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Are You Confident Enough to be Ignorant?

“All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.” Mark Twain

Ha-ha! I don’t think that my high-achieving executive clients would agree with Mr. Twain. In fact, they are much more likely to believe the opposite: “All you need in this life is expertise and confidence, and then success is sure.” Perhaps. Yet in the context of their professional life, might there be a paradox? Does the need to be recognized for exceptional performance sabotage confidence? Apparently. Or at least that is what I have observed among a number of the high achievers I coach.

Self-confidence (lack of) is a very common (and complicated) theme in coaching. It comes up with every kind of coachee – Type A or B, male or female, young or old, executive or staff. What is fascinating, however, is the short-term relationship between exceptional performance and confidence. Let me explain.

I’ve noticed a pattern that some high achievers have, especially when they value receiving recognition. It’s actually a technique that many have built up to boost their own confidence when it starts to go downward – but it is not always sustainable.

Here’s what the person does:

As you can see, the person who operates like this has developed a need to perform well, and get recognized for it, in order to feel confident. The problem is that there can be periods where it is not possible to have exceptional performance, or to get recognized for expertise (they may be between jobs, not ‘hitting the numbers’ due to an economic downturn, or unable to get the necessary resources).

So, what might be a more effective way for a high achiever to maintain confidence over time?

When I coach someone who has developed this pattern, I ask them to do some homework: Develop a list of non-performance-related character strengths (like honesty, loyalty, bravery, or perseverance). I also suggest that they have a few conversations with others who know them well, to help develop the list.

Unlike expertise and exceptional performance, character strengths address who we are rather than what we do. Owning our character strengths every single day is a much more sustainable way of staying confident. Why? Character strengths reflect personal values, and when we are aligned with our personal values, living them each day, we are confident.

Some of my high achievers end up putting their character strengths on their screen saver so that they are reminded of them frequently, especially when things are not going so well. And yes, I have dared a few of them to include Mark Twain’s quote, as well.