Lessons in Overconfidence

On the one hand, having confidence is a necessary trait. On the other, being overconfident can cause grave mistakes. 

When Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer led his men during the Civil War, he was known as aggressive, relentless, a planner and a fighter. Custer was willing to take chances, always advancing with his preferred strategy, which resulted in victories and advanced his career. When he commanded the Michigan Wolverine Cavalry Brigade, he surprisingly won the battle against J.E.B. Stuart’s men at East Cavalry Field despite being outnumbered. His division also blocked the Army of Northern Virginia’s final retreat and was the recipient of the first flag of truce from the Confederates. For Custer, each battlefield success made him forget his struggles as a student at West Point. Custer finished in the bottom of the class of 1861, yet still commissioned, then developed his battlefield confidence with each aggressive victory. Custer loved two things: being aggressive in battle and having his picture taken in his black and gold uniform.

When the war was raging with the Native Americans over territory in Southern Montana, near Little Big Horn, General Custer and the 7th Calvary were sent West to recapture a land once believed to be given to the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne.  Tensions were at an all-time high between Native Americans and the U.S. government, which reneged on a land deal as Native Americans were being forced farther West than in the agreement. Custer made many tactical errors before the fight at Little Big Horn. The first was splitting his cavalry into three smaller groups, even though his scouts told him directly that Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, the Indian warriors, were poised and ready to handle any fight with a massive number of soldiers. The second was being overconfident. Custer was cocky, self-absorbed, forgetting his past problems in school. He began believing his fame instead of dedicating his life to his work. Custer was determined to dispense of the Indians in a heroic battle, then return to the East to pursue a lucrative speaking career. 

On the one hand, having confidence is a necessary trait. On the other, being overconfident can cause grave mistakes. The “Overconfidence Bias” consists of four mistakes we all have made in our lives. We make them whether preparing to give a speech, game plan for an opponent, or conducting a business meeting. 

4 Types of Overconfidence: 

  1. BETTER THAN ANYONE. This occurs when we wrongly believe based on the prior success that we have reached an elite level. When we view our talent to be superior, we make mistakes.   

  2. FAKE CONTROL. This occurs when we are confident we are in control, but in reality, we have zero control. 

  3. BAD CLOCKS. This comes from our being overly optimistic about delivering a project on schedule time, or even early, which then causes us to overlook important factors.   

  4. WANT DISEASE. This occurs when we want something so badly that we overestimate the odds of it happening. We place our wants in front of our objective analysis. 

It’s vital to be confident in our talents. But by reminding ourselves of these four potential pitfalls, we can guard against making overconfident mistakes. Had Custer done any of the four, the devastation that occurred at Little Big Horn might have been avoided. 


P.S. If you are in search of a book recommendation, our team at The Daily Coach highly recommends Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy. Too often we approach our lives' biggest hurdles with dread, execute them with anxiety, and leave them with regret. Cuddy has galvanized tens of millions of viewers around the world with her TED talk about "power poses." Now she presents the enthralling science underlying these and many other fascinating body-mind effects, and teaches us how to use simple techniques to liberate ourselves from fear in high-pressure moments, perform at our best, and connect with and empower others to do the same. 


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