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Should You Be Honest With Yourself?

Find out when it's good to be pessimistic versus overconfident.

January 24th, 2012

Tags: Mood

We often say that honesty is the best policy.  We certainly hope that the people around us are telling us the truth in most cases (though perhaps we don’t expect politicians and used-car salespeople to be completely honest). 

In many ways, though, we bend the truth to ourselves and distort our perceptions in ways that are quite useful for helping us succeed.  Let’s consider two of those:  overconfidence and defensive pessimism.

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Should You Be Honest With Yourself?

Overconfidence is when you overestimate your chance of success in a venture.  You look in the mirror right before going to give a big presentation and for that moment, you are just certain that you are going to get the contract, wow the client or win over the jury.  Your actual chance of success is probably not as high as you think it is. 

But in situations like this, overconfidence is often the right strategy.  Your actions are going to determine the outcome, and so the self-confidence that you bring with you actually increases your chance of success.

QUIZ: How’s Your Self-Esteem?

What about defensive pessimism?  You have a big exam to study for.  You convince yourself in the week before the test that you are headed for failure.  Or perhaps you have spent the last six months painting in preparation for your first one-woman show.  On the night before the opening, you are certain that nobody will show up and that those that do will be unimpressed.

Defensive pessimism can be helpful in two ways.  First, when you are preparing for an upcoming event (like an exam or a presentation) convincing yourself that you are less well-prepared than you are can spur you to work harder and prepare more carefully.  That hard work will pay off in the end.

Second, there are some events where the outcome is largely out of your control.  Artists, musicians and authors who release their work into the world have very little control over whether their ventures will succeed.  For them, a little defensive pessimism can help to set initial expectations low.  This way, they can only be pleasantly surprised if things go better than they hoped.

MORE: Fess Up When You Mess Up

Quick summary:  When you are preparing for a big event, it is reasonable to be defensively pessimistic to help spur you to prepare.  When it is showtime, though, and your performance is going to be a big factor in whether you are going to succeed, then a little overconfidence goes a long way.  Finally, if a lot of the factors for success are out of your control, then some defensive pessimism can help protect you from disappointment.

So what about being honest with yourself?

Honesty is most important when you start to get feedback about your performance.  If you give a big presentation, and your client gives you feedback, listen to it even if it is negative.  You cannot learn from your mistakes if you refuse to acknowledge them. 

If you enjoy my column here at YouBeauty, please consider buying a copy of my new book “Smart Thinking.”

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