The Power of Humility: Why Confidence is Overrated

Zen Garden

Any good self-help book will tell you to be confident. Stand up straight, see past your critics and believe in yourself. I’d like to break tradition and argue the opposite. That humility is a useful tool and confidence can be overrated.

Deluded by Your Own Hype

Whipping yourself into a motivational frenzy may temporarily make you feel better, but it has hidden side effects. The major disadvantages from false confidence are:

  1. Inability to Learn. Too much confidence and you can’t acknowledge faults, weaknesses or ignorance. Learning needs to start from a place of ignorance, and you can’t do that when you already know what is best.
  2. Avoid Humbling First Steps. In this article, I wrote about how “I Suck” moments can create positive changes. The reason is that to get better in a lot of areas, you have to take a step back. A pay cut to work a job you love. Dating failures to find the right relationship. Confidence can actually pull you away from these humbling first steps.
  3. Arrogance Swingback Effect. Faked confidence has an emotional backlash. A tendency of people with low self-esteem is to go from thinking they are fantastic to feeling miserable, all after a minor mistake. Building a house without a foundation won’t create a stable structure. Similarly, building up your ego without the foundation of competence and skills can lead to an emotional collapse.

Humility Is Not Low Self-Esteem

Humility does not imply low self-esteem. If confidence is often faked by positive affirmations about yourself, humility is not created through negative ones. Humility is simply about focusing on the unknown rather than the known.

To illustrate this, take a look at the following diagram:

Confidence/Humility Map

I’m separating all information into three broad categories. The things you know that make you positive, the things you know that make you negative, and the things you don’t know.

Confidence would come from focusing on the positive things you already know. In contrast, humility isn’t focusing on the negative information as it is focused on the overwhelming amount of information you don’t know.

This might sound a little vague, so let me give an example. Let’s say you are planning to start a business. There are three ways you can view the problem:

  • Confident – I’ll be great. I’ve done similar ventures before and kicked ass in all of them. Yay!
  • Insecure – I’ll do horrible. My grade school teacher said I would never amount to anything. Boo hoo.
  • Humble – This is completely new to me and there is still a lot of information I have to learn. Hmmm…

Don’t Ask for Confidence When You Really Need Guts

Confidence, believing things will go well, is a form of delusion. Don’t try to be confident about something when what you really need is courage. Courage is the ability to go forward with something in spite of fear. It is an intellectual conquering of your lower emotional states. I’d suggest reading Steve Pavlina’s manifesto on the subject if you want to learn more.

The best description of courage I can give comes from the book, Feel the Fear… and Do it Anyways. The author describes courage as the ability to know, no matter what happens, I’ll be able to deal with it.

That may sound synonymous with confidence, so I’d like to draw the distinction. Courage is: “no matter what happens, I’ll be able to deal with it.” Confidence is: “everything is going to be great. (because I’m great)”

Social Confidence

Another argument for confidence is that it helps to fake it in social situations. Speakers who admit how nervous they are or guys who complain about their lack of dating skill aren’t likely to succeed. Is a certain amount of faked bravado necessary for social situations?

I’d say the answer is a qualified no. I do believe that faked social confidence can be effective. But the only time I believe that this is useful is when it is masking deeper insecurities. Humility that is based on deeper feelings of competence appears more genuine and is more successful than false confidence.

I believe courage, not confidence, is called for here. I’ve done speeches where I haven’t prepared as much as I should have. Too much confidence resulted in a poorer performance. Having the courage to act looks better than the confidence to boast.

How to Use Humility

The amount you don’t know is far larger than the amount you do. Humility utilizes that space by acknowledging it exists. Here are some ways you can apply humility to improve:

  1. People. Everyone is better than me in some way. More importantly, everyone has something to teach me if I look closely enough. Although I write fairly opinionated articles here, I focus on being more observant in my offline interactions.
  2. Projects. Every project I start has a million uncertainties. Instead of assuming a rigid plan, I leave flexibility to allow new opportunities to come in. Although I have longer term plans for this website, I’m also open to new possibilities.
  3. Passions. When I wrote this article, What Do You Want to Do With Your Life, I was basically advocating taking a more humble stance towards your life directions. Be open to everything and get curious rather than confident.
  4. Productivity. It requires humility to admit you’ve been doing things wrong all along. My traffic tripled in a short period after I made changes to how I wrote articles. That couldn’t of happened if I was too sure of my own methods to change.

Self-Esteem Can’t Be Faked

I think most people would agree with me that deceiving yourself isn’t useful. But I also suspect that isn’t the real motivation to want confidence. Confidence is often equated with self-esteem. Since self-esteem feels good, most people want to be confident merely by the virtue that it will make them feel good.

The problem is that real self-esteem can’t be faked by affirmations and positive thinking. I’ve tried a lot of those techniques myself and the effect is always temporary. The more you build yourself up on false pretenses, the easier it is to crash down.

How do you go about creating self-esteem? The answer is: with a lot of work. Poor self-esteem is really a manifestation of a deeper problem. That problem is you haven’t created a stable inner world that can withstand the storms of the outer one.

Creating deeper self-esteem has mostly come in myself from slowly crafting a life philosophy and understanding. It isn’t easy and I’m nowhere close to being finished. But it is the only method I know of that produces more or less permanent well-being. Whether you choose confidence or humility has little to do with your overall self-esteem.

Exercises in Humility

Where should you go with this information? I think there are a couple things you can start doing to practice humility and see better results:

  • Absorb Your Next Conversation. Talk less during your next conversation and just absorb what the other person is saying. Probe them for information and really learn from them. It is amazing what people know if you stop to listen.
  • Try a New Activity. Don’t be too confident in knowing your likes and dislikes. Try a completely new activity in the next few days. As a quiet introvert, I went to a Toastmasters meeting on a whim. Now I love it.
  • Try a New Method. How do you study? Write? Exercise? Sleep? Socialize? Try something different.

Don’t be too sure you have all the answers or you might not find new ones.

  • Autum

    I agree with you. In this article they are comparing confidence to arrogance like it is the same thing, and that being humble is, as you said, not standing too proud, not speaking too loud. Being humble is knowing your limits, not shutting yourself down for the sake of not seeming “arrogant”. Confidence is not valued here, but it should be. Arrogance isn’t good but self confidence is not arrogance and it should not be talked about in such a way. A lack of self confidence for that matter, is a problem that is not easily fixed ad working on being humble is not going to help that in the slightest. With the listening to others conversations to understand them better and not talking a lot; it should be equally sided so both members of the conversation can learn about each other and (hopefully) gain some confidence from doing so instead of making yourself seem less important from comparison, because both people are important.
    I admire your opinion and thank you for giving me something to write on because i was not sure where to start.

  • Autum

    Agreed, thank you for commenting this.