There is one piece of advice that you get a lot when you go through the German school and university system, and it happens to be very bad. So bad, in fact, that I don’t even think the title of this blog post is clickbait.
“Eliminate ‘I think’ or ‘I’m pretty sure’ from your vocabulary. Either you know it or you don’t. Project confidence.”
I have a tendency to overqualify things because I’m acutely aware when I’m not completely certain something is true. My wife is the same way. Throughout our schooling in Germany, this advice has been given to us over and over again1, despite the fact that it is, in my opinion, really bad advice. There is exactly one situation where it might be useful: in an exam, when you need to bullshit your way through a question. Weasel-y language will make you seem more suspicious, so you take the plunge and say whatever you kinda sorta know with the most confidence and hope it goes well.
Is that a good strategy anywhere else, in industry or acaedmia? Is it somehow problematic to admit that you do not, in fact, know all there is to know in the field, or even in your area of expertise? I would argue that this is only important when your ego is out of control. Take a deep breath. Say it with me. “I don’t know, let me look it up for you.”
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you need to trust what you know, even if you don’t know whether you know it. When you’re defusing a bomb or operating on another human’s heart, you might need to have faith in your ability. These kinds of scenarios rarely happen with other people, though. In fact, I can’t think of one non-combative situation where you don’t have the time to think, or to look something up real quick. They might exist, but they don’t make up the bulk of my time.
I’m a consultant. If you wanted to break my job down in an inaccurate, somewhat mean way that most people happen to agree with, you could say that I tell other people what to do for a living. Some consultants have a fear of admitting they’re wrong or they don’t know something, and some are used to bullshitting their customers when in doubt. When I first started to work as an external actor, I had to learn that just because people hired an expert that doesn’t mean they expect them to know everything. Take a deep breath. Say it with me. “Let me get back to you on this.”
My wife works in healthcare. I have never interacted with that business, but as a patient and partner of someone who works there, and I don’t want to make any sweeping indictments. I know, however, that some of the doctors she encounters—and, I would argue, some of the doctors each of us encounter in our lives—are so used to tell people what they think confidently that they cannot ever not be sure about something externally, even if internally they might not be so sure. It’s not necessarily their fault: we are used to doctors knowing what’s up right away. We project knowledge onto them, and they have to own it2.
I think this advice comes from a good place: trust yourself more! You know this stuff! But that’s not what you’re actually telling people to do. People choose to say “I think” or “I’m pretty sure” very deliberately: they’re not 100% sure. That doesn’t mean they don’t know, it just means that they’re prepared to be wrong, which is a good thing.
I had to unlearn bullshit confidence. At its best, it’s a life hack to make people think you’re smarter than you are. At its worst, it’s a codified component of toxic masculinity3. Making yourself vulnerable by saying you don’t know is not an invitation to belittle you. You’re not going seem like less of an expert. In my experience, it goes one of two ways: either people do not even notice, or they appreciate your honesty.
Long story short: if someone tells you that you need to seem more confident in your answer, tell them “no, thanks”.
1. Sometimes our admission of uncertainty would even cost us grade points.
2. Some might argue that this is a similar dilemma that consultants face. I don’t actually think so. I think there is one important difference: consultants project this image of “the all-knowing expert” onto themselves, engineering their own downfall (or becoming a guru, which is arguably even worse for everyone involved).
3. I should expand on this: bullshit confidence is not inherently a male trait, nor is it inherently toxic. Still, a part of what I identify as “toxic masculinity”–overly performative masculinity without any substance that is, at the end of the day, as fragile as its shaky foundations and tends to lash out when challenged—is the idea that “you have to be a leader and give others directions” taken to the extreme by people who don’t actually know how to lead. It’s a recipe for disaster, and unearned confidence is one of its building blocks.