Confidence or Competence, Which Came First?

My 9-year-old daughter was in floods of tears.  It was a beautiful clear morning, the temperature was rising, she was going to spend the day at Summer School with her friends, nothing to do but lark about and have fun, yet she stood there looking like the proverbial wet weekend.

Being the sensitive type I asked her what (exactly) her problem was.

Swimming was the problem.  She had signed up to for her 400 meter badge, all 16 lengths of it, and it scared her that she wouldn’t be able to do it, that her friends would laugh at her.

She was having a crisis of confidence.

Maybe a better way to put it was she was having a crisis of competence, could she swim 16 lengths or not?

Call it confidence or competence, what was clear was that she wasn’t hugely engaged in the idea of going to summer school.

So how do you drive competence?  There are two lines of thought:

Opinion 1: You can be competent at just about anything

This is the line peddled by the Self Help Gurus.  All you need to do is:

  • Ensure you have the necessary resources.
  • Create the time to train
  • Find a good coach, somebody who has failed before, so you don’t have to
  • Get some support, people who believe in you, who will urge you on
  • Have a strong will to succeed
  • Be willing to learn
  • Practice

To quote William Edward Hickson

“Tis a lesson you should heed: Try, try, try again.

If at first you don’t succeed, Try, try, try again”

Opinion 2: You can’t be competent at everything, pick your battles

This is the line peddled by the Management Gurus.  They believe that you should:

  • Understand what your strengths are, work on them don’t waste time on weaknesses
  • Understand your personal values
  • Work out where you belong in the world
  • Find out where you want to contribute
  • Then focus your competence building there

The missing element

Both perspectives are probably true, but they both miss something.

My daughter managed all 16 lengths, she told me with a big grin that she wants to do 32 by the end of the week.  Whether or not she is a truly competent swimmer is irrelevant, she is hugely engaged, trying hard and having a good time, all because she thinks she is.

Confidence and Competence are two sides of the same coin.

The chicken, the egg and engagement

It is a chicken and egg debate, are you confident because you are competent, or the other way around.

We like doing the things we believe we are good at and rarely even try if we think we aren’t.

If there is one certain way to shut down somebody’s confidence it is to tell them they are incompetent; now what does that do for employee engagement?

Or as Henry Ford put it:

“There are two types of people in this world.  Those who think they can and those who think they can’t and they are both invariably right.”

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Swimming Lesson

Read another opinion

Image by PoolSafely


  1. Hi James,
    I love this question: “It is a chicken and egg debate, are you confident because you are competent, or the other way around.”

    It reminds me of rock-climbing which I do. Now, when I started i wasn’t very confident or competent so picked some very easy stuff to get good at. Once, I built up my competence my confidence grew such that I felt better equipped to attempt things that exceeded my competence level. However, my confidence was such that it supported me to try out new and harder things.

    In short, I think that they go hand in hand and are hard to separate but if we want to grow then we need to start slow and small. Managers needs to pay attention to this when it comes to engagement.


  2. James Lawther says:

    Thanks for your comment Adrian,

    My 3 year old daughter came up to me and said “look daddy I can jump” and then jumped. Again and again

    She didn’t care that it wasn’t a big achievement or that (truth be told) I was laughing at her, she was just learning to jump.

    It is a pity our confidence dissolves as we get older

    As you say, small steps

  3. I do believe all the concepts you have presented for
    your post. They’re really convincing and can definitely work. Nonetheless, the posts are very brief for starters. May just you please prolong them a bit from next time? Thank you for the post.

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