“Confidence always needs to be a half-step ahead of competence”

This is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard of recently. Really, take a moment and let that sink… It is very precise about what should come first and by how much. When you think about it makes perfect sense! 

A full-step (or more, for that matter) ahead is too much, generating an over-reliance on self-confidence that is unsubstantiated.  This is very much related to the debates around the benefits of high self-esteem.

Taken to the extreme, without a solid base high self-esteem can take a narcissist edge. That is, it becomes rather an unhealthy kind of self-esteem which is fragile, unstable and highly contingent upon external factors such as materialistic success, approval of others etc.. In other words, it is not backed up by a solid sense of competence – well, because it would be one, if not more, step ahead of competence.

We all know people who have that kind of self-esteem. Those who’ve made us recognize either their fragility underneath the egos they’ve built, or the complete unawareness of how unrealistic their positive self-views seem from outside.

The outcome? Well, mostly these people live in a state of self-deception and continuously generate defenses such as boasting about accomplishments, downplaying or denying responsibility of failures, or putting others down as a way to make themselves look better.

Along the way, they either receive the pity and sympathy of people who recognize their fragility behind the surface, or they might encounter the displeasure of others who can not stand their boastful egos lacking the competence foundation. In either case the chances are they are not taken seriously or considered competent by others.

Confidence a full step behind competence is also problematic. In an earlier post I had written about four stages of competence – a model that describes learning as a journey that involves moving from incompetence to competence. In this journey confidence plays an important role especially for the transition from Stage 2 Conscious Incompetence to Stage 3 Conscious Competence.

Conscious incompetence is an uncomfortable and awkward place to be – mainly because nobody enjoys feeling incompetent! But at that point your “half-step ahead confidence” acts as energy to pull you in the direction you need to go – that is, to Stage 3. With that pull you commit to whatever is necessary to improve your competence.

For those who are especially careful not to be boastful or over-confident, having confidence before – even if half a step – competence is not that easy. Many of us have internalized the “assumption” you feel confident once you have developed your competence.  It is most likely that the relationship between confidence and competence is a circular one where they continue feeding each other. But within that circle, especially when undertaking new tasks or committing to new areas puts one in a “novice” situation, that a half-step ahead confidence gives the first push.

The most important conclusion of a thorough review of studies on benefits of self-esteem is that high self-esteem serves as a stock of positive feelings that lead to greater initiative and a decreased vulnerability to failures and stress. These are qualities that indeed pull people up to Stage 3 (conscious competence) despite the wobbling at Stage 2 (conscious incompetence).

Then, the question is how to make sure that confidence does come a half-step ahead. Two methods come to my mind:

  1. Start with creating a vision of yourself at Stage 4  – Unconscious Competence – where your expertise or skill flows naturally. What would it look like to be there? How would you be behaving, responding, feeling? What would your posture look like, the way you interact with people? Once you have that vision try to live into that NOW as much as possible. This will “trick” your mind to start feeling that competence and confidence.
  2. Refer to your previous journeys of learning. Remember how you DID manage to climb from incompetence to competence. And please, ignore those self-limiting beliefs that start with “Yes, but….” (Yes, but that was in a different area; Yes but, I was younger then…etc.). Use previous experiences a) as a way to boost your confidence and b) to remember what tools helped you along the way (e.g., social support, having more structure, more practice…etc.)

And enjoy watching the dance between your confidence and competence – it’s all about getting the steps and the timing right!

Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does high self- esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4(Whole No. 1), 1– 44.

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