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Fixing Overconfidence with Probabilities

Published 7/27/2018

In today's episode, we're talking about how we view our co-workers around us and our perceptions of ourselves.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
For the first few minutes of today's episode, I want to talk about kind of where we've been and play out a little bit of a vision for where we're headed. This show isn't going to change very much, but I do want to identify the reality that Developer Teastarted as a developer-focused podcast. This is a podcast that we want to give Developer The most value. Now what that often looks like in podcasting is really specific technical discussions. We've had a few of those on this show. But more and more, I'm noticing that developers who listen to this show, they value the discussions that we have. They're a little bit more abstracted away from technology, taking those concepts and then turning around and applying them to your career as a developer, as well as your practice as a developer. Not only your coding practice, but also how you handle yourself in social interactions and professional interactions. So I want to make sure that everybody understands, as you're listening to the show, Developer Tea is intentionally crafted for developers, but the topics that we talk about on the show and many of the principles that we uncover on the show, they extend well beyond the development practice. This show will continue to be focused on software developers into the future. We're going to continue talking about these abstract concepts. Sometimes we will have technical discussions from an abstract perspective, but you can consider this moment in developer T's history kind of the open door moment. We're not restricting the people who listen to the show to only software developers, because as it turns out, software development is becoming a more and more open field. The value of creating software is going far beyond web development or even application development and it's extending into every other sphere. So I want to make sure that the people who listen to this show, that if your job title doesn't include software developer and even if you aren't necessarily targeting a job where that is your title, that you know that you're welcome here because this show is more about ideas and principles than it is about any specific technology. And the truth is we've had all kinds of people listen to the show and reach out and say thank you because the show has provided some kind of value well beyond the software development practice. So I appreciate you for already listening to the show, but I also want to extend that welcome to anyone who's listening to this for the first time or maybe you're a developer and you know somebody who can appreciate this show even though they aren't necessarily a developer themselves. Encourage you to share, to share whatever you think is valuable with those people. Okay, let's jump into the content for today's episode. If you haven't already guessed you are listening to Developer Tea, my name is Jonathan Cutrell. And the goal of this show is to help driven developers connect to their career purpose and to do better works so they can have a positive influence on the people around them. And you've already heard some of the ways that we do this. We talk about abstract ideas. We talk about a lot about how the brain works, about how we can work effectively as humans. So in today's episode, we're going to talk about a very important subject, of course, it's to do with the way we think. Not just the way we think in general, not the way we process information, but the way we view ourselves. And as a result, the way we view others. And we talked about imposter syndrome on the show before and of course developers deal with this, perhaps more than most others because there's so much technical knowledge that developers end up needing. Of course, developers aren't alone in feeling like imposter. We all at some point or another feel like we aren't good enough for a job or feel like we aren't good enough to speak on the subject. And perhaps this can be seen as one end of the spectrum of confidence. But what about the other end? What about overconfidence? This is a topic that we haven't talked a lot about on this show, partially because so many developers deal with underconfidence. But overconfidence, as it turns out, is something that is uniquely and almost universally human. It's something that humans portray quite often, the idea that we have a high level of confidence in ourselves. Now, this is very different from the kind of colloquial term self-confidence. Rather, we have confidence in our own story. We've cited similar studies to this before and in one episode I actually made a mistake saying that most people believe they are higher than the average IQ and then I mentioned by the way that this is mathematically impossible. This was an example of me being overconfident with my statement as it turns out. I should have said median, I had some of my numbers wrong. But an example of overconfidence is that 93% of people in some studies, 93% of people have been shown to think that they are better than the median driver, right? The median being the person in the middle. Now aside from this being very difficult to measure, perhaps we could measure this by the number of speeding tickets and the number of wrecks that the person has had, this is a perfect picture of overconfidence. Now, I want to clear something, perhaps a misconception or an improper perception of what overconfidence really actually means. In the sense that we're talking about now, we're talking about a mathematical or irrational confidence. For example, a person who hears the question, do you believe you are better than or similar or worse than the median driver? A lot of people view themselves as safe drivers. And this question is converted from a kind of a rational question, a math question, into an emotional question or perhaps a risk-based question, a risk assessment. Do I feel that I am worse than the median? Do I feel like I'm going to go out and get in a car wreck the moment that I get in my car? Of course I don't. Now this translation is the error that is often made. The translation being, do I feel that I am an unsafe driver? I may be worse than the median and yet still be safe. So what does this overconfidence actually result in? What do we end up doing as a result of overconfidence? Well, sometimes all we're doing is simply ignoring the odds, ignoring the reality. And although I don't have any studies or data to back this up, I think that we may have a twisted version of overconfidence as Developer That actually fuels our sense of imposter syndrome. This isn't a confidence in our own abilities, but rather a confidence in our perception of the work that we do. A confidence in our perception of other people were certain that others aren't better at what we do than we are. In this level of overconfidence is just as irrational, perhaps, as overconfidence in the other direction. Similarly, if we think that we are a shoe in for a job, for example, or maybe like many other developers who have come before us, we practice overconfidence in what we take on this kind of infamous phrase, this should be easy. If we practice that overconfidence, we will often experience those negative effects. Of course, this would act as fuel for our sense of imposter syndrome. So how do we break out of overconfidence in any particular way, in any particular field? One way is to try to remind yourself of probabilities. Try to make the probabilities as tangible and easy to understand as you can. Let's say for example that you are one in 100 candidates for a job. Let's say that all 100 candidates are equally talented, that you're equally qualified, you know, similar backgrounds. In this case, you have a one in 100 chance of getting that job, a 1% chance. Of course that percentage may be skewed based on ordering or, you know, something as strange as whatever that person ate for breakfast that day, that is making the hiring decision. But at a baseline, you can kind of imagine that, well, I'm not very likely to get this job, simply because it's a highly sought after job. Now, let's imagine that you're more qualified. Well that pool becomes a little bit smaller, maybe 20 out of 100. But the reality when you're applying for jobs is that until the number of candidates for a single position is reduced to two and you have an edge over that other person, you're statistically unlikely to get the job. Think about that for a moment. Until you are one of two people, which would put you at 50-50 and then you gain the edge somehow you are better than that person. So 51-49 for example. Until that moment, you are statistically unlikely to get the job. Of course you can also say that, well, everyone else who is equal to my experience level or who has the same luck that I do with whatever that person ate for lunch that day, they have the same statistical likelihood as me. So how can I be unlikely? Well all of those people are also unlikely to get the job. When you recognize this reality and it's not just with job hunts, it's with anything that you're really trying to do, for example, starting a company. When you recognize the reality of these probabilities, you can start to adjust your expectations. You can start to make plans for things that are more likely. For example, instead of only applying to one company that has a highly sought after position, perhaps you send your application to multiple companies. If you have a one in 20 chance and you apply to 20 different companies, there's a very real possibility that one of those 20 companies will choose you. But recognize what we've done by looking at the math, by looking at these probabilities and trying to make them as real as we can. Number one, we've identified that while your chances of getting that highly sought after job, they're just going to be low. Even if you're a highly qualified candidate, you're still relatively unlikely to get the job. But the second thing that we've done, so that's addressing that first overconfidence issue where you feel like your qualifications should directly correlate to your chances of being hired. But the second thing that we've done is hopefully we've helped reduce some of that sense of imposter syndrome that you, along with a lot of other people, are not going to get that particular job, that sought after job. Of course, this shouldn't deter you from taking the steps that you feel you should take and applying to the companies that you feel you should apply to. Of course, if you never try, then you never have a shot at all, right? It's better to have a slim chance than no chance whatsoever. So don't take this as a message of discouragement, but rather as a message of encouragement to be rational. To give yourself the latitude and the kind of decision-making platform that probabilities provides you, think in terms of likelihood. This will allow you to prepare. And if you have the possibility of some disaster occurring, I'll say you have a 5% chance of being laughed out of the room. Prepare for that 5% chance. But do so in proportion to that likelihood. This is what rational thinking is all about. Sometimes rational thinking is very difficult to do, for example, thinking about a 0.009% chance, that's very difficult to do because a lot of the time we actually round down to 0. But because it's not 0, we tend to round up a little bit. Our perception of what's called the possibility effect, the fact that it's not 0, that it's even slightly above 0, has a major impact on the way that we understand that number, that likelihood, that probability. This was, as many other things that we talked about on this podcast, illustrated in Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking Fast and Slow. And as it turns out, this irrational thinking is kind of the drive behind going and buying lottery tickets. And it's also why, total elimination of some incredibly deadly disease is, it feels significantly safer than 99.999% elimination of that disease. This is, once again, called the possibility effect. And so while our minds can't always wrap around numbers perfectly, while we can't always imagine those probabilities exactly right, when we try to make them as tangible as possible, when we try to create some kind of visual representation, even in our mind's eyes, some kind of visual representation. This can help us get a grasp on how much energy, how much thought we should put towards a particular direction. How disappointed should I be when I get turned down for that job? And instead of being overconfident with your estimates, instead of being overconfident with your code, instead of being overconfident in yourself, encourage you to look back to the numbers. Ask the data as much as you can until the data betrays you. I haven't heard of it happening, but I certainly would be interested in hearing of it happening. Thank you so much again for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea, whether you are a developer, a designer or something totally outside of software development, outside of web development. If you're in a totally different sphere, I am so happy that you're listening to this show. If you don't want to miss out on future episodes of Developer Tea, I encourage you to subscribe in whatever podcasting app you are currently listening to this episode with. Thank you so much for listening and until next time, enjoy your tea.