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.
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.