Search this Site:

Headmaster's Address

What Goldilocks Got Wrong

You may remember that some months ago, just before my sabbatical, I was talking about Mount Stupid, and how not to get stuck there.  I introduced you to the concept of Mount Stupid – the place where people’s confidence in their own abilities and expertise significantly exceeds their actual expertise. So they think they’re good at something, or know a lot about it, but in fact they don’t – I talked about the notion of the ‘armchair quarterback’ – for instance, that annoying, arrogant person who is perfectly happy to opine about how Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola clearly has no idea what they are doing, and how they would in fact do it much better. And remember, Mount Stupid is somewhere we all visit from time to time.  This isn’t the exclusive reserve of the intellectually challenged – in fact, the key to getting off Mount Stupid turns out to have little if anything to do with intelligence in the cerebral or academic sense.  It has a lot more to do with emotional intelligence and it turns out that the key to not getting stuck there is the ability to rethink, to revisit your opinions and beliefs.  The people who do get stuck on Mount Stupid are those whose confidence exceeds their competence by some margin.  That’s a form of arrogance, and – surprise, surprise – the key to getting off Mount Stupid turns out to be humility.  Humility is a permeable filter that absorbs life experience and converts it into knowledge and wisdom.  Arrogance is like an impermeable rubber shield, which repels life experience, leaving the person unchanged, unmoved, unrefined, and ignorant. Another way of putting it, according to blogger, Tim Urban, is that arrogance is ignorance plus conviction.

Reading the book “Think Again”, by Adam Grant, has made me think again about what I think about confidence.

I used to say, in Open Mornings, that confidence was one of the best gifts that we can give young people.  As a result of reading this book, I have come to rethink that – I have thought again (escaping my own personal and specific visit to Mount Stupid).  I realised that I was falling prey to a mistaken notion, picturing confidence as a seesaw. Gain too much confidence, and we tip toward arrogance. Lose too much confidence, and we become meek. This, especially in the Western world, is our beef with humility: we worry that that humility means we’ll end up having a low opinion of ourselves. We want to keep the seesaw balanced, so we go into Goldilocks mode and look for the amount of confidence that’s just right: not too much, and not too little either.

Reading Grant’s book has made me think again.  Through it, I learned that this is the wrong approach. Humility is often misunderstood. Humility is not a matter of having low self-confidence. One of the Latin roots of humility means “from the earth.”

Humility isn’t about having low self-esteem – it’s about being grounded—recognizing that we’re all flawed and fallible. Pretty much every assembly I have ever done starts from that assumption.  Thank God we are – it’s what makes us human, and interesting.

Grant proposes a different way of understanding the difference between confidence and humility.  Confidence, he argues, should be thought of as a measure of how much you believe in yourself. Evidence shows that’s distinct from how much you believe in your methods. You can be confident in your ability to achieve a goal in the future whilst maintaining the humility to be curious and openminded about whether you have the right tools in the present. That’s the sweet spot of “confident humility”: confident enough to believe you have the ability to achieve a goal in the future, yet humble enough to remain openminded about how best to achieve it.  We become blinded by arrogance when we’re utterly convinced of our strengths and our strategies. We get paralyzed by doubt when we lack conviction in both. We can be consumed by an inferiority complex when we know the right method but feel uncertain about our ability to execute it.

So what we should be aspiring towards is not confidence per se but confident humility: having faith in our capability while appreciating that we may not have the right solution or even be addressing the right problem. Confident humility gives us enough doubt and curiosity to reexamine our old knowledge and enough confidence to pursue new insights without regarding the discovery of previous flaws as something we need to be ashamed of.

And here is the good news: confident humility can be taught. In one experiment, when students read a short article about the benefits of admitting what we don’t know, rather than being certain about it, their odds of seeking extra help in an area of weakness spiked from 65 to 85 percent. They were also more likely to explore opposing political views to try to learn from the other side. Confident humility opens our minds to rethinking and improves the quality of our rethinking. In university and graduate school, students who are willing to revise their beliefs get higher grades than their peers. In a secondary school setting, learners who admit when they don’t know something are rated by teachers as learning more effectively and by peers as contributing more to their teams. At the end of the academic year, they have significantly higher grades than their more self-assured peers.

Instead of just assuming they’ve mastered the material, they quiz themselves to test their understanding. When adults have the confidence to acknowledge what they don’t know, they pay more attention to how strong evidence is and spend more time reading material that contradicts their opinions. In rigorous studies of leadership effectiveness across the United States and China, the most productive and innovative teams aren’t run by leaders who are either confident or humble. The most effective leaders score high in both confidence and humility.

Those with good memories may remember that last time I spoke about this, before half-term last term, I said that we know that being an armchair quarterback, whose confidence way exceeds their competence, is a surefire way to get stuck on Mount Stupid. But surely the opposite, which you could call impostor syndrome, when your competence way exceeds your confidence, is no good either?  Well, one of Grant’s arguments is that we’re sometimes better off underestimating ourselves.

There are real benefits to self-doubt.  Feeling like an impostor is typically viewed as a bad thing, and there are good reasons for that: a chronic sense of being unworthy can breed misery, crush motivation, and hold us back from pursuing our ambitions.

From time to time, though, a less crippling sense of doubt waltzes into many of our minds; I know it does into mine.  Some surveys suggest that more than half the people you know have felt like impostors at some point in their career – I know I have, for much of the last eighteen years.  According to Grant’s research, it’s especially common among women, and amongst marginalized groups. And strangely – or perhaps not when you think about it – it also seems to be particularly pronounced among high achievers.

When our impostor fears crop up, they may in fact be giving us three advantages of doubt.

The first upside of feeling like an impostor is that it can motivate us to work harder. It may deter us from starting the race, but once we’ve stepped up to the starting line, it gives us the drive to keep running to the end so that we can earn our place among the finalists. When we feel like impostors, we think we have something to prove.

Second, impostor thoughts can motivate us to work smarter. When we don’t believe we’re going to win, we have nothing to lose by rethinking our strategy. Remember that total beginners don’t fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect. Feeling like an impostor may put us in a beginner’s mindset, leading us to question assumptions that others have taken for granted.

Third, feeling like an impostor can make us better learners. Having some doubts about our knowledge and skills takes us off a pedestal, encouraging us to seek out insights from others. After all, learning requires the humility to realise one has something to learn. Effective leaders show confident humility in being willing to seek out second opinions from colleagues and realising that what they lack in experience and expertise they can make up by listening.

So: Goldilocks got it wrong.  We’re not looking for the perfect amount of confidence – we’re looking for the perfect combination of confidence and humility, and it turns out that they aren’t contradictory at all – they are complementary.

Without humility, confidence can breed closed-mindedness; the humility to entertain doubts, even about yourself and your own capacities, breeds curiosity, openness and active listening – it will help make you a better learner: welcoming the engagement of others, secure and self-aware enough to know that it’s fine to acknowledge that you haven’t got a monopoly of insight or knowledge.   There is so much we all have yet to learn – that’s a good thing – because there is nothing more joyful or more human than the search for meaning, for knowledge and for wisdom. Good luck with that this term – I encourage you to keep learning, and to do so with a mindset of confident humility.