You've probably seen this happen. A co-worker, friend, or family member has an idea they say will work great. But when you try it out, it falls flat. Instead of acknowledging failure, your friend or co-worker insists that the problem was the implementation. The people who carried it out didn't do it right. They weren't really behind it. Even after multiple failures, your friend or co-worker still insists their approach is the right one.
None of us like to admit that we're wrong, psychologist Guy Winch explains in a fascinating column in Psychology Today. But most of us fully or partially do so when it's clear that we are. We might say, "Gee I thought it was a good idea, but clearly I was mistaken." We might say, "It would have been a good idea, except that the market has changed." But we don't keep insisting our idea is a stroke of genius when the facts show otherwise.
Some people simply won't admit they made a mistake, instead insisting on their own brilliance. They may even claim their project was deliberately sabotaged by jealous co-workers rather than admit that they were wrong to ever think it would work.
Someone with that kind of certainty can be very convincing. You might admire or even envy their apparent confidence. You might agree that their idea deserves yet another chance because, after all, how could someone so smart and self-assured be wrong?
The problem is, they're not self-assured at all, Winch explains. They're the opposite--so insecure they simply can't bear to admit, even to themselves, that they made a mistake. He writes that some people have "such a fragile ego, such brittle self-esteem, such a weak 'psychological constitution" that even the idea that they were wrong is too threatening to tolerate. To keep that idea at bay, he says, they do something remarkable. "They literally distort their perception of reality to make it (reality) less threatening."
What truly confident people do.
Winch's observation made me realize that the inverse is also true. The most genuinely confident people are also some of the quickest to admit their errors. Take Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who may have been the most confident person ever to walk the earth. "Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations," he once said.
And he did. He abandoned many products and product ideas that weren't working. Perhaps the most noteworthy was the NeXT computer, which was high-end in every way, and originally produced in a striking cube shape. Creating that cube, and filling it with top-of-the-line processors and other technologies, made the NeXT expensive--its first model sold for $10,000. Jobs had intended it for the education market, but the price tag was too much of a deterrent. After seven years during which the company sold only 50,000 units total, Jobs admitted his mistake and turned NeXT into a software-only company instead. The following year, NeXT became profitable for the first time. Three years after that, Apple acquired NeXT--an early example of an "acqui-hire" in which Jobs returned to run Apple. Many of Apple's products, including the App Store and OSX, were built using NeXT software.
But the most impressive example I've seen of someone with the confidence and emotional intelligence to admit a mistake is Jennifer Thompson-Canino. As a young woman, she was raped and later positively identified a man named Ronald Cotton as her assailant. Cotton was sent to prison where he remained for 11 years. Then another man appeared in the prison, also charged with sexual assault. Cotton realized this new prisoner looked a lot like himself. He alerted the authorities and they were eventually able to prove through DNA testing that Cotton was innocent and this other man was guilty.
When Thompson-Canino heard about it, she was naturally horrified. She apologized to Cotton in person. The two became unlikely friends and eventually wrote a book together about their experiences. They now travel the country giving presentations to alert the public and law enforcement to the unreliability of eyewitness accounts and memories.
That shows genuine emotional security. Insisting that you're right in the face of evidence shows anything but. So don't be taken in by people who never back down and never admit they were wrong. It might look like extreme confidence, but it's actually just the opposite.