Is confidence a little overrated?

When I was 15 I signed up for choir. Not because I had singing talent. Not because I had a knack for music. I was simply young and foolish and uninhibited by reason and rationality. F it, I thought, I'm going to SING. That's what I want to do, and that's what I'm going to register for. So I sang (poorly), every first period from September to January of 1998 when my dreams of sweeping American Idol were suddenly destroyed by a mandatory course for athletes called Advanced Conditioning. Damn you, Coach Bowles!

hmv circa 1997

hmv circa 1997

During my brief career as choir singer #47, I made some important realizations. Firstly, I realized I had a lot to learn. The lingo was completely foreign to me. I barely knew the difference between soprano and alto and I only picked alto because my volleyball friend did too. Secondly -and this is either really fortunate or really sad depending on your perspective- our conductor was incredibly gifted. His advice was spot-on and perfectly articulated. He seemed to be able to hear all our terribly teenage voices at once, and he could pinpoint exactly what needed to be done to improve the sound. But he never came right out and told us that we should keep our day jobs because we were a motley crew of no-talent fools because, again, this guy was a pro.

Somehow my 15-year-old brain was able to simmer on this information and form a pretty incredible plan: I sucked at singing and had no idea what I was doing; our conductor was amazingly brilliant; perhaps I should listen to every single thing he told us to do, and DO IT. And holy poop you guys, the plan WORKED.

If he told us that we sounded too breathy, I would assume he was talking about me and try to scale back the breathiness, and *ta-da* the next time he would tell us that we sounded much better.

Seems so simple looking back. But it wasn't. Did I mention that I was an ego-inflated 15-year-old? The fact I was willing to really listen was kind of incredible.

Why? Making the decision to listen to my instructor required putting aside my confidence and really getting comfortable with my lack of competence. I had to embrace the fact that I didn't know anything before I could get any better. It was the kind of move that goes exactly against the advice I've been reading lately.

Consider the Confidence Gap. The authors learned that men tend to try for better jobs, bigger salaries, and they get them, simply by acting with more confidence.

In studies, men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both. Their performances do not differ in quality.
Women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements.

And guess who tended to reach the top first?

The authors found, essentially, that confidence mattered more than competence. Confidence was a stronger indicator of higher salaries, better jobs, more interesting assignments, etc. And men had higher confidence based on their studies, so men typically rose to the top. We all know that men rise to the top faster than women and more frequently. But here is what I'm trying to say... 

Is all of this a good thing? 

Is it good for us to be promoting the most confident workers? The ones who ask more frequently, who demand more? Is it good to emulate that logic? It is good to say to one's self, don't worry about getting that next certification or training, just TELL them that you're the smartest, wickedest person for the job and then TAKE it! After all, men do it and it works, so why shouldn't we?

Well, let me propose two reasons: 1) you're not a man so this isn't going to work quite like that, and 2) it's not right. It's just not right. I refuse to buy into the idea that confidence SHOULD outweigh competence. I know it apparently DOES outweigh competence, but it shouldn't. That's not how to run a business, or determine promotions, or create a beautiful sound from a young choir. Competence is what matters. Competence (with a healthy side of confidence) is what strengthens the team and builds the better workforces.

And here's another thing: Women may have much to gain by getting more confident, but a lack of confidence can be a secret asset, and everyone seems to be overlooking it.

When I think about the times, like high school choir, when I turned down the dial on my confidence and really tried to improve my skills, I got much much better at whatever I was doing. I know this is true of men as well. I've had conversations with male coworkers or friends that I am comfortable with, and I've asked them, "Can you admit for a moment that you don't understand everything about this issue? Can you set aside your argument for a second, and consider this other point of view?" And when they do that (when we ALL do that), we tend to have a deeper discussion and we both truly learn more. Because we aren't trying to postulate and impress each other with our ridiculous fake confidence.

And I see women do this artfully at work too. The cleverest women I've seen do this are actually just using a lack of confidence to get to a result that they were really pretty confident about all along. You've seen these moves too:

"Can you help me understand your reasoning?"
"I'm sure you've already thought of this, but what if we...."
"That sounds like a great plan, but I guess I'm not sure how [this other thing] would fit in? What if we tried..."

It isn't rocket science. But it isn't blind confidence either. Blind confidence is just lack of competence dressed up to look pretty. Good managers can see through it. And if they can't, I don't think they're really that good. Because you can hire a company full of peacocks and prance around acting like you know what you're doing ... but for only so long. Eventually that team of nerds down the road is going to catch up and catch on.

This I believe is true. Who cares if I have the data to prove it?

Boy or girl?


Tomorrow we find out the answer to an epic question... are we having a boy or a girl? I have this very strange fear that I will be sad or disappointed when I hear the news. I'm not consciously worried about having a girl or having a boy, so I'm not sure where these feelings are coming from. But in an effort to alleviate my concerns, I have decided to make two lists:


Great things about having a BOY:

  1. I get to have a "son." That would be fun to say.
  2. We can raise one of each gender. This would be helpful for science experiments, proving and disproving stereotypes, and finally answering the question "nature or nurture?" What makes boys and girls different? (It will be such a relief when we finally figure this out.)
  3. BLUE CLOTHES. So many blue items of clothing we have been missing out on. Starting with boy pajamas (the best!).
  4. Boys seem less costly over time. They don't seem too obsessed with fancy clothes or jewelery or princess dresses. Or prom dresses! But wait then they are supposed to pay for dinner and all that...hmmm.
  5. It's really hard to picture what our boy would look like. Blonde maybe? It's fun to imagine.
  6. Jake and I only have sisters. So raising a boy would be like a wild new frontier for us. (But just so we're wouldn't be THAT different. See #5 to the right)


Great things about having a GIRL:

  1. Olivia gets to have a sister. How special is that?
  2. Olivia's dream of becoming ever more like the characters from Frozen comes true. (But which sister will be Elsa, the one with the power to freeze your heart and make you dead??)
  3. HAND-ME-DOWNS GALORE! We have boxes and boxes of adorable things that Olivia only got to wear a few times.
  4. Girl seems like the more cost-effective option. Did I mention that hand-me-downs are FREE?
  5. Girl is marginally more familiar than boy. I hesitate to even say this though. O is a girl, but it's not as though she is exhibiting uniquely female characteristics right now. She likes painting and playgrounds and singing and fruit. She dislikes bathtime and food she hasn't tried yet. We can navigate these things pretty well, but it has done nothing to prepare us for "raising a girl" necessarily.
  6. We already know what one daughter looks like. The other one will inevitably look different. But how??!

Well, in a strange way this makes me feel a little more reassured. Whichever variety we are blessed with, it will be a blessing. And learning the gender of this baby is just one tiny step in the journey toward learning who this little human is. A tiny one. But one of the only things we get to learn at this stage, so I plan to just run with it. I'm excited. (!!!)

What's gender got to do with it?

Boy or girl - doesn't matter, right?  Right!  And wrong.  The gender of a baby matters in ways that have nothing to do with value judgments or personal preference.  One of the most common things people ask me whether I would prefer a boy or a girl.  I suppose there are some people that freely answer this question one way or the other, but not me.  I can't.  And I won't, even if I could.

There was a time when I knew that I wanted a girl.  Three girls, actually.  Hope, Faith, and ... Love? Peace?  EarthMoonSunshine?  I forget.  This was yeeeears ago...circa 5th grade.  Circa Jennifer Love Hewitt, Party of Five, and apparently some kind of hippie influence.  Now I can honestly say that I don't have a "preference."  I have fears.  And concerns.  And I also dream about the fun little things that come with raising a boy or a girl.

The fact is, having a boy or girl does not matter to ME, but it does matter.  I studied gender long enough to know that boys and girls grow up differently and probably have some innate differences as well.  By the time children are 8-10 months old they have started developing a gender identity.  They learn that they are male or female in the same way they learn that the sky is blue.  From the moment they are born, in fact probably before that, we start to treat them differently.  Boys are more likely to be complemented for being "smart," "strong," or doing a good job.  Girls are more likely to get compliments about their looks- their cute shoes, pretty hair, or sweet smile.  (Here is a great blog about this very conundrum.) 

I've heard parents say that they tried to raise their kids "gender neutral," but each time it became impossible.  That makes sense to me.  Studies have shown that boys and girls tend to be naturally attracted to more "male" or "female" activities, toys, and behaviors.  Not true in every case, of course, just tendencies.  And we can't necessarily control that.  We can't control the messages kids get from other adults and kids.  And then we have our own limitations.  I have probably complimented little girls' clothing and hair 1.8 million times without thinking anything of it.  We do these things!  We all live in a gendered world.

And I know the world will not be a fair and balanced place for my children.  These fears go beyond gender too.  Chances are we not resolve sexism, homophobia, poverty, and the hundreds of our other social blemishes before my kids are grown.  But this doesn't make me "wish" for a boy any more than a girl.  It's not like that.

There is a fascinating and wonderful scene in the movie, The Family Stone, that my family watches every Christmas.  Sarah Jessica Parker's character tries to make a point about how it's a tough world out there, and even tougher if you are gay, and so doesn't every parent hope for a "normal" child?  Diane Keaton is the mother of the five Stone children, one of whom is gay.  She and the father, Craig T. Nelson, have such a fantastic response.  They remind me of my parents and of Jake's.

This video should start at the 3:15 mark - if you want to see the whole train wreck from the top, go to YouTube. I love this movie!

I think that all any parent hopes for is that their child will have the courage he or she will need to face life's inevitable unfairness.  I hope that I will find the way to pass that on to my kids.  Whether they are boy, girl, alien or superhero.