteem. By the time I was in college, I had already perfected the art of “fake it ’til you make it”.
Over the years I’ve learned that being confident is like having a superpower. It has helped me to get overseas internships, a fellowship, investment for my startup and start my career in the law before transitioning into design research.
However, we live in a world where people who wield this power can make it to the highest levels of society without necessarily having the competence to back it up. The consequences can be devastating.
If, like me, you have worked hard for your confidence you may feel entitled to use it to continue the upward trajectory of your career. But every strength can manifest as a weakness and when your confidence eventually becomes a hindrance, you might not even realize it.
Here are 4 blind spots I’ve encountered and how to overcome them.
1. The ‘authenticity debt’
After graduating from law school, I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about becoming a lawyer. However, I knew I had to give it a go in order to truly know if this path is for me. I immediately went about calling local law firms to pitch myself as an ambitious, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed future lawyer.
My confident demeanor helped me secure a job at a boutique law firm where I received great projects and mentorship. The work itself wasn’t hard but the internal battle was. On the outside, I was the spitting image of what my parents and alma mater wanted me to become and that validation probably helped perpetuate a life I did not want to live.
The longer I was in this job, the more spiritual debt I accumulated. My authenticity paid the price until I was in so much debt that one day, about a year and a half into the job, I physically could not get up and go to work.
The thing about sacrificing your authenticity is that it always comes to collect. The longer you conform to a misaligned narrative, the harder it is to write a new one.
Start with a blank sheet of paper and a neutral frame of mind. For me, this is usually post morning coffee and meditation. Write down what about the job (or your current situation) gives you joy. Ask yourself why. Write it down. Ask why again. Write it down. Repeat until you cannot go any deeper.
By doing this exercise, you’re peeling away the layers of excuses you’ve given yourself on why you cannot change your situation to reveal why you should.
I love working with clients and getting to know their businesses. Why?
Because I love understanding how business works and how to create something that people want. Why?
Because I want to create something that improves people’s lives. Aha!
I knew I could no longer fake enthusiasm for the law after uncovering what I was actually passionate about. A year later, I was running a social enterprise and it started with a blank sheet of paper and a commitment to paying off a lot of authenticity debt.
2. Ego in the driver’s seat
When my social enterprise startup was developing a mobile app to capture oral history, I went through a phase of making as much noise as I could about it. In my head, it was to create interest in the launch.
After a couple of newspaper articles and speaking at entrepreneurship events, we landed a big media feature: a 5-minute feature on national TV right after the 6 o’clock news.
That night became a milestone for us and not in a good way. Our app could only complete one task for the user. Not only had I timed our launch to fit a media event, but I had also let my ego get carried away with the publicity rather than focusing my attention on developing our minimum viable product.
“Work for a cause David, not for applause. Remember to live your life to express, not to impress, don’t strive to make your presence noticed, just make your absence felt.” Grace Lichtenstein
I was overconfident. I had faked it and flopped. Big time.
The question to ask yourself before you get to that point is, “Who’s in the driver’s seat?” Me or my ego? “Who’s deriving the most energy from praise for wins?” Me or my ego? If “ego” is the answer then you may be working for “the applause”.
Establish your cause and become a self-advocate of it. This helps with differentiating between the highs you’ve been faking it for (ego-centric) and why you’re doing it (cause-driven). Think of your aspirations like a company that promotes its mission and vision to establish a reason for existing.
Your mission might be to earn more, and confidence helps you get that promotion. But the reason you’re doing it might be to buy more freedom. If you don’t establish your cause then the ego could lead you to squander your hard-earned money on material things instead.
Having a cause gives you the conviction to take back the wheel, strap ego into the back seat, and stay on the right course.
3. You don’t know what you don’t know
After leaving the social enterprise I founded, I pivoted into design research. When starting out, I was highly confident in my abilities to learn new skills. After all, how hard could writing a survey be when I could run a social enterprise of ten people?
In my first month on the job, I scripted surveys that created endless loops and my colleague had to clean up my mess. It was embarrassing and I was a textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” — Confucius
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a form of meta-ignorance where people of low competence over-inflate their sense of competence because they don’t know any better. Now you can see how confidence in one’s abilities could exacerbate this. Thinking that you’re good at something when you’re not blinds you to that very fact. Ironically, your confidence could make it even more difficult for you to up-skill.
You may have this cognitive bias right now. But if you’re blind to it, how do you overcome it? Firstly, acknowledge that you have knowledge gaps. Even world-leading experts would do so because luckily, the more competent you become, the more you know what you don’t know.
Secondly, seek out people with more experience for mentorship. Convert some of your confidence into curiosity. Your curiosity will lead you to uncover your knowledge gaps and then your confidence will help you to pursue the learning needed to fill them.
4. The shadow you cast upon others
After a couple of years in the industry, I became a much more self-assured and confident researcher. The genuine love for research fostered over years of hard work shone through. Once again, the spotlight was on me this time as a “subject matter expert” and I reveled in it.
I began to feel like the most legitimate voice in the room when it came to understanding the customer but this couldn’t be further from the truth. By loving the sound of my own voice, I overlooked other data points such as customer service data.
Self-importance prevents you from taking on other people’s perspectives, especially from those who are not involved in the day-to-day and can see things with a fresh pair of eyes. As a result, being over-confident heightens your confirmation bias and ironically, may diminish your legitimacy as a subject matter expert.
The impact does not end there. If you’re always expected to speak because you have the confidence to then you may be taking away from other people’s ability to develop. While their development is not necessarily your responsibility, you can still recognize your capacity to empower those who do not have the same ability to use their voice.
Sharing your spotlight may feel like you’re diminishing your own voice. But if you become a mentor or coach, what you have to say is just as if not more important. For example, a simple “Why don’t you present this time and I’ll coach you through it?” to a more reserved colleague could be one step closer to having two strong communicators in the same project.
It may feel uncomfortable initially as you step out of your favorite shoes to break into a new pair. But you’ll soon realize that by mentoring others and empowering them to lead, you’re expanding your circle of influence.
And having influence, like confidence, is to have a real-life superpower.
My mother changed my life by giving me a tool for developing confidence. But I’m no longer fooled by the spotlight. It blinds me from the ‘authenticity debt’, the impulses of my ego, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and a shadow that prevents others from shining.
By uncovering your “fake it ’til you make it” blind spots, you’ll be able to build a better relationship with yourself and with others, expand your skill sets faster, and grow your influence. Now go and unleash the potential of true confidence.