Scott H Young

Humility is More Important Than Confidence


Humility is an underrated virtue. For every ten articles I see written about how to improve self-confidence, I only see one that suggests humility might be important at all. I did a quick Google search of “improving confidence” and came up with 9,580,000 results. I did another search with “improving humility” and only got 499,000 results.

Humility is an asset for self-improvement. By remaining humble, you are receptive to opportunities to improve. If I suggest a way you might triple your business, you have to accept the possibility that your current way of doing things is costing you 2/3′s of your potential revenue. Only with humility can you allow this incredible advice to sink in.

Beyond personal success, humility is also a virtue for inner well-being. Frustrations and losses don’t have the same impact if you don’t get your ego involved. If you combine humility with motivation, you have the ability to drive towards successes without letting the failures knock you out of balance.

 Don’t Confuse Confidence With Skill

I think a lot of the misguided advice towards improving confidence actually has to do with improving skill. I’ve heard before, “I want to be a more confident public speaker.” To which I mentally reply, “Do you really want to be more confident? Or do you just want to be a better speaker?” Frankly, I’d rather listen to a humble, but fantastic speaker, than an arrogant bore.

Unfortunately some people believe skill and confidence are the same thing.

The same happens with social skills. Some people claim to want to be more confident with other people or relationships. But do they really? Or do they simply want to have better social skills. Confidence without skill would just mean that the person is oblivious to the negative reactions from other people.

Doesn’t Confidence Create Skill?

There are some areas where confidence is used as a signal. If a speaker is confident, I’ll believe she is more skilled. This is partially because I take her confidence as a signal of a deeper, but harder to detect, skill level.

While I believe confidence can have a signaling effect, I think the reason confidence is so sought after has an easier explanation. Skilled people have many successes, many successes create confidence. So, when looking at successful people, we also see confident people. Confidence didn’t create the success, it is just a natural extension of that success.

Skill creates both success and confidence. Short-circuiting the process by putting confidence before skill can have a temporary effect in signaling, but it usually doesn’t work. Confidence can’t make you a better mathematician, so why do people believe it is the only necessary ingredient for being a better presenter, writer or salesperson?

Does Confidence Make You Happy?

The second reason confidence is sought after, beyond its charisma building properties, is that it feels good to be confident. Standing up on a stage lacking confidence can make you feel sick. With confidence, however, you can love giving a presentation.

I would disagree with this perception, because once again, I think it’s easy to confuse correlation with causation. I believe skill, not blind confidence, creates a sense of well-being performing a task. When I have skill, I’ll get the feedback I desire from my actions. Like the skilled painter, every brush stroke gives the desired visual effect. This positive feedback cycle gives far greater rewards than a false sensation of confidence.

Confidence is Overrated

I’m not willing to completely discount confidence, but I believe it is overrated. As a signaling tool and as a technique for well-being, I feel it is a short-term cure at best. Confidence without corresponding skill isn’t worth the effort to generate.

Humility, however, is a valuable perspective. Humility isn’t the same as low self-confidence. Confidence and self-esteem imply a certainty in your actions. If you have high confidence, you predict you will be successful. If you have low confidence, you predict you will fail.

Humility doesn’t need to imply any particular skill level. Being humble is about being open to the possibility of improvement. While confidence is a scale predicting success, humility is an absence allowing for growth.

Humble Confidence

It’s in this sense that humble confidence isn’t an oxymoron. If you are skilled at something, you can be confident in your level of success, but also humble enough to realize there is still a great deal of room to advance.

After running this website for three years, I’m confident that I’ll get positive feedback from writing a book or article. But I also realize that the upward room for growth is tremendous. By seeing similar authors reaching millions of people with an even greater impact, I’m aware of my own room for growth.

Have Humility Without Confidence

Obviously, if you have experience, humble confidence is the way to go. It gives you a sense of satisfaction in your work while leaving you open to new opportunities. But, if you’re just starting out in a new field you might not have the level of skill you desire. In this case, I say the best route is to focus on humility without worrying about your level of confidence.

Many people try to shortcut the painful beginners process by “faking” a greater level of confidence than their skills will allow. For a short time this might even work. But soon, the negative feedback will undermine your false sense of confidence and it will be difficult to sustain. The fall down from confidence may even make you feel even less confident than before.

Worse, faking confidence undermines humility. By assuming a level of confidence above your skill, you cut off opportunities to learn. Instead of recognizing feedback and calibrating from it, you must ignore it. Humility fosters growth, false confidence restricts it.

When I started this business, humility was a much greater asset than faking confidence. Whenever I tried to fake a confidence level higher than my skills, I was blinded to new opportunities. Instead of trying a better method of writing articles or generating revenue, I’d slide back to my old bad habits.

Even today, humility is still more important than confidence. Although I’m confident I can achieve a certain level of success with my abilities now, I need to stay humble. Humility allows me to explore new opportunities. What I’ve done to get me here won’t get me to where I want to go.

Humility, Well-Being and Beginner’s Frustrations

I realize the irony and hypocrisy of writing an article about humility. Just by writing, it presupposes I’m an expert. I’m definitely not. I try to keep confidence in perspective, while maintaining humility, but it isn’t easy. Often I fail.

I understand that the frustrations of being a beginner at anything can make the desire to be confident urgent. When you haven’t built up skill, the failures can be ego-bruising and painful. The response to this is the desire for more confidence. But, I believe this desire is often misguided.

Humility leads to faster improvement. More importantly, staying humble allows the temporary frustrations to fall off. Trying to maintain a false confidence often may build temporary successes, but it makes every failure harder to recover from.

Confidence without skill is nothing. Skill without humility is stagnant. Skill with humility creates to confidence.


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26 Responses to “Humility is More Important Than Confidence”

  1. Chris says:

    With regards to social skills, I think were people can go wrong with confidence is that if your problem is that you’re fairly likable, but you’re inhibited, then being more confident can improve your performance. You’re less shy and hesitant, you’re more dynamic, you crack joke after joke and they all hit.

    Most people can remember a time where they were more ‘on’ than normal at a party or wherever, and how much better they did compared to normal.

    So the solution to their shyness seems to be to figure out how to be confident like that all the time. The problem is you can’t summon that charged up feeling on demand. There’s no affirmation or insight or epiphany you can have that will do it.

    It’s nice when a burst of confidence like that happens, but the rest of the time you have to work to slowly build up your baseline level of skill and comfort, so you can be more outgoing when you’re in an average mood.

  2. Basu says:

    I think the best way to put it is that humility and confidence are orthogonal to each other. You can have one without the other. That being said, I do think confidence and humility are intertwined for most people.

  3. Kris says:

    I recently had a discussion with one of my professors about humility. She said that the only way to succeed is to continue to try, and it’s hard to keep trying if you’re not humble. Proud people give up because they think the problem is someone else’s, and they can’t learn from their mistakes.

    While I agree that humility can be a virtue, it is not the same (as you say) as low self-confidence. People with low-self confidence never try something to begin with. Surely you agree that confidence makes it easier to try (and sometimes succeed) at new things?

    Also, I must disagree with you about faking self-confidence. It’s been proven that faking confidence can lead to real confidence. You imply that confidence means arrogance, and people who fake it are merely faking arrogance. It’s just not the same thing.

  4. [...] at Scott H Young disagrees partially. His post today was in praise of humility over confidence. While he admits that [...]

  5. Adam says:

    Great article Scott!

    @Basu: Hmm, I would almost say the opposite – I think that true confidence comes from honest reflection and introspection, both skills that naturally have a tendency to lead the practitioner towards humility. If you are willing to honestly look deep within, ask yourself difficult questions, and provide honest answers, you will inevitably come to realize how much you have yet to learn – certainly a humbling conclusion.

    The humblest people I know tend to be the people that are capable of exhibiting the most confidence. Maybe a better way to think of it is in terms of Yin and Yang, rather than orthogonal concepts?

  6. Drew says:

    I like the idea of separating skill and confidence. It’s such a comic staple–the highly confident idiot. It’s true, when I think of the situations where I wish I was more confident, being more skilled and feeling more adept would get me where I’d like to be. Plus it’s less subject to emotional whim (I do or I do not have skills for coping with a networking party, but that’s entirely different from “feeling confident”)

  7. Dee says:

    I totally agree. Whenever I wanted to do something I try to be confident but at the same time I try not to be blind, because it usually causes bad results. but I never thought it as ‘humility’, now it’s easier for me to recognize my feelings concerning having skills to do something well. Humility is important and I’m glad I know now what it is.
    Thank you.

  8. Kevin says:

    Confidence and no skill may be nothing, but try no confidence and no skill. For me, even when I have the skills, sometimes the confidence isn’t there initially, therefore, my true skills don’t show due to my lack of confidence at the time. When I get into a confident mindset however, my true skills show. You can be confident and open without being arrogant and closed.

  9. Scott Young says:

    Kris,

    Low-self confidence, that is predicting you will fail or perform more poorly than your actual skills indicate, isn’t good. While some people suffer from low-self confidence, I think this amount is far less than my simple Google survey would suggest. I personally believe that more people lie on the over-confident spectrum, than the under-confident as psychological research has shown people tend to be self-serving in their personal evaluations.

    I would also differentiate between faking confidence, trying to create the feeling of greater skill, as opposed to projecting confidence, adopting the habits of confident people. The latter is a signaling effort used in public speaking or selling which is effective, but I would say it is more a component of your skill rather than an attribute of confidence. I’ve had presentations where I feel completely overwhelmed, but due to my skill at signaling confidence, I won’t project those feelings. In these cases, not projecting helps me feel secure, but staying humble forces me to prepare harder than I would if I had been completely confident.

    Basu & Adam,

    Actually I’d agree with both of you. Both confidence and humility, in my opinion, are orthogonal traits. However, if your confidence is closer to your actual level of skill, you will more likely have humble openness to new ideas. When you’re able to perceive reality clearly, both humility and true confidence thrive.

    Kevin,

    Yes confidence and openness aren’t opposed. But I’d separate, as I mentioned earlier, signaling confidence with your actual thoughts on an issue. If you’ve practiced, you can often project a higher level of confidence without needing to distort your own internal thinking of the events.

    -Scott

  10. Hi Scott.

    I support the point you made with the example of people wanting to be a “more confident public speaker”. There is only so far you can go with extra confidence packed on, because that confidence won’t provide you with the right introductory phrases or punch-lines. I would say that this relates to the strong-and-wrong beating the weak-and-right concept, in that it is harder to find cases of those that are in the wrong, but overly confident, succeeding in a longer-term period of time. At some point, the skills have to be there or the reputation crumbles over its empty foundation. I would say that humility is on the rise, as people notice that it is more viable of an option than sustained overconfidence.

  11. Peter says:

    Hello Scott,

    I really think this articles puts confidence in the right perspective. I also think by looking at it like this, you are able to increase your feeling of authenticity and slowly free yourself of pretending to be anything else than you are.

    However, something I notice often is that humility and open-mindedness requires a basic level of self-confidence or self-esteem (no native English, so I’m not completely aware of the difference between the two).
    The people most defensive when receiving feedack, are usually the people with least self confidence.

    I’m curious how you think about this.

    Thanks for your blog btw, I really like your approach and refusal to go fo the common themes or perspectives.

    - Peter

  12. Scott Young says:

    Peter,

    Confidence is a feeling of skill or the belief that good outcomes will result from your actions. Esteem is a feeling of worth.

    So you can have high self-esteem but low self-confidence, by believing you are inherently worthwhile and have a high value, but that you won’t be particularly successful. And, you can feel the opposite, that you will do really well but you don’t have value as a person. However, they tend to run together, so writers often use them synonymously.

    -Scott

  13. [...] of the reasons I’m cautious to recommend faith, optimism or confidence as a solution to problems is because it distorts honest self-evaluation. The benefits are [...]

  14. Kevin Smith says:

    I stumbled across this post (and others by Scott) while doing some searching (metaphorically and literally) regarding humility. I love his distinctions and careful definitions of terms. That’s the mark of someone who is thinking about his thoughts, and not just barfing them out.

    It occurred to me as I was considering the idea that I “need to practice humility”, is that the reason I was doing it was to “become a better person”, or “have happier relationships”. Aren’t these selfish goals that belie true humility? If one sees a personal goal that is easier to attain by practicing more “selflessness” or “graciousness”, isn’t this selflessness really just a form of selfish delayed gratification? And wouldn’t the graciousness really be a form of cynical manipulation?

    These are “devil’s advocate” questions, as I really do believe in the value of humility and graciousness, but as an inherently selfish individual I’m having doubts about my own motives!

    Comments?

  15. Excellent post, Scott. Just speaking from my own learnings about myself, I think there is a difference between inner confidence and outer confidence. Inner confidence is peaceful and reassuring, something you know you have… the necessary skills, knowledge, the situation, environment and support to do something and suceed at it.

    Outer confidence is that self manufactured confidence that’s really put on for others, to mask gaps or areas of development, cover up and avoid a weakness, compensate for self doubt, or to exert more “power” that we really have in a situation. It’s about “looking good” even though others see right through the mask.

    Inner confidence much more easily leads to humility, while outer confidence is most often in conflict with humility, making humility very hard to practice.

    I wish I could say I’ve always been in a place of inner confidence and not relied on the crutch of outer confidence, but that’s something I think is important for me to work on during life’s journey.

    Thanks again for your inspiring post.

  16. Tracy says:

    Hello and so glad I found myself on your site!
    I was searching self confidence-but this is much more important-

    I am thinking-(Subject to change with new information :)
    that humility is an an attitude of openess and attention to your current environment. Being “In the moment”, and the willingness to consider the new information-and perhaps change……

    That you are listening, and are not judging (comparing, being in your head or trying to think of whats next. Left brain activities) Stuff when you are stressed bog your mind to what is actually happening-

    When you are not present, ie: having a keen awareness of your surroundings, your body feels threatened, as your mind is “elsewhere”.

    This causes the body to feel physical stress. The more discomfort you feel the more “confidence you need to overcome it”.

    Self Confidence allows us to face stressful situations in order to have experiences we might otherwise avoid in order to achieve a perceived goal.

    Self confidence is for me a feeling that I can achieve and be successful in my endeavors- If I can do them with an open attitude and learn from the experiences I will succeed in being self confident and humble-

    I feel like I am blithering on…..

    Thanks for the site and insight-
    Tracy

  17. Vishal Gupta says:

    I think the article is just perfect! You don’t need base level confidence and people are good enough to provide you base level self-esteem to start learning or take the first step in anything.

    Thank you sooo much Scott for fixing me right!

    Vishal

  18. Mike Herrera says:

    I agree with you completely on this. I have come to the same conclusion while reading the bible. I was on a quest to be a less selfish person, and came to the conclusion based on the bible, it was Pride… the Original sin explained in the bible that was the cause of my frustrations. It is the reason that led to Lucifer the angel to be cast down to hell when pride arose in his heart to be better than God and attempt to take over the kingdom of Heaven. And my solution was to do the opposite of pride which is the expression of humility. It is not that practicing Humility is difficult, its that removing Pride from our hearts is difficult. Which is why it is one, if not the worst sin described in the bible, because it leads to all other sins and becomes part of our other “good” qualities we easily fail to realize the point when we’ve become egotistical and arrogant people until someone brings it to our attention. Likewise, we are always able to spot the arrogance and pride in others before we look at ourselves. It is also intertwined with our very human nature. When we are accomplished people, we want to give ourselves all the credit, when its through faith, and help from those around us that helped get us where we are today. To have pride blinds us into thinking we did it ourselves, and over time builds upon itself, to the point we are know-it-all’s to arrogant to see through our pride that we are building the downfall of our successes. Humility, on the other hand, does not create envy to those around us, but maintains an environment of continued opportunity for growth and learning in harmony with the success and failures of others around us, rather than self worship and self deception. The bible says we should love ourselves, self-esteem is different than confidence. And we can have pride in our work with out having pride in our hearts. Humility is the more profound foundation from which to build confidence, among a host of other desirable traits that can lead to a much more successful and fulfilling life.

  19. Leah says:

    I’m actually researching humility for a piece that I’m working on. I’m so glad I stumbled upon this blog. It’s fabulous.

    I primarily focus on education. The way a child is raised has severe implications on how they communicate with others later in life. If we all demanded a better grade for poor effort, it would be a self-righteous state of war and chaos. Too much praise has proven to backfire, leaving children to choose the easier option they can excel at. When these children are slighted, they get defensive, in order to protect their image. Even gifted students must “hit a wall” to know what it feels like. They are afraid to fail.

    This can lead to so many complications later in life. If everyone would just accept that there is always need for improvement/that there is always room to learn, I think a lot of people’s problems would be resolved. It would possibly be a happier Earth to live on.

    I can’t wait to take a look at all the goodies on this site.
    Thanks Scott!

  20. ..Scott you got it….man your comment based on humility…..its absolutely right,infact humility supercedes confidence nd pride

  21. [...] to work or finding a place to camp out for the night.  I believe it took Florman a great deal of humility to ask his business friends for help when he needed it.  And he most fondly remembers his friend [...]

  22. [...] Actuar con confianza en pos de lograr un objetivo es importante. Pero la humildad es más importante que la confianza. [...]

  23. [...] Following through with confidence towards the achievement of a goal is important. But humility is more important than confidence. [...]

  24. In the martial arts environment, humility is one of the things we most hope to master. The higher we get in rank, the more we realize we have yet to learn about the art, the world and most importantly ourselves. One of the greatest ways to embrace it is to acknowledge our teachers by their appropriate titles. This shows are acceptance of what we have yet to learn and our appreciation of how much they know and how long they have been training.

  25. morning, your article is astoundingly gorgeous and simply stated! I, during my morning prayer time, asked for help in studying this topic; confidence laced with humility; I feel guided to have found your site which is worded as truth to me..it feels deep and right, yet light and simple.

    Social Skills and Humility (false confidence, loud bold bravado is exactly what I fear, meaning..not my goal)

    Yet as I am going to be intermingling with some family where there had been previous tensions and their acceptance of me (I have forgiven them as I eagerly seek to cultivate this family relationship)(also due to my want of the child involved to have more family) so it really matters to me; when things matter to me..(when it is almost re their doing me a favor)(people having healthy easy relationships..

    I become quite stumbly, insecure ish..yet I am quite a secure person otherwise-’confidant’ normally one would think; I am confidant to whom I belong (which is to Abba) thus I generally feel at ease, filled with joy, I am healthy..socially I can become quite different

    ..if we are talking about God I am at ease..forgetting my inner small self..

    Today I was looking for words to hold in my mind, to keep me grounded and keep me, as myself..no one likes or and, is comfy around insecure people; they feel there is something wrong with them: they become more boisterous and distant; filled with disdain almost..

    ..which as u stated in another context..feeds the circle (negative feed back)

    I feel this was a great start to my search for humility laced with confidence; it is social skills I need, which seem more intellectually doable, vs. this ‘confidence’ bit; so well stated! (a humble and skilled speaker is more engaging than simply, a confidant one)
    -peace and blessings friend-

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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