Confidence (and the lack thereof) comes in two flavors:

1) Earned
2) Unearned

Earned confidence comes from one source, and one source only:


You earn the right to feel confident about a particular skill or ability when you’ve invested the time to develop competence and mastery.

For example, I have very high confidence that I can drive a car from one destination to another.

I am very confident in my ability to operate the car correctly and safely.


I’ve been driving for 30 years. I’ve logged around 10,000 hours behind the wheel.

In this context…

Competence = Earned Confidence

Unearned confidence occurs when you perceive your skill level to be massively better than it is in reality.

Unjustified lack of confidence is the exact opposite. It occurs when you perceive your own abilities to be significantly worse than well informed outside observers.

A mild case of unjustified confidence or lack of confidence doesn’t hurt you much.

Problems occur when your self-assessment is wildly different than reality.

Here’s why.

If you’re extremely overconfident, you’ll be biased to taking on risks that outpace your ability level. Your likelihood of failure goes up dramatically.

There’s a difference between taking on a stretch assignment and growing into a new skill set versus flat-out failing through complete lack of competence.

On the flip side, perceiving yourself as less competent than is warranted can also be problematic.

If left to your own devices, unjustified lack of confidence will lead you to forgo challenging stretch assignments and opportunities that you’re capable of doing.

If you have Olympic-caliber skills, it doesn’t do you any good if your self-perceptions prevent you from trying out for the Olympic team.

Most people have persistent biases. If you’re not accurate in your assessment of your competence, you’re likely to be persistently over- or under-confident.

However, this bias doesn’t necessarily have to be an obstacle to your career… IF you’re aware of your own bias and compensate for it.

For example, for the first 15 years of my career, my confidence level was significantly below my competence level.

However, I did have some sense of my bias. As a result, I often relied on trusted mentors’ and colleagues’ judgements as to whether I was ready or capable enough for a particular stretch assignment.

If they thought I could do it, but I didn’t, I would discount my generally negative self-perception and instead weigh the other person’s judgment more.

If you’re chronically under-confident, you too can use an “adjustment factor,” like I have.

Conversely, if you tend to be over-confident, it would be useful to listen to a few trusted colleagues and their more realistic assessments of your abilities.

Confident or not, seeking stretch assignments can be a great opportunity to boost your career.

I highly recommend it.

Even if a stretch assignment is above your current skill level (and you know it), you can still accept the assignment. However, you would do so with full knowledge that you or your team have a skill gap that needs to be filled somehow.

You might need to get some additional training to close part or all of the gap.

You might need to recruit someone else to be on the team — someone that’s strong in your weak spots.

These reasonable approaches allow you to compensate for your weaknesses — but only if you’re aware of and see your weaknesses accurately.

Here’s my thought of the day:

Which bias do you tend to have when it comes to assessing your confidence versus competence?

Are you chronically over- or under-confident? Or are you fairly accurate?

What adjustment factors do you need to offset your biased self-perceptions?

It’s worth thinking about before the next opportunity presents itself.

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