Hollow confidence

Content and communication

When I was at university (some years ago) there was one class that was dominated by a handful of opinionated English public-school (i.e. fee-paying school) boys whose confidence was completely out of proportion to the value of their contribution. They talked loudly and without hesitation on topics they clearly knew very little about. Maybe it’s a British class thing, but it was as if their fee-paying schools had instilled in them an unwavering self-belief – as if this was a reasonable substitute for knowing what you were talking about. It must make for an easy life because apparently, with this level of self-assurance, you no longer have to put in the effort of doing the work.

Luckily for us, we had a very good lecturer who made a point of puncturing the public-school confidence – with facts. Their firm opinions were often built on very shaky foundations and the lecturer made a point of pulling their arguments to pieces. It was very satisfying to watch. (He was also good at encouraging those quieter members of the class who had actually bothered to read the books and think things through.)

Unfortunately, once released into the wild, these people revert to type. I know because I seem to meet them everywhere. They soon dismiss the sort of lesson my lecturer had been trying to impart and lapse back into their bad habits. The confidence is too deeply embedded.

There was an interview in a recent Sunday supplement with the founder and CEO of a big London design firm. There were pictures of some of the projects his company had worked on and of his fabulous home. He had clearly been very successful. He had been educated at one of Britain’s top private schools, the article told us, but had then dropped out of university and wandered off on the hippy trail across India and South East Asia, exploring different philosophies, bumming from one thing to another. There was very little in his story about how he had come to establish the design company. All he said was that he surrounded himself with talented people and that he found that he had the ‘charm’ to front up the business. I subsequently read up on him, and I think the article may have been self-deprecating – that he was a more talented designer than he admitted – but there is something that rings true about these people having the skills to be the face of successful businesses, with the talent supplied by the people behind them, with an implication that the real designers maybe lacked these ‘presentational’ skills. It is the public-school confidence again – he didn’t need to dirty his hands doing the work, because he could find people to do that for him. Yet he is the one who was earning the big bucks, who was interviewed by the Sunday paper, and who got all the plaudits.

A theme that runs through Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, is the divide between the introverted, careful thinkers and the overconfident doers, and how society seems to favour the latter over the former.

Ideally, you need both – the (design) skills behind the facade and the assertiveness to front things up. Maybe in the case of the designer it was OK, because you had the two skills embodied in a group of people working together. But I agree with Susan Cain – I can’t help thinking that more credit should sometimes go to the ones doing all the work.

– end –


Published by Peter Runkel

"Work hard and be nice to people." Anthony Burrill

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