In praise of nagging doubt 

Successful careers require a lot of work and luck. Right place, right time. Happened to me many times: From junior copywriter to Creative Director in a few months because of good work and an amazing string of wins. Moving from creative to web development to media to consulting to speaking and being quite good at it. Still, there’s this nagging doubt one day I’ll get found out.

That’s a very good place to be. Because confidence is overrated.

The human brain is quite a con artist, changing perceptions of our own skills and talents. And the skills of others. 

The biggest scam the brain plays on us is constantly overstating our aptitude. The majority of us believe we are in the top 10% of drivers, deserve better, are more intelligent than the rest of the office. Even worse, the less accomplished you are, the more likely you are to overestimate your brilliance and skills. 

Quite a challenge for the advertising industry, overeager to celebrate the young and new. While we want the new kids on the block to shake things up and move the firm out of its comfort zone, we shouldn’t forget that younger age equals overestimating skills and talents. There has to be a balance between eagerness and reality. 

If you never worked for a good company, how do you define “good”? 

That’s another challenge for our industry: The vast majority has never worked for a good company. (I’m not talking about a name brand company, I’m talking about a good company. If you’ve ever worked for one, no need to explain.) And that leads to:

The Creative Director (Print) who is now in charge of integrated advertising.

The small agency that works well with small clients and believe they should go global.

The account strategist who used to be a suit and got the new job by being, well, a good suit. And a terrible strategist. 

The big agencies who mistake historic accomplishments with greatness.  

When you believe you are “it”, you won’t listen to constructive feedback, you take on too much, you suffer through bouts of arrogance. Why learn? But if you have that constant fear, that nagging doubt, you’ll do your best to be great because you don’t allow yourself to mistake good for great. 

We pray at the altar of confidence

We tend to believe in confident people. It’s not what people say, it’s how they say it. Ponzi schemes and insurance scams are based on confident snake oil salesmen. In an industry full of self-confident showmen, you can imagine the amount of bad advice that get’s through because of how it’s delivered.  

And then there is the danger of confidence in information. Confirmation bias. We tend to make the information fit our point of view. We see patterns in things that are mere coincidence. Which is slightly scary when interpreting research. It’s why religious folks see the Virgin Mary in a slice of toast, and people with arthritis think their dodgy hip hurts more when it’s going to rain, when they only remember the times it rained and their hip hurt, rather than the occasions it didn’t. 

Confidence is a false God. 

Don’t believe in yourself too much, it will make you more effective and thoughtful. 

Don’t rush out to look for people who will agree with you. Try to find the special ones who will challenge everything. 

Being hard on yourself will help you avoid confirmation bias and stop seeing Jesus in research data that means nothing. 

And, above all: Trust no one. Least of all yourself.