Most people believe that having confidence is essential for making your goals a reality. And why shouldn’t they? Whether we’re attending a lecture by a prominent CEO or watching a TV special on a cultural icon, we are constantly regaled with stories about visionaries who attribute their success to their perpetual belief in themselves, their ideas or their talent.

We admire the high self-esteem of successful people and (understandably) associate this quality with their road to prominence. However, who is to say that their confidence was the single most important driver of their accomplishments, rather than other virtues, such as persistence, pluck, kindness, circumstances, intelligence, connections or a deep passion for their craft? Is the common denominator of success really high self-esteem?

Confidence and Success: The False Connection

You may observe that people who you regard as successful in their careers, ambitions or lives appear to be more confident. This may, in turn, lead you to conclude that if you cultivate your own confidence, it will lead to greater success in your own life. However, this is a logical fallacy. Studies have shown little to no statistical evidence to prove that confidence leads to greater success, but rather that being successful has positive effects on confidence, thus creating this easily confusable correlation.

Multiple studies indicate that if you are more competent, this will lead to greater confidence (for example, children who perform better in school have higher self-esteem, but this is because they perform better, not vice versa). One notable exception is amongst college-age men, who tend to display generally higher levels of confidence than women, even though many of them perform worse academically.

The confidence gap between men and women has been widely acknowledged, and many debate whether this disparity is responsible for men’s greater representation within powerful positions and higher wages (since they have the confidence to negotiate higher salaries and apply for higher positions). On the other side of the coin, many believe this over-confidence holds men back, since women tend to evaluate their abilities more accurately and exceed men academically in many settings.

Gender differences aside, the actual value of confidence seems to be disproportionately high when compared to its social desirability and perceived worth. According to a Gallup poll, 60% of employees either hate or dislike their jobs, and the number-one reason is because of narcissistic bosses. This suggests that the “confidence” sought out in business leaders and managers may be overshadowing other valuable leadership skills. The reality is that confidence can lead to delusion or an inability to recognize (and therefore improve upon) one’s own limitations or mistakes. Studies show that while confident people may convey strength, they become significantly less likeable and more antagonistic when they are challenged or feel threatened. 

The Trouble With Feigning Self-Esteem 

Of course, self-esteem can also be difficult to measure, since an individual’s actual (implicit) confidence may be different from their reported (explicit) levels of confidence. The discrepancy between our inner and outer levels of esteem has also been shown to create some psychological friction. People who report having high self-esteem but convey actions and psychological signals that suggest lower internal confidence tend to behave more defensively, place blame on others and in some cases have been found to be more racially discriminatory.

Encouraging insecure people to be more confident may spur them to show greater outward signs of self-esteem, such as boldness. But if this external display conflicts with their actual level of confidence, this incongruity may cause more harm than good.

Even Better Than Confidence

Self-esteem may have its downsides, but having high levels of it has been shown across all cultures to reduce the emotional distress caused by failure. People with a lot of confidence have an easier time recovering from stressful situations, rather than falling into a depressed or defeatist state of mind.

Not to mention, confident people inspire us. On a visceral level, we are attracted to self-esteem like moths to a flame. Would you be compelled to follow a leader who lacked confidence in times of turmoil? Would you hire a contractor who put down her own work? Would you rather work under a manager who is hesitant or one who is self-assured (even if he is a little harder on you)?

Self-esteem is a quality we admire in others and constantly seek to nurture within ourselves because we associate it with competence and achievement. However, all of the professional and personal benefits provided by high self-esteem can also be attained in even larger quantities if we focus on grooming another lesser-acknowledged personal trait: self-compassion.

I know, “self-compassion” sounds like a chapter title pulled directly from an airport self-help book. Even the defining characteristics of self-compassion sound a little cheesy on the surface: 

  • Self-kindness: understanding and being kind to ourselves, rather than being consistently self-critical
  • Acknowledging your common humanity: acknowledging the experiences and struggles of others, rather than feeling isolated in our suffering
  • Mindfulness of reality: trying to remain aware of the reality of our experience, rather than exaggerating or dramatizing our accomplishments or failures

According to Kristin Neff, Ph.D., high self-compassion leads to a plethora of benefits that are not obtainable exclusively through high self-esteem.

A UC Berkeley study found that, when compared against individuals with high self-esteem, those who also had high levels of self-compassion studied more for a test after failing (suggesting an even greater willingness to bounce back after failure than those with high self-esteem) and were more motivated to address and improve upon their own personal weaknesses (which is a more difficult issue for people with high self-esteem).

Further studies by Professor Neff show that those with high self-compassion are less likely to base their self-esteem on outside factors like competitive success, feeling attractive or gaining social approval for their actions. Self-compassion was also associated with reduced defensiveness, lower levels of narcissism and a more levelheaded acceptance of criticism (with significantly less anxiety than those who only displayed high self-esteem).

Does Self-Esteem Still Win?

The reality is that confident people get more raises because they ask for it. They get more investors because they ask for it. They apply for and get more jobs beyond their abilities because (you guessed it) they ask for it. They are willing to take risks and are often rewarded for their bravery and ambition.

However, while they might achieve great things professionally, they also have a lot of qualities that make it harder to lead once they are in positions of power; people with high self-esteem tend towards narcissism and defensiveness, and have a harder time accepting criticism since their abilities already got them so far.

Not to mention that high self-esteem, unlike self-compassion, is associated with defining personal achievement in relation to others. We admire people who believe in themselves, ignore the criticism of others and strive to achieve something extraordinary (which, in essence, means becoming better, bigger, richer or more interesting than others). The reality is that not everyone can be above average in this regard.

Thus, your power to create success pivots on your definition of success in the first place. The science shows that defining your self-esteem on the basis of the things you achieve in relation to those around you will not bring you consistent confidence and may limit your ability to recognize your own mistakes. Striving to be extraordinary is an admirable trait, but acknowledging your weaknesses and forgiving yourself when you fail can be even more valuable.