Too Much Confidence?

How confident do you feel in what you do?

Confidence is being touted as solution that solves all. People confidently espouse their views, presenting themselves as infallible experts or leaders who know the right way to do things. And the experts tell us that we really just need to be confident to be successful. Dive in, make mistakes, learn from your errors, they say.

But what if they’re mistaken?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about being confident when you know what you are doing. But confidence does not equal expertise – sometimes it masks ignorance. There is no one more confident than someone who knows just a little and assumes that they are now an expert. Let us take that lesson, if nothing else, from the last four years.

And all this confidence inhibits our ability to leverage interdependence. We’re so busy confidently making mistakes that we don’t ask for help.

You don’t have to do it alone.

One of the hardest lessons that my mother – fearlessly independent – had to learn, when her health began to decline, was how to become interdependent. She had always been independent, her father raised her that way: do it for yourself. When my parents married, they camped their way across the country to the left coast, where they knew no one and had no support network. Then my father went off to war and left mom behind to cope by herself. She lived alone while he was away. When he returned, they moved to a house on a rural route – the nearest neighbors a long walk down the beach. She was by herself with three pre-school aged kids for long hours while my father commuted back and forth to the hospital where he worked the emergency room at night. There was no daycare; I don’t remember babysitters. And, because I was the oldest, I had to grow up fast so she could focus on the little ones – which made me also fiercely independent.

When we moved to Tucson, she single-handedly fixed up the house we moved into: laying brick patios, painting, landscaping, constructing a greenhouse. Later, in another town, building her dream house, she completed the wiring herself. That was the way she raised us – figure it out for yourself – and that was the way my grandfather raised her. Wanting to travel abroad, she found a job that would let her do that, earned the necessary degrees, and worked her way into that job, and off to Thailand, Ethiopia, Paris. At one point, she returned home and was telling us about a conflict that she had with her boss, who wanted her to do things in a way that she was confident was wrong. She described to my jetsetting sister and me – we are as different as NY and LA – how her supervisor had given her a direct order to handle an employee problem a certain way, and how she had done exactly the opposite because she was confident that her way was right – it just felt right. Her boss had gotten mad at her but he just didn’t understand. My sister and I exchanged glances and then – and this day goes down in history – agreed that, if we had been her boss, we would have fired her. Her confidence had caused her to create a risk that her supervisor understood and that she did not yet have the experience to understand.

While mom was abroad, I flew down to see my grandfather and grandmother every other month. One visit coincided with mom’s home leave. Mom approached her Pop in his den, a dark room, filled with status symbols, awards he had earned on his travels with Rotary. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small blue box; opened it and placed it in his hand. “I thought you might like this for your collection,” she said, or something like that. A medal from the government for her work. She was quietly anxious and my eyes filled with tears as he looked down on it and then quietly made his way to a glass case, nudged aside his own awards to make room for hers. Then he came back to her and hugged her. I don’t remember if she asked aloud, “Are you proud of me now?” but it hung over the room like a mist. I’d like to think he did say that he was proud of her, so proud – I know I silently urged him to and, being who I am, may have even verbally prompted him. What I remember was him saying that he wished she had married the guy who ran the corner gas station because he missed her when she was so far away.

And then she was off again. After graduating from her work abroad, she continued to travel. On 9/11, she was in Egypt. I begged her to come home via email because I couldn’t get her by phone. No, she said, no, I’m fine. Going walking in the souk. Don’t make such a fuss. And she confidently brought home a husband my sister’s age, a man who had never traveled outside his Egyptian homeland. Then she settled down for a while with him, confidently certain that she was right about how they should make their life together and that he would come to see it in time.

After the divorce, she eventually moved down to the small town where my sister lives and gut-rehabbed a cottage. Not long after she moved into her new home, she told me she felt so good, she was confident that she didn’t need to continue to take her medications. And then the trouble began.

After several falls, I sat down with her and told her I thought she needed to stop trying to do so much. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to say that you can’t do everything yourself. She fought me tooth and nail until finally demoralized and depressed, she accepted help. She handed over power of attorney to the sister that lives locally; she accepted a cycle of full-time caregivers, accepted the use of a walker, a wheelchair, an oxygen tank, direction from the visiting nurse on what to avoid, to keep herself safe.

She accepted interdependency.

To an extent.

This is something I have been reflecting on lately because I am also so fiercely independent. I am so dang determined not to ask for help that I miss out on a lot of opportunities, like building relationships with my grad school professors, or spending time with executives at work. I also try to give my team a chance to be autonomous and they are, for the most part, confident and work their way through problems. But it’s important for them to know that they are not alone in this, that they don’t have to solve all their problems themselves, that I am here as a support to them, to act as a magic mirror to help them reflect on how they are doing, whether they are achieving what they set out to achieve, to think through things and help them see how their approach might be perceived by others. And to help them deal with some of the politics that they are going to find themselves facing.

One of the lessons I am focusing on now is, yes, be confident. But don’t let my confidence blind me to my skill level or to other perspectives.

And don’t overlook opportunities where interdependence is more effective than independence.

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