I have the incorrect perception that almost everyone is confident. It’s probably because of my input channels.
For one, the vast majority of the people I interact with come to me via the internet, where everyone who makes original content has accepted, or failed to consider, that they are opening themselves to judgment from millions of people. Our collective willingness to be seen -- perhaps, our demand to be seen -- speaks to a brazen confidence that either we will be liked, or that it simply doesn’t matter if we aren’t.
Second, I occupy a niche subpopulation of Japan: international teachers on JET, a program that vets for the capability to blab well-enunciated English in front of 30-40 very sleepy children, plus navigate a foreign country without succumbing to various mental illness-induced dysfunctions in the process. Thinking you can do this, or more precisely, that it is a service to those forced to observe it, requires a certain varietal of confidence. Foreigners in Japan are a very special group of people. More so than ex-pats in other places, we are noteworthy for our simultaneous reverence and distaste for the country, and our self-superiority for being able to both love and hate it so. “Gaijins are the worst,” we moan. “Except for me. I'm the exception.”
Even before my main modes of social interaction came to me via computer and soft-power initiatives veiled as cultural exchange, I was sorted, through a combination of test results and autonomous decision, into confidence-forming (or confidence-dependent) groups. I did well in school, I participated in sports and storytelling endeavors that invited audiences to observe and critique my ability, I served in modest leadership roles where I said modestly controversial things in public. My parents raised me with a steady determination that many children of immigrants will recognize, and my friendship circles prized rhetoric that stressed the importance of speaking up and expressing your truth. For several years now, I’ve been surrounded by peers wiser and calmer than myself, many of whom exemplify what I have recently dubbed “30-year-old confidence” -- a coolheadedness that allows one to easily glide past inconveniences, which often emerges sometime around three decades of practicing life.
For my part, I’m perceived as confident because I like to skip the small talk, am happy to say the unpopular thing if it’s really how I feel, and believe in my inherent value as a human being. (I also believe in yours.) I am aided by being young and thus, invincible, as well as having ineffable faith in the Universe. I also recognize I was born into enough privilege that the chances of things going horribly, irreversibly awry are statistically very low, which helps a lot.
My general life advantages have given me the impression that everyone faces life with a certain faith in self. However, contrary to my intuition, a lack of confidence is an extremely prevalent affliction. I ran a Twitter poll asking people if they would describe themselves as confident, and 60% of the 146 respondents said that they wouldn’t. This feels strangely high to me. Why is my worldview so skewed? Am I using a different definition of confidence?
In search of an explanation for my disconnect, I Googled it, then asked my group chats, then asked ChatGPT; this is the new order of authority in my life. I think my problem is as follows: I view confidence as having an accurate assessment of one’s own abilities and subsequently, acting accordingly. But the more popular definition of confidence is being assured that one has the abilities needed to succeed -- and the ability to convince others that they do as well.
This points to two distinct types of confidence:
In the context of self-knowledge, epistemic confidence comes from having an accurate, reliable picture of yourself and your abilities. Social confidence comes from being able to communicate that you have very good abilities.
Note: Epistemics is a branch of philosophy that refers to the study of knowledge and how it is acquired, justified, and shared. Typically, epistemic confidence refers to having a strong belief in the quality, reliability, and accuracy of information, ie. Having epistemic confidence means feeling strongly that your information is accurate. In this blog, I utilize the phrase slightly differently. I use “good epistemic confidence” to describe when a person’s view of self aligns with reality and “poor epistemic confidence” when it does not.
I will provide an illustrative example that explains the differences between the two types of confidence. Here, let me set the stage. We’re at a random high school, watching random high school kids shoot soccer goals during a PE lesson. The students take turns one by one.
Sarah’s a great swimmer, but she doesn’t have a lot of experience kicking a ball around. Because of this, she’s only 40% confident that she’ll make a goal. However, she’s secure in her athleticism overall, so she still plans on trying her best. Regardless of the outcome, she knows she’ll feel proud if she gives it an honest effort.
As Sarah moves to strike the ball, her foot connects powerfully -- just a bit too low. The goalie puts his hands up in mock defense as the ball flies over the net. Oh well, no big deal. Sarah rejoins her circle of friends and gives them helpful tips based on what she’s just learned. She had fun despite missing, so she thinks she’ll try once more at the end of class if there’s still time. She’s upbeat and kind, and cheers on her classmates with encouraging yells of “You can do it!”
Sarah has good epistemic confidence; she is accurate in both the assessment of her physical skill and her response to possible outcomes. She also has high social confidence; she knows that her adeptness at kicking a soccer ball is entirely separate from her worthiness of respect, so being mediocre at it doesn’t change her existing feeling of comfort amongst peers.
Billy is a well-liked, goofy kid. For some reason, he’s convinced that he’ll score a goal, even though he has not touched a soccer ball in eight years. His actual chances are somewhere around 30%.
He gets his friend to give him a piggyback ride to the front of the class. He dismounts and pumps a fist into the air, Breakfast Club style. He rallies the class into a rousing chant, Billy! Billy! Billy!
He slowly backs up, then charges the ball and lobs it…
…straight into the goalie’s hands. The class erupts with laughter. Billy goes red in the face. He’s used to being laughed with, not at, so he has no script for how to react in a healthy manner.
As he drags his feet back towards the rest of the class, he notices someone still smiling. Anger rises within him. He issues a vicious retort about the person’s appearance, loud enough for the whole class to overhear. For a moment, he’s startled by the ferocity of his words, but then everyone breaks into laughter once more. He straightens and joins them, grinning wide. The chant starts up again, Billy! Billy! Billy! It doesn’t matter that he missed the shot. Billy is undoubtedly part of the in-group. Billy belongs. He grins and delivers a comedic monologue about the trials of soccer.
Billy has poor epistemic confidence; he has incorrect beliefs about his soccer skills and lacks awareness of his tendency towards aggression following embarrassment. Billy has high social confidence; he is engaging and expressive, and easily garners social support from those around him.
Amanda is a talented athlete and knows it. If she gave it her all, she’d have a 90% chance of making a goal. But recently she’s been hanging out with a group of “cool” kids who have a thing about participating -- namely, that they’re above it.
Amanda is scared of what they might think if she tries too hard. She doesn’t want to look like a show-off or give the impression that she actually cares about something as childish as doing well in gym class.
She decides to flub it on purpose. She trudges towards the ball and taps it disaffectedly. It rolls toward the goal. The goalie stops it with his foot. Amanda returns to her friend group and checks for their reactions. They weren’t paying attention. Someone asks Amanda if she wants to smoke weed after school. She says yes. She’s grateful to be included.
Amanda has good epistemic confidence; she’s aware of her athletic ability and more notably, perceptive enough to know she cares far more about receiving her friends’ validation than any athletic achievement. She has low social confidence; she feels self-conscious and awkward and moderates her behavior in order to fit in.
Monica believes her athletic ability is extremely low, and she also thinks that everybody hates her. Because of this, she refuses to even try shooting a goal. She stands to the side of the field and picks grass. Nobody pays much attention.
The funny thing is, if Monica tried, she would find that she’s competently agile and completely worth befriending.
Monica has poor epistemic confidence; she’s wrong about her athletic ability, and she’s also wrong to think that she wouldn’t be an excellent friend. Additionally, she has low social confidence; she avoids interaction with others due to feelings of inadequacy.
Obviously, life is more complicated than a four-quadrant chart, but it's a good starting point for how to conceptualize epistemic and social confidence. As you likely deduced, it’s best to have both social confidence and epistemic confidence, and better to have one than none. As a sidebar, it’s worth mentioning that confidence levels can vary depending on the situation. For example, you may have good epistemic confidence when it comes to predicting how you’ll respond to interpersonal conflict, and terrible epistemic confidence when it comes to judging how proficient you are at logic tasks. Further, you may excel in social settings amongst friends, but struggle to connect with your family. Every person is unique; everything is a continuum.
In my own life, I avoid things that I have a high risk of failing badly in and try to encumber myself in productive situations where I have a moderate to high chance of feeling or doing good. I have the sense that everyone does this, which is why I was under the impression that nearly everyone is confident. If we know what we can and can’t do, we do what we can -- this is an application of good epistemic confidence.
It seems, however, that most people view confidence primarily as social confidence. It’s equated to highly visible accolades like social magnetism, financial security, or just plain attractiveness. “Confidence” conjures images of outgoing, charming people at parties, or high-powered business executives speaking in clear and decisive voices, or lithe, bubbly girls wearing hand-crafted polymer clay earrings roller-skating down the strip. Consequently, a large number of people feel unconfident because they lack some aspect of what supposedly makes confident people confident, like rippling muscles or good teeth or “executive presence”.
If you read about the difference between epistemic confidence and social confidence online, you’ll get a lot of clickbait hoopla written by B2B SaaS SDRs about how social confidence is superior because it worked for Jeff Bezos. You’ll receive advice on how you can charm people into thinking the chances of success are much higher than they really are, without ever revealing your true estimates. The goal is to erase doubt -- to present the illusion that success is guaranteed. This is where “fake it ‘til you make it” advice stems from, and also why so many people who project confidence also feel wildly unconfident whilst doing it. Perhaps if your goal is to become CEO of the world’s largest e-commerce conglomerate, social confidence truly is the way to go. But personally, I think epistemic confidence is cool in its own way, and certainly, much easier to develop.
Epistemic confidence asks you to be honest with yourself about what you’re capable of. And because we’re unnecessarily harsh on ourselves, chances are that we’re capable of a lot more than we dare to say aloud. If you take the time to form an accurate understanding of your abilities, then you will know when to admit that you lack them, and -- even scarier -- know when to face the enormity of your potential.
One of my favorite compliments to receive is that I am really, refreshingly me. That someone has never met someone like me before. That “me” doesn’t even need to be likable. In fact, the observation might be delivered as an insult. Either way, being recognized as an individual is inherently flattering. It’s special to know that I exhibit authenticity -- that my expressed limitations do not detract from my personhood, but rather, bolster its fullness. I can fail and still be confident. I am confident because I have failed. I am constantly learning and re-learning. I am updating my beliefs. I am plotting a course of best fit, then changing it, and changing it, and changing it…