Conmen and a pregnant undercover agent

What do you call someone who studies an individual, lies to them, manipulates them, ensnares them and then takes what isn’t theirs? There’s a lot of names for people like that. Some restrained and politically correct. Others, less so. But the simplest is this: conman.

Did you know that that “conman” is a condensed version of “confidence man”? I didn’t. Not until I read David Maurer’s The Big Con, an exploration of confidence men in the early twentieth century. 

One of the biggest ideas I took from the book—and that has been validated by numerous blogs, sites and social media pages since then—is that we correlate confidence with competence. Think about it. Who do we rate as a better manager/thinker/engineer/entrepreneur/designer? The one who can give a TED talk or the one who can barely string two words together in front of an audience of ten?

It makes sense. If you’re good at something, generally, you know it. And if you know you’re good at something, generally, there’s no nervousness or anxiety in your performance. Or in your discussion and explanation of the principles and ideas central to your performance. But here is where the water begins to get murky.

The more we abstract from witnessing direct performance, the more room there is for confidence to compensate for an absence of competence. If all we see is two people talking about the work they do, it’s safe to assume that the one who speaks with more authority is the one we will attribute more skill to. This is how positioning, branding, and all those tricky things work. We can’t see individuals or organisations actually doing their work, but we can see them talking about it. So to rank who is better than who, one of the major factors we use is the confidence they possess. 

Knowing this, it’s easy to manipulate an audience. If confidence is what makes people think you’re competent, it’s alluring to double down on it. That way, you get more clients, more business, and are perceived as doing better work. Especially when the work you do doesn’t have any tangible metrics or KPIs.

But… There’s always a but.

In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb defines what he calls the Extended Disorder Family

“The Extended Disorder Family (or Cluster): (i) uncertainty, (ii) variability, (iii) imperfect, incomplete knowledge, (iv) chance, (v) chaos, (vi) volatility, (vii) disorder, (viii) entropy, (ix) time, (x) the unknown, (xi) randomness, (xii) turmoil, (xiii) stressor, (xiv) error, (xv) dispersion of outcomes, (xvi) unknowledge.”

He goes on to describe the impact this family has:

“It happens that uncertainty, disorder and the unknown are completely equivalent in their effect: antifragile systems benefit (to some degree) from, and the fragile is penalised by, almost all of them…”

If you’re wearing the mask of confidence to cover up a shaky foundation of competence, you are fragile. The passing of time and all that that brings—uncertainty, disorder, randomnesss—is a threat to your carefully constructed facade.

This reminds me of an apocryphal story I’ve heard about about female undercover agents. It could’ve been based in World War Two, or during the Cold War. I can’t remember. But the story is as follows: If in Nazi Germany (or Soviet Russia) a woman was suspected of being a foreign agent, she wasn’t arrested and questioned. Instead, her husband would get her pregnant. Then, during the birth, the authorities would watch her carefully to see if the excruciating pain of labor caused her to swear in her native tongue.

Confidence not built on a base of competence is fragile. Shaky. Bound to tumble eventually. Competence on the other hand, pure competence, is not fragile. It gets better with the passing of time and the introduction of the Extended Disorder Family. So as a professional and individual, the path is clear: let confidence come as a consequence of competence. Let actual skill and ability take precedence over the appearance of skill and ability. And as a customer or consumer? Invest in competence, not confidence.