Confidence: The root of success... can it also lead to failure?

Posted by Joel Bennett on

By Dr. Gale Lucas, Director of Research


Success is most often achieved by those who don't know that failure is inevitable.

~ Coco Chanel

Confidence is an essential part of how we succeed. In order to persevere in the face of challenges, we need confidence to overcome said challenges. Those who live by the words “never quit” - those who have grit - have confidence in the face of adversity, and are able to persist through the challenges that they face.

American folklore heroes "pull themselves up from their bootstraps" because they believe that they can. Our culture reinforces this belief – we are told that we can do anything we put our minds to, after all.

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Research suggests that there is validity behind such truisms and tales. Grittier individuals have greater success achieving important life goals that require commitment. They are more likely to graduate from school and hold onto their romantic relationships, for example, compared to those lower in grit.

LIMITATIONS TO GRIT?

Because grit seems to breed success, efforts are made to encourage grit and related virtues, especially from a young age.  Such training efforts are akin to programs that foster resilience like those developed at OWLS. However, we need to consider the limitations of grit and resilience. Even though grit scholars acknowledge there may be costs of being gritty, research has really only focused on its benefits. I recently took up this challenge (Ha! Ha!) to explore the downside to grit, and discovered that the downside is created by “uncalibrated” confidence.

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grit is argued to be a trait of perseverance. Grit enables an individual to persevere in accomplishing a goal despite obstacles over an extended period. When compared with the construct of persistence, grit adds a component of passion for the goal.

Source: Wikipedia

The Downside of Grit: Uncalibrated Confidence

In our research across several studies,  grittier individuals continued persisting on tasks to their detriment. In contrast, less gritty individuals were better able to figure out when to “cut their losses” and move on from an unsolvable task. For example, grit was associated with persisting longer at unsolvable puzzles when participants could have moved on to solvable ones.

This has real world consequences. Participants were paid more for success at our tasks, so grittier individuals who failed to move on to solvable tasks actually earned less money.  Tasks were designed to be analogous to timed tests like the SAT, where it behooves test takers to skip problems they are struggling with so there will be enough time for the ones they can solve. In our analog, grittier people failed to move on and therefore would have performed more poorly. Such an approach could hurt them on the SAT.

Why did the grittier individuals persist when faced with unsolvable puzzles instead of moving along? Our research found that grittier people are more confident when faced with losing propositions. Notably, it was because of this confidence that the gritty folks in our study refused to move on when it would have benefited them to do so.

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Discernment: Get More From Grit

Everything in moderation applies to confidence as well. Here are some thoughts to help you if you have too much confidence.

  • Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Confidence works in the form of realistic self-efficacy ("I can do this.."). Such efficacy, along with hope, optimism, and resilience, make up Psychological Capital. PsyCap helps drive success in important areas like school and work, and correlates with less stress and greater mental health.

  • At the same time, gritty individuals should take heed that they can be blinded by their confidence, which may hinder their success (pride goeth before the fall). To counter this, consider becoming more strategic, just like on the SAT: when life gives you unsolvable problems, move on to solvable ones.

  • Gritty individuals need to assess whether the current task is doable or not. Take a metered approach. Estimate your chances; know better when to move on. Reduce sunk costs and wasted effort, increasing your success in life even further.

  • If you are gritty, remember that confidence gives you the fuel to succeed. Without better calibrating your confidence with reality -knowing when to step on the breaks- you could be driving into a dead-end.

Even with the above points, calibration could be easier said than done. It's often unclear whether a given problem is unsolvable, or if it would be solvable if you just stuck at it long enough. Although we can think strategically to try to identify "unsolvable problems" or those paths that would lead to failure, we may only really know in hindsight. Only once the cat is out of Schrodinger's proverbial box do we know which it will be: a success or failure.  As NPR journalist Shankar Vedantam poses in an interview with me on this subject: "is stubbornness just the name we give to grit when things turn out badly?”

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