How To Be Confident But Humble

Summary: 
A confidently humble person is someone who is aware that their beliefs might be wrong (and hence is not certain about them) but is confident in their ability to arrive at the correct solution (and hence is not riddled by self-doubt).
Confidently humble people do 5 things: 
(1) detach their identity from their opinions;
(2) practice open-mindedness;
(3) understand the inherent uncertainty in the world;
(4) build a deliberative process to mull over tough decisions;
(5) trigger and commit to their decisions once they are made.

[This article was originally published on Medium by Mind Cafe]

Photo by Usman Yousaf on Unsplash


There’s a common belief that confidence is what allows us to act with conviction and make a mark on the world, while humility prevents us from doing so. Proponents of this belief, the “pro-confidence” camp, argue that if we are too humble, we become meek and ineffective in implementing ideas.

This pro-confidence camp points to figures like Winston Churchill and Steve Jobs, who are seldom — if ever — described as “humble”. Instead, they’re often characterized by their strong conviction in their beliefs, spurring their dogged determination to make the seemingly impossible possible.

In the early design stages for a new computer mouse, Steve Jobs had high expectations. He wanted it to move fluidly in any direction, not just up and down — a feature that would stretch the limits of technology at the time. When a lead engineer reported to Jobs that this would be commercially impossible, the engineer was fired the next day. The takeaway from this story seems to be: “If Steve were less confident in his own vision and listened to that engineer, the world wouldn’t have the magic trackpad and Apple wouldn’t be what it is today.”

At the same time, there’s a concern that too much confidence can snowball into arrogance and hubris. Proponents of this view, the “pro-humility” camp, argue that unchecked confidence, hubris, and ego result in missed opportunities to improve and result in impending downfalls.

Members of this camp point to examples like Mike Lazaridis, the man behind the BlackBerry. This company was once a giant of the smartphone business. But in 2013, it projected a quarterly loss of $1 billion and cut over 4,500 jobs. What led to their downfall? Multiple accounts suggest that Lazaridis’ reluctance to move from the keyboard to a touchscreen meant that the company could not keep up with rising competition from Apple’s new iPhone. In a board meeting, chief marketing officers told Lazaridis that the market for keyboard phones was dead. But Lazaridis didn’t want to hear any of it. Pointing to a BlackBerry with a keyboard, he said “I get this”; then turning to point at a touchscreen phone, he emphasized, “I don’t get this”. An open letter to Mike from a high-level employee urges him to “Reach out to all employees… Encourage input from ground-level teams — without repercussions — to seek out honest feedback and really absorb it.” The takeaway from this story seems to be “If only Mike were a little more humble, then he might have actually listened to other board members and saved BlackBerry.”

What is Confident Humility?

These examples suggest that making good decisions and doing the right thing require both confidence and humility.

At first glance, there seems to be tension. How can you be confident while humble? How can you act with determination if you are uncertain about your abilities? How can you be decisive and avoid “analysis paralysis” if your thinking and actions are self-critical?

Under the most common interpretation of confidence and humility, confidence is conceived as encompassing at least two domains: certainty about one’s beliefs (e.g. about the solution to a problem) and conviction in one’s abilities (e.g. to lead a team). At the same time, humility is conceived of as encompassing the same domains: uncertainty about one’s beliefs and doubt in one’s abilities. The tension lies in the suggestion that we need to be both certain and uncertain about our beliefs while having both conviction and doubt in our abilities. Surely this is impossible!

The key to reconciling this apparent tension between confidence and humility is to clarify we’re confident and humble about. The concept of “Confident Humility” does this by defining a confidently humble person as someone who is aware that their beliefs might be wrong (and hence is not certain about them) but is confident in their ability to arrive at the correct solution (and hence is not riddled by self-doubt). In his 2021 book Think Again, Wharton psychology professor Adam Grant calls this the sweet spot of confidence.

Illustration by author

The type of humility that a confidently humble person has isn’t self-doubt, but intellectual humility. As Grant’s colleague Phil Tetlock writes in an earlier book Superforecasters, this type of humility is not the belief that you’re untalented, unintelligent, or unworthy but “a recognition that reality is profoundly complex, that seeing things clearly is a constant struggle, when it can be done at all, and that human judgment must therefore be riddled with mistakes”. Humility in this sense is a belief about the state of the world and an awareness of the limitations of our judgments relative to that context.

The type of confidence that a confidently humble person has is not unwavering certainty about one’s beliefs, but self-assurance. This type of confidence is not the dogged conviction that one is always correct, but an undercurrent of faith in one’s own ability to arrive at the correct answer. Confidence in this sense is a belief in your potential to become better tomorrow.

So, it is perfectly possible to think quite highly of yourself (i.e. be confident) while questioning whether your current beliefs, assumptions, and instincts are correct (i.e. be intellectually humble). This is confident humility.

5 Behaviors of Confidently Humble People

What does confident humility look like in practice? Confidently humble people know how to use doubt (the process of questioning our knowledge) to their advantage to make better decisions and act wiser. They live by scientist Richard Feynman’s saying that “Doubt is not a fearful thing but a thing of very great value.” In contrast, most people see doubt as something to avoid or are undermined by it when faced with it.

DOUBT also provides a good acronym for the 5 key behaviors of confidently humble people.

1. DETACH your identity from your opinions

Confidently humble people rarely define themselves as someone who holds a certain set of beliefs. Instead, they define themselves as people who hold sets of values. In particular, they see themselves as individuals who value curiosity, learning, mental flexibility, and the search for truth.

In contrast, most people find it difficult to detach our identities from our opinions. We see criticisms of our opinions beliefs as attacks against ourselves because our identities are so wrapped up with these beliefs. It bruises our egos.

2. OPEN yourself to contradictory ideas

Confidently humble people have an acquired taste for being proved wrong. They’re excited to be shown that they’re wrong. As a result, they deliberately surround themselves with people who challenge them and seek information that goes against their prior beliefs.

In contrast, most people suffer from confirmation bias, the tendency to search for and interpret information in a manner that is consistent with beliefs that we already have. This bias manifests itself through our discomfort towards being challenged. We prefer surrounding ourselves with yes-men who kowtow to our ideas because it’s comforting, pretending that this false sense of security is a sign of success.

Pride in contradicting oneself was a defining characteristic of John Maynard Keynes. Although Keynes is most well-known for his work on macroeconomic theory, he also had many accomplishments as an investor, managing various investment funds. Several biographers have noted that one of his defining traits is his consistent inconsistency, with a 1945 profile in Life magazine saying that “Keynes is always ready to contradict not only his colleagues but also himself whenever circumstances make this seem appropriate.”.

3. Understand the UNCERTAINTY in the world

Confidently humble people recognize reality as composed of shades of grey, not the extremes of black and white. They understand that there are more than two sides to the story and embrace competing and conflicting claims.

In contrast, most people tend to think dichotomously, framing reality as a matter of “either-or”. We often see various things through dichotomous lenses, including people (we generalize and classify people as good or bad) and the future (we oversimplify and think that things are either going to happen or not going to happen).

The ability to understand uncertainty is a key trait of “superforecasters” who compete in tournaments to predict future geopolitical events. They think in ways that are open-minded, careful, curious, and self-critical. Superforecasters also have an uncanny ability to distinguish between fine degrees of uncertainty, just as how artists are good at distinguishing between shades of grey. They are able to tell the difference between a 66% chance and a 90% chance of an event happening.

4. BUILD a deliberative process

Because of the uncertainty in the world, many problems we hope to solve don’t have a perfect solution. We are instead dealing with probabilities -: a 705% chance that this marketing strategy will work and a 525% that the other strategy will work.

The “confidence” of confidently humble people comes partly from building a rigorous deliberative process where they can chew over every potential solution and hear all possible opinions possible. This deliberative process allows them to be confident that the end decision is the best decision they could have made given the time and resource constraints they face.

In his memoir A Promised Land, President Obama writes about the importance of having a “sound process” to make tough decisions in a confident manner:

“What I was quickly discovering about the presidency was that no problem that landed on my desk, foreign or domestic, had a clean, 100 percent solution… Instead, I was constantly dealing with probabilities… In such circumstances, chasing after the perfect solution led to paralysis. On the other hand, going with your gut too often meant letting preconceived notions or the path of least political resistance guide a decision — with cherry-picked facts used to justify it. But with a sound process — one in which I was able to empty out my ego and really listen, following the facts and logic as best I could and considering them alongside my goals and my principles — I realized I could make tough decisions and still sleep easy at night, knowing at a minimum that no one in my position, given the same information, could have made the decision any better.” — Barack Obama, A Promised Land (Emphasis added)

5. TRIGGER and commit when the time comes

Confidently humble people are able to draw a clear dividing line between deliberation and implementation, avoiding indecisiveness and “analysis paralysis”. Once a decision has been made following a sound deliberation process, they step forth, speak, command, and put their decision into action.

This is characteristic of military leaders such as Moltke who writes in the Art of War that the wise commander knows that battlefield is obscured by a “fog of uncertainty” but “at least one thing must be certain: one’s own decision. One must adhere to it and not allow oneself to be dissuaded by the enemy’s action until this has become unavoidably necessary.”

It is also characteristic of Jeff Bezos’ 14th leadership principle at Amazon: “Have backbone; disagree and commit. Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.”

Takeaways

In 1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Crack Up “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Later, he also writes “Genius is the ability to put into effect what is in your mind.” Fitzgerald clearly understood the importance of being humble so that you are open to multiple viewpoints and being both being confident so that you can put into effect what is in your mind and the importance of being humble so that you are open to multiple viewpoints.

At first glance, these two statements seem to contradict each other. How can you hold onto two opposing ideas if you need to be determined and resolute in what you believe? And how can you put into effect what is in your mind if you’re uncertain about what’s in your mind?

This article summarizes how the concept of Confident Humility reconciles these seemingly contradictory behaviors. First, Detach your identity from your beliefs. Second, practice the intellectual virtue of Open-mindedness by actively welcoming ideas that contradict your own. Third, Understand the Uncertainty in the world which makes our poor judgment a feature rather than a bug. Fourth, Build a deliberative process that allows you to mull over multiple solutions. Fifth, Trigger and commit to your solution once you’ve decided. In sum, DOUBT in the right way.