The role of confidence in success

by Pop on February 13, 2011

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Do you think God wills you to succeed?

Lady Gaga thinks she’s been chosen by God for fame. So do Eminem, Aaron Rodgers (Packers QB), and Snoop Dog. At least, so says a story in the Wall Street Journal this weekend.

The article posits that the presumption of some that they are God’s chosen ones vaults them to galactic stardom, rather than so-so stardom. And of course, it carries that all-to-common journalistic disclaimer that scientists haven’t studied a link between God-believing and fame.

I’ll try to avoid the theology of whether or not God cares so much that you sing well or throw a perfect spiral. I think he’s more interested in your soul, brother.

But there’s something to be said about the confidence that believing in a divine helper gives you, and how that alone can make you more probable to become a success.

It’s an important question for teachers, coaches, and managers. If you want your students, athletes, and employees to succeed, how much does making them “feel good” about how they’re doing translate to actual success?

Lifting students up by their heart strings

A decade or so ago, a couple college professors at Florida State University used a survey of more than 4,000 students to gauge their intellectual and social confidence, their expectations for success, their motivation to succeed, past academic accomplishments, parental education, and so on.

Admittedly, a lot of the variables were interlocking. But the study concluded that having a high expectation that you’d succeed was the strongest predictor of actual high performance. Self-confidence was also correlated to doing well in school.

They didn’t ask where those expectations came from. There’s a good chance that part of them came from past academic performance. There’s also a good chance that they came down from the parents.

Yale law professor Amy Chua made a splash a few weeks ago with a book excerpt about her drill sergeant-like routines for her children. In short, her children were allowed little playtime and were expected to be perfect in school. That set off a fierce debate on parenting styles that is kind of superfluous to this blog post.

Part of her story did strike a chord. Her children were expected to be perfect. And they often were perfect. Put aside the insane hours of practice and study that got them there. I’m willing to bet that even if Chua stepped aside, the simple instillation in her kids of the belief that they could achieve perfect piano playing or math scores would go a long way to good practice and study habits on their own. If you think all that study will lead to a great grade, it seems more worth it.

Taking risks isn’t always a bad thing

I’ve written about overconfidence—especially in investing—a lot. I personally don’t like taking a lot of risk with investments, because the consequences of messing up can set you back in your savings by a very large amount.

But my opinion of taking risks in other areas, like entrepreneurship and career motivation, is a lot different. While the risk of being turned down when you ask a stranger to mentor you is pretty high, the consequences of being turned down are almost nil—just a little hit to your ego, maybe.

And that leads to a nice side effect of confidence in career-related matters. Even though some career moves are long shots, being crazy enough to take them anyway gives you a chance of scoring big.

Entrepreneurship can cost money. It doesn’t have to. A lot of times, it just takes a lot of hard work after your day job. If I told you that you’d definitely make a sustainable business after putting in, say, 20 hours per week for one year on top of your current work schedule, I bet a lot of you would take me up on it. Of course, I can’t say that, and I bet that’s why a lot of people, including me, don’t put in that time.

Does confidence make you run faster?

In high school gym, oh so many years ago, our coach gave a demonstration to try to show us how important “positive thinking” was. He called a student up to the front and had him try to hold his arms straight out like wings while the coach tried to push them down.

For the first part of the test, he criticized the kid’s strength and, generally, tore him down. His arms gave out pretty quickly. After a few minutes of rest, they did the test again, while the coach gave words of encouragement. The kid kept his arms up for much longer.

I remember thinking that the coach must not have been pushing as hard the second time.

Faux experiment aside, there is empirical research linking the confidence of athletes to how they perform.

In one study from the 1970s, a couple researchers had volunteers arm wrestle. One group was subtly encouraged in their strength while one was not. The encouraged arm wrestlers performed better.

Similarly, researchers have found that confident swimmers swim faster and confident gymnasts score higher. Put simply, winners think they’re winners.

And that’s why it astounds me whenever I hear about a boss berating a problem employee in front of peers or writing scathing criticisms in an e-mail. While it’s important for someone to know he messed up, there are long-term implications of shattering someone’s psyche.

Instead, I wonder what would happen if he or she put them on an easier project or teamed them up with stronger workers. Getting a few successes under their belts might go a long way to improving performance.

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