Brad Feld

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The Confidence / Competence Ratio

Aug 23, 2015
Category Management

After skimming the New York Times this morning (while Amy reads it word by word), I felt like a philosophical dump. Maybe it was the article on why Trump is so popular. Or the completely banal business section where everyone knows what is going on.

Confidence is an attribute that humans value. We like and are attracted to confident people.

Competence is an attribute that we also value. But it’s often more subtle and harder to determine, especially on a first interaction.

Over a long period of time, I’ve come to realize that a balance between confidence and competence is very appealing to me. I’m attracted to people who know what they know and know what they don’t know. These people are constantly learning and their competence around a particular topic increases linearly with their confidence.

Recently, I realized that we refer to people as over-confident or under-confident, but rarely refer to people as over-competent or under-competent. We do refer to people as clueless, ignorant, stupid, and other things that imply under-competent, but often in the context of their level of confidence. I don’t really know of a phrase we use for over-competent.

In an era where everyone is an expert, the ratio between these two concepts strikes me as particularly compelling. Lets define cluefulness (CLUE) as:

CLUE = confidence / competence

CLUE = 1 is ideal. If CLUE > 1 then you’ve got an over-confident person. If CLUE < 1 then you’ve got an under-confident person. But interpreting this on the under-confident / over-confident spectrum doesn’t really tell you much. Is the person a blowhard, or are they shy? Are they bombastic, or just quiet power? Are they an extrovert or an introvert? Are they full of shit, or just unconcerned with whether you realize how competent they are.

I’m attracted to people with CLUE <= 1. And I find people with CLUE > 1, especially by a significant amount, insufferable.

Do I have a CLUE about this? Feel free to help me get my ratio in balance.