Why Overconfidence Bias is Limiting Your Success. And How to Stop It.

We’re Rarely as Good as We Think We Are.

“That we have made a hero out of Howard Hughes,” Joan Didion wrote, “tells us something interesting about ourselves.” And she’s right. While Hughes had the potential to be a great inspiration, his story represents one of the worst businessmen of the twentieth century.

After his father passed away in 1924, a young Howard Hughes inherited a portion of the family business, the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company. Still technically a minor, his extended family expected him to continue school while they ran the business. Yet in a move of incredible foresight, Hughes convinced a judge to declare him an adult and bought out his relatives for control. He quickly found himself in sole possession of the company — one that would go on to produce over a billion dollars of cash profit over the next century.

Yet the continued success of his tool company is largely attributed to the fact that Hughes never ran it. His only interest in his family’s business was to siphon off the cash to fund his two main passions — filmmaking and aircraft.

Eventually combining these two areas, he developed his most defining film, Hell’s Angels, a story of World War I aviators. After endless battles within his studio, he ended up firing nearly every department head and running things completely himself. Hughes strove for perfection in every shot, constantly pushing the envelope — a strategy that resulted in the fiery deaths of three stunt pilots. After years of rising budgets, the film was eventually completed for $3.8 million and lost close to $2 million.

Hughes claimed to have learned his lesson, saying “Making Hell’s Angels by myself was my biggest mistake…Trying to do the work of twelve men was just dumbness on my part. I learned by bitter experience that no one man can know everything.”

And yet, he repeated this same behavior throughout the rest of his life. Hughes eventually bought the movie studio RKO and produced losses of over $22 million. His constant meddling not only caused star directors and managers to quit, but frequently delayed release dates such that the footage would be out-of-date by the time it was released. When he tried to make a 1949 version of Hell’s Angels called Jet Pilot, he shot so much footage that it took six years to release the film — at which point the jet scenes were no longer impressive and the film quickly fell into obscurity.

His aviation business, Hughes Aircraft, secured multiple government defense contracts to produce reconnaissance and transport planes in support of World War II. Both projects quickly fell behind schedule and over budget as Hughes became involved with every decision, undermining the authority of those he hired to develop designs and manufacture the aircraft. By the end of the war, no reconnaissance planes were ever delivered.

Hughes was able to produce one transport plane, later known as the Spruce Goose. Taking five years to develop and costing roughly $20 million, it flew a mile before it became obvious that the plane didn’t have anywhere near enough power to support its weight. Hughes, piloting the test flight himself, had to set it down in the ocean and have it towed back. It would never fly again, but remain dry-docked in a Long Beach hanger for decades at the cost of $1 million per year.

Years later, as the U.S. military began to adapt its philosophy to support conflict in Vietnam, Hughes lobbied for and received the contract for a new reconnaissance helicopter. Yet in a turn of events that should have surprised no one, Hughes’ company again failed to come through on their promises, eventually resulting in losses of $90 million and a devastating hit to the company.

Throughout his life, Hughes demonstrated a pattern of mismanaging nearly every business he tried to run. And coupled with his tax fraud, the fatal plane crashes and car accidents, and millions he spent to gain contracts he had no realistic way of delivering upon, he showed a repeated willingness to bully and manipulate everyone to sate his own personal whims.

And in the end, he died a miserable person — addicted to pain pills, weighing 93 pounds, and under the complete control of a few assistants and executives who kept him out of the public eye and wrested control of his company away from him.

“There is nothing like success to blind one to the possibility of failure.” — Roger Lowenstein, When Genius Failed

Howard Hughes was a mechanical genius. He was a brave and talented pilot. And he had a strong sense of vision concerning both the film industry and the future of aviation.

Yet he allowed the confidence gained from these areas to delude him into believing he could do everything else to these same levels of success. Not only that, he felt he could do them better than anyone else. Time and again, he insisted on complete control of every decision, even when it was clearly outside his area of expertise.

Hughes was crazy at the end — but throughout his life he wasn’t much different from the rest of us. Fueled by early success and attention, Hughes became overconfident in his abilities. Puffed up by his own self-image, he neglected to recognize that skills in one area don’t always translate to skills in another. And addicted to the attention he was receiving, he was unwilling to settle for letting those underneath him be successful without him.

He imagined himself a great executive, yet was a poor manager of people. Instead of focusing on his technical skills, where he could have had a positive impact, he insisted on trying to control everything. Insulated through his own legend, he refused to learn from his mistakes. And thereby guaranteed this historic pattern of failures.

While few of us will likely have struggles on this scale, none of us are exempt from these same risks. We all bear a weakness to our own delusions of self-confidence. We all have the tendency to overestimate our own skills and fail to recognize this dichotomy — even as it becomes painfully obvious to those around us. As Peter Bevelin wrote in Seeking Wisdom,

“Most of us believe we are better performers, more honest and intelligent, have a better future, have a happier marriage, are less vulnerable than the average person, etc. But we can’t all be better than average.”

We all want to feel important, see ourselves as valuable, and have some specialized area of expertise. These are deep needs inherent in all of us.

Constantly looking for this validation, each success builds up our self-confidence. We tend to forget about the strong role that luck and timing play in our success, preferring to attribute it to our natural abilities. And we minimize the contributions of others who’ve helped us reach these points, instead viewing our successes as the sole result of our own superior efforts.

Each success confirms our heightened self-opinion, further separating our internal story from reality. And as this gulf continues to widen, we make more and more irrational decisions. Until reality refuses to play along and shatters our own self-perception — often in an embarrassingly public manner.

This fallacy is present in all of us — one that’s made worse by society’s tendency to idolize confidence over substance, certainty over skepticism. As Daniel Kahneman described these social pressures in Thinking, Fast and Slow,

Generally, it is considered a weakness and a sign of vulnerability for clinicians to appear unsure. Confidence is valued over uncertainty and there is a prevailing censure against disclosing uncertainty to patients.

While Kahneman cites this impact on doctors, it’s easy to translate this mentality to other roles. While we’re quick to advertise an appreciation for rationality and uncertainty, we’re equally quick to offer our trust to those who demonstrate extreme confidence.

Yet as Aristotle wrote, “Without virtue, it is hard to bear the results of good fortune suitably.” And without recognizing our own tendency for overconfidence, we’ll be doomed to repeat the same pattern of failures that marks Hughes’ legacy, albeit on a slightly lesser scale. And hopefully with a less horrific ending.

“Arrogance is the obstruction of wisdom.” — Bion of Smyma

Ellen Langer, of mindfulness fame and a professor at Harvard, ran a series of experiments testing peoples’ confidence in situations that were completely out of their control.

In one, a colleague flipped a coin while a student called our heads or tails. Yet the game was rigged, some students were told their first several guesses were correct; others were not.

The initial success had a powerful impact on the students’ confidence. Those who thought they guessed correctly soon felt they were skilled enough to beat the odds and guess correctly more than half the time.

Even more disturbing were the comments made by students afterwards — 40% felt they could actually improve their performance with practice. Langer called this phenomenon “the illusion of control.”

In another study, Paul Piff put subjects through a rigged monopoly game. Based on the flip of a coin, one of the players became a designated rich player — they received twice as much starting money, when they passed Go they collected twice the salary, and they were able to roll two dice instead of one, increasing their ability to move around the board.

As the game went on, the rich players started to become ruder to the other person — smacking the board with their piece as they went around and bragging about how much money they had. More importantly, when the researchers asked the players to talk about their experience, the rich players attributed their success to the decisions and actions they took during the game. Very few of them admitted to the situational difference — literally determined by a coin flip — that gave them such an advantage.

In these studies, and many of our own daily interactions, it’s easy to see how some initial success inflates our perception of our own abilities. A path that not only leads to acting like a jerk, but creates a self-image that doesn’t need to learn from mistakes or take steps to continue growing.

In other circumstances it has the opposite effect. When our self-image becomes tied to our last success, taking on challenges becomes too risky. That could expose our actual skill level. It’s much safer to hold back and keep our best work — and our best selves — safe from judgment.

Seeing these studies, it’s easy to recognize the ridiculousness of this behavior in others. Yet overconfidence, by its very nature, distorts our image of reality, so recognizing this bias in ourselves is much more difficult.

The solution then, becomes consciously confronting this bias. Not after it’s arrived and distorted our views of reality. But before it’s even occurred. As James Clear put it, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

“I am not a self-made man. I got a lot of help,” wrote Arnold Schwarzenegger in the opening to Tools of Titans, reminding us all that he wouldn’t have achieved his success without the help and support of countless others.

Success rarely comes easily. It takes a lot of hard work, luck, and help from others along the way. The greatest protection from overconfidence is remember this fact and cultivate a realistic attitude towards both your successes and your struggles.

Develop a habit of analyzing the components behind each success and failure. While many people are tempted to attribute success to their internal greatness and failures to external events, embrace the opposite mentality. Recognizing the role that fortune and others had in your success will keep you grounded. And focusing on your specific role in failed attempts will remind you that we all have areas we can improve upon.

In situations where overconfidence is high, feedback is usually low. Developing habits and systems that provide these reminders is critical to stay connected with reality.

And above all, remember that with each success comes a measure of complacency. With each success, it’s necessary to re-baseline our expectations, constantly starting from zero. Jeff Bezos epitomizes this philosophy by reminding Amazon that it’s always Day 1. As he wrote in his 2016 letter to shareholders,

“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”

Each success brings us closer to overconfidence and the complacency that comes with it. To avoid this fate, we need to wipe the slate clean with each new endeavor.

None of us are exempt from this bias. But in recognizing that fact, we’re better able to neutralize it. And maybe we’ll be able to stop repeating the same mistakes. As Robert Greene warned in The Laws of Human Nature,

“Remember: the gods are merciless with those who fly too high on the wings of grandiosity, and they will make you pay the price.”

Thanks, as always, for reading. Feel free to protect against my own overconfidence slide and offer any feedback — I’d love to hear from you. And if you found this helpful, I’d appreciate if you could help me share with more people. Cheers!

I have no idea what I’m doing. And that’s a good thing.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store