If You Fake It 'Til You Make It, You're Only Setting Yourself Up For Failure

Nabi Tang

Throughout history, countless leaders have suffered the fatal consequences of their poorly-made decisions. This is not necessarily due to lack of experience, but from overconfidence due to previous successes that ended up ultimately in catastrophe. The term used to describe this effect is called "victory disease."

One of the earliest – and maybe the worst – cases of this disease occurred thousands of years ago, near a Greek island called Salamis. In 480 BC, Greece was in a long war against Persia. Greece, which was then made up of an alliance of city-states, had joined together to prevent Persia from conquering its land. The Persian army, led by King Xerxes, was large and powerful, and it was winning.

The Persian Empire had expanded west to a large part of Greece, and King Xerxes was determined to conquer all of it. Xerxes' army easily went through Macedonia and Thessaly as it made its way south to Athens.

Then, it reached Salamis. At this time, the Persian navy had 1,207 ships, whereas the Greeks only had 310. Xerxes was confident of his victory. So confident, in fact, that he set up a throne on the shore before the battle even began.

What happened next shocked him.

The battle took place in the straits between mainland Greece and Salamis. The Greek ships were aligned along one side of the strait. The Persian fleet, which relied on the sheer force of numbers to win, moved forward to attack.

The Greek navy, on the other hand, relied on strategic locations that would minimize direct, head-on battles. As the Persians advanced, the Greeks stayed in position and waited.

The problem for the Persians was there were just too many ships moving into a narrow space at once. The ships began to ram into one another, as waves of them moved toward the ships in the front. This lead to broken ships and difficulties in navigation.

The Greek ships had more space to maneuver, so they could easily attack the Persian ships. The Persians were unable to retreat. The Greeks formed a line, and easily took on the larger army by slowly picking each person off.

Xerxes, who was horrified by what he saw, promptly retreated from Greece. The battle marked a turning point for the Greco-Persian wars. Historians say this battle was one of the most significant in history, as the victory enabled Greek civilization – and by extension, western civilization – to develop.

 The "Anosognosia" Of Life

"Victory disease" is still something we battle with, whether in times of war or peace. But it can strike at all levels, for beginners who are just starting out to experts who've been riding their wave of success.

Have you ever thought about taking on a challenge, only to realize you didn't actually know how hard it would be? Studies have shown that overestimating your ability levels can happen in a number of areas, from studying and practicing a skill to playing sports.

While we normally see boosting someone's confidence as a good thing, having too much of it can have a negative effect. Being overconfident can lead to you losing money, thanks to poor investment decisions, losing the trust of people who rely on you or wasting time on an idea that'll never work.

The problem is, the less you know about something, the more likely it is that you won't realize your skill level until you've made a mistake or faced an obstacle. Researcher David Dunning calls this problem "the anosognosia of everyday life." This refers to a condition in which the person who suffers from a disability is unaware of it.

He goes on to say, "If you're incompetent, you can't know you're incompetent. The skills you need in order to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is."

Seems like a catch-22, doesn't it? If we don't realize we lack skill or knowledge, but instead believe we do, how can we improve ourselves and avoid disasters?

How To Cure Victory Disease

 I've found that there are three things you can do to keep your confidence levels in check:

1. Get periodic feedback.

In the beginning, you're in the dark about the process. But as you become better at a skill, you can make foolish mistakes by thinking you know everything.

Having an accountability partner or someone you respect give you feedback periodically keeps your confidence levels in check. You can also play devil's advocate to your own opinions. If something sounds like a good idea, consider any weaknesses in the decision, as well as the potential negative consequences of going through with it.

2. Create a buffer.

How often do you start a task that you think will only take up half an hour, only to have it end up consuming most of your day? If you're like me, this probably happens pretty often.

When you have limited time to complete a task, it's good to schedule in extra time in case anything unexpected happens. Buffers can be used for more than just time, though. They can also be used for planning, budgeting and making investment decisions.

3. Brainstorm what you don't know.

When you start a goal or embark on a journey, it's easy to feel excited and imagine how things will turn out. While these feelings can inspire us to pursue new challenges, sometimes, reality strikes. Those dreams can vanish into thin air.

For example, most people would probably be ecstatic about winning an Olympic gold medal. But very few people would be willing to endure the pain and effort that's needed to get there.

So, if you want to do something, think about the steps and adjustments you would need to make. It doesn't mean you need to plan for them right away. But doing so helps you get a more realistic picture of what to expect, and whether or not you should go through with something.

Confidence is a delicate balance.

As we've seen, it's hard for us to recognize our skill level at first. By the time we do, there can be some serious consequences due to our lack of awareness.

Acknowledging the issue of overconfidence is the first step toward battling it. Recognizing that we might not know that much after all can help us get a better perspective on our situation and realize which steps we need to take in the future.

Confidence is a balance. If there's too much of it, you risk making poor decisions that have unwanted consequences. If there's too little, you never risk anything at all.

But if we plan for unexpected events and approach our decisions with cautious optimism, we can move ahead with just the right dose of confidence in order to make progress.

Melissa Chu writes at, where she helps people live better and achieve their goals. For more ideas on success and making an impact, subscribe to the newsletter.

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