- Confidence levels are determined by feelings of certainty and control.
- Self-esteem and confidence are related, but not the same thing.
- Anxiety and confidence are diametrically opposed.
Who wouldn’t want to have the confidence of a Ted Talk speaker striding across the stage with smart ideas? And, even if we feel confident on some days, why don’t we on others?
Having confidence is a slippery slope, a natural reaction to feeling secure and in control. But life is not one steady stream of relaxed moments. Stress, anxiety, and overwhelm are a part of life’s formula too. And while confidence and self-esteem may be related, they are not the same thing. You can feel good about yourself, understand your self-worth, and still coincidentally be unconfident about what’s happening around you.
In a recent interview with Peter Atwater, adjunct professor of economics at the College of William & Mary and author of The Confidence Map: Charting a Path From Chaos to Clarity, he provided a clear explanation of our varying levels of confidence and the qualities people share in all areas of the confidence spectrum. His so-called “confidence quadrant” offers a way to understand how human beings respond to various situations.
Imagine a large square containing four equally sized boxes. On the x-axis you have certainty. On the y-axis you have control. The upper right-hand box is the Comfort Zone with high certainty and high control (such as large corporations with great influence and economic stability). The lower left-hand box is the Stress Center with low certainty and low control (such as an unemployed person with no job prospects). The upper left-hand box is the Launch Pad with high control and low certainty (such as an entrepreneur with a great idea who has no clue if it will work). And the lower right-hand box is the Passenger Seat with low control and high certainty (such as a literal airplane passenger who trusts the pilot).
This helpful illustration of how confidence works can translate to predicting outcomes in human behavior. In his book, Atwater examines the hidden role of confidence in the choices we make, and why events described as being unprecedented are often entirely predictable. After all, when big things happen, we like to know why.
Further, he shows that leaders may thrive in one box of the quadrant more than the others. Some people do well under pressure and even feed off it. In fact, while anxious leaders may not feel confident, they can be incredibly resilient. Many successful anxious leaders become comfortable with their anxiety and stress. They recognize it is temporary, and it fuels them. Others prefer to remain in the Comfort Zone as much as possible. Interestingly, the Comfort Zone can lead to a sense of invulnerability, which can lead to bad decision-making. In other words, being overly confident can lead to disaster, such as the one we witnessed during the U.S. financial crisis in 2008.
According to Atwater, one of the best measures of invulnerability is the speed of decision-making. When people are really confident, they tend to look at things in a superficial manner. If you don’t weigh the risks because you don’t believe there are any, you spend no time digging for possible pitfalls. Leaders in this space tend to have an unbridled view of their own abilities. A culture of heightened aggression ensues and any naysayers in the organization get trampled. The result is hyper-competitiveness, followed by blame when things go south. The folding of Lehman Brothers is a prime example.
Anxiety and confidence are diametrically opposed, but as Morra Aarons-Mele states in The Anxious Achiever, anxiety, when channeled correctly, can actually be your superpower. These types of leaders consider all angles before making a decision. They run through all possible what-if scenarios and tend to be risk-averse. Atwater suggests that an anxious leader may be very effective in the Launch Pad and in the Stress Center, but most likely not in the Passenger Seat. In other words, they are consciously confident despite or even because of their anxiety.
The response to anxiety is taking control. In the Comfort Zone, an anxious leader is to be seen as far too tentative and may be sidelined as a result, but they can be effective when the situation calls for it. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy is an example of an anxious leader whose skills are called for at this time. Many entrepreneurs are anxious leaders as they constantly change their strategies in an uncertain environment.
As with all things in life, a balance between confidence and a lack thereof is normal. It comes down to trusting your instincts and becoming aware of where you are on the confidence spectrum. In the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.”
And, hopefully, you will make decisions based on that knowledge and self-understanding.
Atwater, P. (2023). The confidence map: Charting a path from Chaos to Clarity. Portfolio/Penguin.
Aarons-Mele, M. (2023). The anxious achiever: Turn your biggest fears into your leadership superpower. Harvard Business Review Press.