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The Weakness Of Overconfidence
We’ve all experienced it before. You take a test that you think is ridiculously easy, so you put it off until the last minute, and end up getting a B. You get into a relationship and start taking your significant other for granted, resulting in a breakup. You invest in a stock thinking there’s no way it’ll go down, and lose a big chunk of your money. It’s just so easy to make these mistakes, even after years of training to guard against it, as I recently experienced in A Negative Score On A Homework Reveals Some Interesting Things About Myself.
Why Is Overconfidence Bad?
Confidence is a great thing. It allows us to get past our doubts and take action. So why is slightly too much of it so bad?
Well, let’s first take a look at why we get overconfident. Generally, if something requires the full extent of our abilities, we find it challenging and need to use all our resources to overcome the problem. That’s a really hard thing to do, and we generally feel not too confident about it. When things are at about our ability level but don’t strain it too much, we find it interesting and maybe even a bit relaxing. In this case, we can feel confident about our ability to accomplish the task, but know that we still have to work decently hard. However, when the task is extremely easy or below our abilities, we may often feel that it’s barely worth our time. That is where the danger of overconfidence becomes a menacing threat. Since it’s so simple, why not just put it off? You can just finish it with minimal effort later… right?
Well, kind of. The key thing to realize is that the task is only easy assuming you use your resources and ability fully. You might think walking across the street is an easy task, but what if I tell you it has to be done within 5 seconds and you can only use one foot? It suddenly becomes a much harder task!
That is exactly what happens when you start to procrastinate on these easy tasks! By putting it off, the amount of time you have to finish is decreased, increasing its difficulty level. By not concentrating on it fully, the chance of making a mistake goes up significantly. It’s like only having half your brain available to you, making the problem harder. Additionally, resources that were available may no longer be available to you later. For example, if your task was to travel from NY to CA on the 4pm flight, it’s pretty easy to do at 3:00pm. It becomes a much, much harder task at 4:01pm.
Let’s look at some examples of common areas of overconfidence, to see if we can avoid these problems.
Overconfidence At School/Work
You start taking a class or start a project that is so easy you can laugh. It’s practically child’s play. You already know what to do and how to do it. A few weeks pass. The old work starts piling up, as you scramble to do them. Suddenly, it’s not so easy anymore, as there is a time constraint on finishing all that “easy” work. Additionally, the project/class has been getting harder throughout the last few weeks, and now the material requires your full attention. Instead of spending the few hours you needed on this class/project, you’d spent tens of hours on some other harder class/project.
An extra 0.6 on your GPA is the same whether it’s in a hard class or easy class, but that extra 0.6 may only take 2 extra hours a week in the easy class while it may take an extra 15 hours a week in the hard class. Wouldn’t it be such a shame to not get those points from the easy class?
Overconfidence In Relationships
You start out as two happy people, considerate of each other’s feelings and making an effort to connect. Then, as the relationship progresses, you forget the reason it formed in the first place. You figure, “Oh good, the other person’s going to be with me forever, so there’s no need to do the nice things I use to do anymore”. You stop providing value to the other person which was the reason for the relationship in the first place. What happens then?
The relationship starts to rot. The two people start to disrespect each other, and soon, they part their ways.
I speak of this from personal experience. I had a friend who I shared ideas with for a few years. As we communicated differently, mutual respect allowed us to overcome some behavior barriers and learn from each other. One day, however, he indicated to me that he longer wanted to talk in my frame of reference because he liked his better. It wasn’t long before that resulted in communication where I didn’t feel understood. Soon, I end all communication for exactly that reason.
Relationships are about an exchange of value. No matter what the agreement is, when that exchange stops, the other person can and probably will leave.
Overconfidence In Poker
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve experienced this. You sit down at a table thinking that you’re better than everybody. As a result, you’re not thinking about what other people have or why they’re doing what they’re doing. You shove globs of money into the middle, being overaggressive, because you think you are better. Soon enough, most of your money is gone.
Another common variation of this is that you have been lucky or skilled and have won a large stack of chips. However, all that winning has made you very “loose” and you start taking unnecessary risks because you can’t seem to lose. Before long, your huge stack of winnings dwindles to just a smallish stack of winnings. Hey, that’s even worse than losing your small stack from the first scenario (even though you won a little bit of money, you still lost more money)!
My friends and I refer to this phenomenon as “win tilt”.
Overconfidence In Investing
“That stock can’t go down! Warren Buffet bought it!” Or maybe you did two weeks of research and learned about all sorts of technical analysis tricks. Of course it has to go up right? Um right… down it goes. This isn’t exactly new to anyone who has ever invested in the stock market. Yes, stocks go down. They can always go down.
How To Overcome Overconfidence
Remember that when things are easy, you are expected to win. From an emotional perspective, when things are hard, it’s okay to lose. No one makes fun of you for not being able to solve a hard problem. However, how does it feel to take a 1st grade arithmetic test and get a 90? Yeah, you’ll probably get at least a couple of chuckles from your friends!
Logically, working extra hard on the easy tasks is also very important. If you are hired for a job, there are assumptions about what you know or what you need to do. If you demonstrate that you don’t actually have a fundamental grasp of the most basic concepts (even if you actually do), it could have severe negative effects with your boss, much more so than being unable to solve the latest hard problem.
Therefore, it is even more important to work hard when the task is easy than when the task is hard!
Just be extra careful when the task is easy to guard against overconfidence. After all, working through an easy problem 6 times probably takes less time than working through the hard problem once. That and they’re generally worth about the same!
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