Competence leads to confidence, but not vice versa.

OverconfidenceThe self-help and business section of any good bookshop will offer a wealth of advice as to how you can improve your confidence, the narrative will suggest that confidence will lead to success not only in your career but in life.

However, there is a subtle and important distinction to be made.  Although you can appear confident, it doesn’t mean you are competent. Confidence is a feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of your own abilities or qualities. It’s a belief in your ability to succeed, it doesn’t mean you will or strangely enough even notice that you haven’t.

Confidence does not make you any more likely to be right than a person lacking in confidence.

The Confident student

When I was studying I remember meeting a colleague after work for a drink. We had agreed to get together when the examination results were out from our first year. The individual concerned was a very confident person, he displayed this in his body language, loudness and use of language. The truth is I had just about scraped through the exam with a mark only 5% above what was needed. As the evening went on I listened quietly, impressed by his grasp of the subjects we had studied and how well he was doing at work. I didn’t particularly want to get onto the topic, but just before the evening ended I plucked up the courage to ask, how he had done? He then said, he had failed the exam, but went on to add that he thought this was a very good result given that he hadn’t tried very hard, largely due to the responsibility of his day job. The odd thing was I remember nodding in agreement, impressed he had done so well. “How about you”, he said, “oh I managed to pass but only just” I replied. In fairness I think he complimented me.

It was only driving home in the car that I realised that I had past and he had failed, odd isn’t it what confidence can do.

Confidence bias

How was my friend able to remain so confident even though he had failed? Well phycologists have a word for this, it’s called confidence or confirmation bias. In effect you ignore or delete evidence that does not fit with your existing beliefs. There is in fact a lot of it about, you may not be surprised that it’s more common in men than women and it tends to be age related. This is the reason that a 20-year-old will base-jump of a mountain with no more than a wingsuit to keep them in the air, but a 50 year would probably think it too risky. The 20 year is so confident they won’t die, they will delete the statistics that say they might.

And it gets worse, the Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein people of low ability suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their cognitive ability as greater than it is. There is a great story here of a bank robber who covered himself in lemon juice thinking he was invisible, unfortunately he was wrong and got caught.

“The only thing I know is that I don’t know anything.”


Confidence should be earned not learned

Its very easy as a student to be intimidated by others who appear to know more. The truth is it doesn’t matter what other people know, only what you do. The danger is you begin to judge your own performance by that of others, and if its not as good it can impact on how hard you work, learn and study, worse still it lowers your self esteem.

Confidence comes from the little successes you have, keep thinking about them even when the studying gets harder and others appear to be doing better. After all they may be suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect, they just don’t know they are.





“You never fail until you stop trying.” – Toms story

The young Tom - inspiring us even then

The young Tom – inspiring us even then

I am not sure when I first met Tom but it was certainly early on in his studies. Tom was not your typical accountancy student, he was slightly older and perhaps more reflective, the two points may be related. Students studying for professional accountancy exams are probably around 25 and focused very much on looking forward, not back.

Tom started his exam journey in November 2009, his first 2 papers went well and he passed them first time. You need to pass 10 exams broken down over three levels if you want to become a member of the Chartered Institute of management accountants (CIMA).  Boosted by this Tom decided to sit the next 4 papers all at once, something he now thinks was a mistake, he passed just the one. By the end of 2011 however he had passed the other 3. That was 6 papers and two levels complete, Tom was back on track.

“Even though the ship may go down, the journey goes on.” – Margaret Mead

2012 was not a great year for Tom on a personal level which almost certainly had an impact on his performance in the exam room. As a result the whole of that year went by with only one exam success. Between 2012 and 2013 Tom sat one of the remaining papers three times and the other one six times, to quote Tom, that’s six, count them 1…..2….3…..4…..5…..6….. He finally passed that paper in November 2013.

It’s probably worth pausing at this point, how would you feel if you sat an exam twice and failed, let alone 6 times. At this stage your biggest enemy is your own mental attitude. You begin to question your ability, your intelligence and even your choice of career. On top of this is the boredom and stress of having to study the same exam over and over again, trying to do something different, fearing if you don’t you will get the same result. And of course as many of you will know when you are studying your life is on hold, making decisions about work, family/friends is difficult as you need to put your studies first.

In fact Tom did consider giving up, but there were two reasons he didn’t. One the support of his teacher, Maryla who remained positive throughout whilst working with Tom on what he needed to do to improve, and two Toms stubborn attitude, his determination and desire to get something good from all the hard work he had put in so far. To quote Tom, “all I kept thinking was I have lost so much because of this bloody course I have to get something positive from it.” When Tom finally passed that paper he felt excited, and as if he had slain a personal demon.

“Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.” – William Ward

With only one paper to go Tom was still to face a number of challenges, and it was far from plain sailing.  Knowing a large amount of detail was essential for the earlier papers, now it was all about the big picture, prioritisation and time management.

He was told that gaining the qualification would open doors … So he imagined an open door, on the other side were green fields, money, cars, holidays, being the boss. This focus really helped motivate him to see it through. He passed his last exam on the 29th of May 2015.

It had taken Tom 6 years, in which he had sat in the exam room approximately 22 times. This is not the story of someone who always knew he would pass, destined for success nor of a naturally gifted student who simply needed the right motivation to bring out his talent. This is about what you can achieve if you are willing to make sacrifices, give everything you have and learn from failure.

Congratulations Tom you deserve your success.


Big fish – little pond

Best be a Big fish in a Small pond

It’s taken me a little time to get round to reading the latest Malcolm Gladwell (MG) book, David and Goliath, underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants. Although consisting of three separate sections they all examine the idea of what it means to have an advantage and how we account for the success of the underdog.

Of all the ideas MG lays before the reader, the one I felt was of most interest is something called the big fish little pond effect (BFLPE) and the theory of relative deprivation.

Relative deprivation theory (RDT)

Relative deprivation refers to the discontent people feel when they compare their positions to others and realise they have less. e.g. I judge BMW ownermyself to be successful on the basis I have a brand new car that cost £15,000.  That is until my neighbour pulls on the drive with a brand new BMW costing £30,000, now how successful do I feel?

MG applies this theory to the world of academia. If you take Harvard’s Economics PhD programme and consider the number of times each PhD graduate was published in the last 6 years, Harvard’s top students will do this 4.31 times. Those that are about 5th or 6th in the class publish .71 times and those that are about average .07 times. If however you compare these results to a “mediocre” school, say the University of Toronto, where MG went,  the top students will publish 3.13 times, those that are 5th or 6th .29 times and those that are average .05 times. The point being that students who attend a much lesser university but where they are top of their group perform considerably better than the 5/6th best at Harvard. The question is why?

The smarter your peer group the dumber you feel…..

This is where RDT comes in, we tend to judge our ability by comparing with others, and if you are in a class with very smart people who always do better than you, your perception of your own ability will be effected. The second problem is that this self perception will have a significant impact on your behaviour and ultimately what you achieve, hence the results above. The implication, you will achieve more if you are in a class with others of equal or less ability than yourself.

Bottom line, your performance will improve if you are a big fish in a small pond. It’s even called, the big fish little pond effect (BFLPE)

But what to do?

Admittedly you can’t always pick and choose your peer group, but you can be aware that comparing yourself with the very best may be having a detrimental impact on your own performance, so stop doing it! Instead be inspired by the best but compare your performance with those that are the same as you. Better still compare your current performance with what YOU have achieved in the past and if you are doing better you must be improving…..



Listen to MG talking about relative deprivation theory or if you prefer the Big Fish little pond theory….


Listen to MG being interviewed about the book

Intelligence and IQ – does it matter?

Yesterday Boris Johnson delivered the annual Margaret Thatcher lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies in London, in it he said:

Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130.”

Mr Johnson (Boris) uses the measure of IQ to make the point that if we don’t have equality in intelligence then economic equality is not possible. Effectively he is saying we should accept that some animals are more equal than others, apologies for the Animal Farm digression…..

What is Intelligence?

Yet a large part of Boris’s argument hinges on the term intelligence and that it has some meaning or value, but what is intelligence? The word itself is derived from the Latin verb intelligere, to comprehend or perceive. A good start, but that’s all it is a start, here are a few more definitions:

  • Judgment, otherwise called “good sense,” “practical sense,” “initiative,” the faculty of adapting one’s self to circumstances  (Alfred Binet the creator of the IQ)
  • The ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations (Merriam-Webster dictionary)
  • To my mind, a human intellectual competence must entail a set of skills of problem solving, enabling the individual to resolve genuine problems or difficulties that he or she encounters. (Howard Gardner, Multiple Intelligence Theory)

The last of these is my personal favourite as it gives purpose to having intelligence, to solve problems. The bottom line, there is no one single definition and experts disagree on how it should be tested/measured. Interestingly the IQ (intelligent quotient) developed by Alfred Binet was only ever intended to be used to identify intellectual disability not to form the basis of an elitist club or for Boris to hijack for his Margaret Thatcher lecture.

Does it matter?

People often have a personal view of their own intelligence, this can sometimes be empowering when you find out “You’re a god Dammed Genius” or limiting if “you discover your IQ is only 75.” Just for the record, 91-110 is average, 80-90 is dull normal, 66-79 borderline and 65 and below, defective.

The very fact that you believe you are intelligent can be motivational, resulting in you putting in more effort. The self belief that you can solve any problem will often result in you solving most of them, and of course proving you are not only intelligent but a genius!

I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.


Contrast that with the behaviour of someone who believes they are not intelligent or maybe not as intelligent as others. Faced with a problem they will give up, believing the solution is beyond them, and of course proving that they were also right and not a genius.

But Does Boris have a point?

Boris uses IQ (The measure of intelligence) to illustrate the point that we are all different, something that most people would readily accept. What I find uncomfortable is the deterministic nature of his proposition, it implies having a high IQ predicts success and by the exclusion of the many other factors that contribute to success, suggests is the only thing that matters. The Telegraph headline made this point very strongly.

Boris Johnson: some people are too stupid to get on in life

Natural differences between human beings will always mean that some will succeed and others will fail, the Mayor of London says in a speech

Yet on the basis that there is little agreement as to what Intelligence is, the testing and what should be tested subjective, it would appear a poor basis on which to hang his argument.

Lessons for learning

What I do agree with is that we are all different and that some of this is the function of genetics. (Research indicates that 60% of intelligence is genetic) yet on the basis that you can do very little about this, does it matter?

It is always better to work on what you can change rather than what you can’t. I am sure many of us know people who seem to grasp principles, concepts’ etc and solve problems pretty quick. If you compare yourself to them it’s easy to conclude that they are better and you will always be second rate, so stop trying. The simple answer is don’t compare yourself with them, compare only with yourself, are you getting better and if you are then your improving, and that’s a result.

So forget about measuring intelligence and whether your better than someone else and get on with trying hard and being the best you can.

More on intelligence

Human intelligence, BBC Horizon. An interesting programme that evaluates the intelligence of different high performers.

And the smartest man in the world is… here

Rocky boxing No – it’s about motivation

In 1976 a relatively unknown actor, Sylvester Stallone, wrote and starred in Rocky, a film that grossed $225m and won three Oscars. What a success story, “unknown actor becomes a star overnight”. But there is another story, the story as to how Sylvester Stallone came to write the script and got to star in the film.

This is even more interesting and it’s not about boxing or Hollywood it’s about motivation.

I wrote about motivation back in January 2012, but it is so important because it impacts on your ability to study and as a result exam success I think we should explore it in more detail.

If you’re motivated you will work harder, study longer and if you study longer guess what, you significantly improve your chances of passing.

In my earlier blog I described motivation as the wants, needs and beliefs that drive an individual towards a particular goal or perceived outcome. I went on to talk specifically about goals and how to set them, but there is much more to being motivated than simply setting goals.

A structure to help with motivation

I recently came across a framework* that provides a great way to think about motivation.

Engage – with yourself

Firstly ask yourself a few simply questions. How come you have got this far, what has been your motivation, what is it you want and why do you think that passing this exam will help you? Okay the idea of talking to yourself might seem odd, but trust me its normal.

If you can identify what it is that has motivated so far and there will be something, you can use it to motivate yourself even more.

Stallone recognised in himself a hunger to be an actor; he fed that hunger because he knew that it would help him succeed.


This is where the goal setting fits in. Set yourself a goal, exactly how to do this is described in detail in my January blog. Click here motivation – how to want to study.

Most thoughts and ideas have structure, motivation is no different.

Stallone clearly had a goal, it was vivid, very much within his control and positive, something he wanted as appose to something he didn’t want.


Ask why is this goal important to me? What will it give me that I don’t have now? Repeat the questions several times, what pictures do you see?

The goals that you set have to be relevant to you, they have to have meaning for you, they are personal.

There was something that made wanting to be an actor highly relevant for Stallone. From this story we are not exactly sure what it is, just that it was powerful.


What do you believe about yourself, do you believe you’re clever or not? Do you believe you should pass? What do you believe will make the difference to your exam success?

Beliefs are probably the most important element of motivation. As Henry Ford once said “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.” Challenge what you believe and ask yourself one very simple question – Does this belief help me achieve my goal or not – if not change it!

Stallone had a huge amount of self belief; he first turned down $250k, said no to $325k and finally accepted $35! Ask yourself would you have done that, honestly I don’t think I would.

Listen to Tony Robbins tell the Stallone story

Click this link to hear Tony Robbins, I would recommend you listen, it’s well worth it.




*A framework for motivation – Motivational Drivers, Alan McLean

What’s the point of exams – what do they prove?

With many students in the middle of exams right now, working long hours, making huge personal sacrifices and putting themselves under considerable pressure, perhaps we should stop, take a moment to reflect and ask ……….what’s the point of exams?

Why are you doing this, what will it prove when you do pass, what will passing give you that you don’t have now?



It’s not about knowledge

If you pass an exam, you have proved that you knew the answers to questions set by the examiner at a particular point in time. To be precise you have only really proved you knew enough answers to get a pass mark, in some instances this might be less than half! But you have not proved that you understand everything about the subject or that you could work unsupervised in practice, knowing what to do is not quite the same as doing it.

This is not to say that examinations are easy, they are not or to underestimate their importance, it is just to be a little clearer on what exam success means.

Higher level skills

By passing an exam you are demonstrating many other skills, for example;

Motivation – You have proved that when you set your mind to something you can achieve it.

Concentration – For some people, concentration comes easily for others it might involve removing all distractions by locking themselves in a room. Whatever method you used, you have learned how to cut out distractions and focus on the task in hand.

Prioritisation and Time management – Undoubtedly you have had too much to learn and too little time to learn it. But if you pass the exam you have proved that you got the balance between an endless, or at least what appeared endless set of demands and the overall objective just right.

But most of all exams give you….

A great sense of achievement – You set yourself a target and achieved it.  It is a statement to others that you worked hard and have succeeded. It will remain a tangible and permanent reminder of success that can never be taken away.

Self confidence – It will build self esteem and help you develop a type of confidence that only comes from being successful in a chosen field. Others will congratulate you and as a result, treat you differently.

Choices – it will open doors to opportunities that simply would not have been possible without the piece of paper that says “Congratulations, you have passed”. Exam success will give you choices, it will change how others look at you but perhaps more importantly it will change how you feel about yourself…

So if you have been working hard keep at it, you may not be proving you are the greatest mathematician in the world, but if all goes to plan the end result will make up for all the pain you are going through right now, honest!

But just in case…..everything doesn’t work out check out these Famous A-level flunkers

Exam results – what to do if you fail!

August is an interesting month, for some it is the time to take a well earned holiday and so de-stress for others it is the month in which the exam results drop through the letter box or inbox and so a time to get stressed.

I have taken the easier of these two options and so have been on holiday, which for me is always a chance to read a couple of books. One of them was called Talent is overrated by Geof Colvin, senior editor for Fortune magazine. In the book Geof puts forward some interesting arguments as to the role talent plays in the success of people who by many would be considered exceptional, even gifted. He argues not so much that innate talent does not exist, more that successful people, those at the top of their respective tree, Tiger Woods (okay not personally – but he is still a great golfer) Warren Buffet, Bill Gates for example have other qualities, they worked hard, and practised a lot…..

Greatness does not come from DNA but from practice and perseverance honed over decades. The key is how you practice, how you analyse the results of your progress and learn from your mistakes.

What has this got to do with exam failure?

If you looked around your class and picked the best, brightest, most talented students, I bet they passed their exams. And the reason you failed was because you are not good enough, you are not talented!

Well here is the bad news, what Geof Colvin and in fairness many others have found is that it is often not down to talent, it is down to hard work and practice, and we are all capable of that. If you believe that your poor exam results were because of your lack of innate abilitiy then you are wrong. You are in fact creating what is called a fixed mindset, you begin to believe that you can’t affect your performance and so don’t try. What’s more it’s not all that good to believe you are naturally talented. Research has proven that if you believe that you do well because you are talented, when faced with failure you are more likely to give up. If you believe that you did well because of hard work and then you fail, you carry on but just work harder next time.

So what should you do?

Geof goes on to say that it is not just practice that matters but how you practice, you need to practice deliberately. He calls it deliberate practice and it should;

  • Be designed to improve performance
  • Be repeated a lot
  • Enable you to get feedback continuously
  • Be highly demanding mentally
  • Not be much fun

But what satisfies the above criteria…….. yes practicing using past exam questions. So if you were not successful in your exams, find out when you can re-sit then;

1. Take a deep breath, get out your notes from last time and draw a mind map or review the one you did for revision, sometimes it’s best to make a fresh start. This will remind you of what you have to cover and get you thinking about the subject again.

2.  Analyse the past exam questions (including the last exam) and find out what is examined the most then identify the areas you need to improve.

3. Start to practice these past questions using the answers for feedback, and no it may not be much fun but then you now that.

Failure – the only way to learn

Here is a great video by a guy called Derek Sivers, Derek is a professional musician and founder of a company called CD baby in the US. He makes an argument as to why we need failure because it is a major factor in how we learn and grow.

Final thought

I know at the moment that failing an exam can feel like the biggest disappointment in the world and that it may seem that your career is over before it really got started. But it is what you do next that really matters

As Michael Jordon once said “I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying”

Inspirational true story…Never give up!

Congratulations on failing from one failure to another…