The Confidence / Competence Ratio

After skimming the New York Times this morning (while Amy reads it word by word), I felt like a philosophical dump. Maybe it was the article on why Trump is so popular. Or the completely banal business section where everyone knows what is going on.

Confidence is an attribute that humans value. We like and are attracted to confident people.

Competence is an attribute that we also value. But it’s often more subtle and harder to determine, especially on a first interaction.

Over a long period of time, I’ve come to realize that a balance between confidence and competence is very appealing to me. I’m attracted to people who know what they know and know what they don’t know. These people are constantly learning and their competence around a particular topic increases linearly with their confidence.

Recently, I realized that we refer to people as over-confident or under-confident, but rarely refer to people as over-competent or under-competent. We do refer to people as clueless, ignorant, stupid, and other things that imply under-competent, but often in the context of their level of confidence. I don’t really know of a phrase we use for over-competent.

In an era where everyone is an expert, the ratio between these two concepts strikes me as particularly compelling. Lets define cluefulness (CLUE) as:

CLUE = confidence / competence

CLUE = 1 is ideal. If CLUE > 1 then you’ve got an over-confident person. If CLUE < 1 then you’ve got an under-confident person. But interpreting this on the under-confident / over-confident spectrum doesn’t really tell you much. Is the person a blowhard, or are they shy? Are they bombastic, or just quiet power? Are they an extrovert or an introvert? Are they full of shit, or just unconcerned with whether you realize how competent they are.

I’m attracted to people with CLUE <= 1. And I find people with CLUE > 1, especially by a significant amount, insufferable.

Do I have a CLUE about this? Feel free to help me get my ratio in balance.

  • Every once in a while, you throw out an awesome framework or idea Brad that stays with me for a very long time. Non attachment was one of them. This is another.

    Thanks so much!

    • Thanks Rohan. When I toss them out there, I have no idea if they are useful, useless, or just plain dumb!

      • From both my experience with daily blogging these past 7 years and from years of reading Seth’s views on “this might not work”, I’ve learnt that the important thing is the tossing..

        Thanks for doing so! Have a nice Sunday, Brad..

        PS: The Economist Espresso is a wonderful way to consume the news if you are interested.

      • i love how generally you start by defining a general framework, simple, and then start working on the particulars.

        i wonder if you can split it further.. like Competence to be a factor of Intuition and Knowledge, and Confidence to be built by Assertiveness and “Halo”.

        CLUE = Assertiveness x Halo / (Knowledge x Intuition).
        which you can pair in different ways
        CLUE = (Assertiveness / Knowledge) x (Halo / Intuition).

        Steve Jobs was big on Halo / Intuition. I imagine Musk is perhaps stronger in Assertiveness / Knowledge.

        Humble genius like Einstein perhaps did in a different way, scoring high on Halo / Knowledge.

        Most of all, this is fun!

  • Sounds pretty spot-on to me. I’d probably say CLUE > 0.7 && CLUE <= 1.0. Not that CLUE < 0.7 are insufferable, but they likely lack enough confidence and if it's that much a difference, too hard to build them up.

  • Jeremy Wacksman

    Love this, Brad (now I’m going to subconsciously start evaluating many interactions this way..)

    And people can have a different CLUE ratio depending on the topic/focus…one could see a weighted avg. of a set of CLUEs…

    • Yup – and if the weighted average is close to 1, the person really has a clue about themselves.

  • Agreed. And I personally like being an underdog in knowledge or capabilities.

    What you have described is a good add-on to the classical 4 stages of Learning:

    • brgInRedSidis

      love this chart!

    • Good chart. It fits nicely with Mihaly Csikszentmihaly concept of flow.

      • Thanks. I didn’t know about Mihaly (my ignorance!).

        • Flow is a classic and he’s brilliant. Worth reading Flow – get it at at (originally published in 1990).

          • I will now.
            So it appears that his work preceded that model that I shared, which I learned about at HP in the early 90’s. It was part of a course of Being a Manager.

          • May want to take a look at this as well: – I picked it up on recommendation of my dad while re-reading Flow. It’s short but there are some really unusual insights there.

          • Thanks Joe!

          • His work on Creativity is an excellent read too.
            Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1996). Creativity : Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-06-092820-4

          • Thanks Adam!

          • Matt Kruza

            Yeah a great book and honestly probably the best first and last name combination i have ever seen 🙂

          • Just finished it. It is a classic. To simplify, “do what you love and everything will follow”.

          • I heard about this on a podcast and totally forgot where it came from. I’m definitely looking forward to the read.

        • Chris Amelinckx

          Interesting sub-thread on this CLUE-full topic. On my path I came to Mihaly C.’s flow through Maria Montessori’s educational method (, she pioneered this approach in the 1920’s which 80 years later Mihaly C. understood achieves flow for early learners My little ones are thriving with this approach at pre-K and at home. Practical, structured, prepared play and the ungraded classrooms are aspects that I would consider how to map to professional life, be it corporate or entrepreneurial exercises for the creation of continuous opportunities to experience flow.
          Another aspect is that being a technologist in the mobile software space, I want to recognize and explore how our interactions with mobile devices enable or affect the achievement of flow-like states.

  • John Fein

    I feel the same way Brad. Whether in politics or the startup world, sometimes it seems everyone just wants to position themselves as ultra-confident experts, and that perception will infer competence. They probably see other ultra (fake?) confident people and figure “damn I guess I need to act that way to achieve my goals”.

    I believe true confidence is rooted in having experiences that include successes and failures. Basically, if you experience enough shit, you learn some patterns of likely cause and effect, or sometimes correlation, and that sometimes you don’t know why shit happens. So knowing what you don’t know should be a hugely positive trait.

    I strongly prefer someone who’s truly confident + humble + curious, which is very similar to your CLUE ratio. It’s not often you see your confident:competent ratio hover around 1. When it does, it’s so refreshing and those are the people I want to surround myself with.

    • John Fein

      Your post reminded me of those 3 little words I love to hear: I don’t know. So I wrote a quick post about it:

      • Great post. “I don’t know” is not said often enough in the world we are in.

        • John Fein


      • Great post. That is the litmus test for having a CLUE greater than 1. We all have encountered a person that has to respond to every question immediately and with complete authority. That is just not possible.

        I most vividly remember it when I was in a meeting and was asked a very tough question from a very aggressive COO. I sat and pondered the question for a moment and another person immediately jumped in with a definitive “answer”.

        The COO roared “I didn’t ask you the fucking question I asked Phil.”

        Then I went over the two possible scenarios and said I thought scenario two would probably play out but it was possible that scenario one would happen assigned the odds and said what we should look for to indicate which was happening.

        “That’s the fucking answer I want, not just some bullshit” came the reply.

  • Matt Kruza

    Interesting framework. Obviously insanely subjective (ie very hard to make this measurable and repeatable) but on a personal level probably a helpful heuristic to have in the bag.

    One suggestion though is to flip it as CLUE = competence / confidence. Because usually a higher measure is better, so it would be wierd to say donald trump at a clue of 4 is “worse” than a John kasich at 0.8 – you see who i may like for president 😉 Curious of your thoughts on inverting the ratio.

    • Matt Kruza

      Again you don’t want confidence too low thus making CLUE extremely high on account of that, but there are ways mathematically and practically to account for the small divisor in the equation

      • I like the convergence around 1 as demonstrating a CLUE. And, log(CLUE) is quite interesting to ponder.

        • Matt Kruza

          True i think using a log would make sense. and yeah convergence makes sense becaus ideally the two traits should be correlated / aligned. Even a greatt leader who is lacking in a skill can be very confident (appropriately so with his skill) by saying: “I don’t know the answer on this, but i do now this is the issue, this is the process i will use to answer, the team who will help me, and we will have a 3-5 point plan of attck in 2-3 months.” That doesn’t show you have all the answers, but it DOES instill confidence that you will lead and bring the team together effectively

  • Matt Richards

    The current issue of Harvard Business Review (September 2015) has a good article called “How Certainty Transforms Persuasion”. Regardless of whether one is correct, confidence in one’s opinion makes it more likely that one will share that opinion and less likely that one will change one’s opinion. It makes me cringe when I hear the phrase “Rock Star Programmer”, because programming is all about learning, which necessarily involves new perspectives on things.

    The HBR article also gives tips on artificially creating confidence in customers, so it is easier to retain them.

    • So, is HBR suggesting, as a management technique, to use confidence as a manipulation tool. If so, it’s interesting to see HBR starting to support “the con.”

      • Matt Richards

        They are certainly advocating it as a marketing technique. For example, if someone responds to a survey saying they enjoyed their hotel stay, the company can say “Thank you for your four-star review! 85% of our reviewers feel the same way!”

        They also cite the Chevron “We Agree” marketing campaign.

  • Emily Allen

    CLUE=1 is awesome, a valuable intrinsic trait of individuals and teams, a.k.a. intellectual honesty. Effective leaders have optimism, wisdom, and an internal CLUE=1, i.e., true humility, but externally, they project assurance, the interpersonally dreaded outsized CLUE>1. Most people want leadership to provide clarity, assuage FUD, make everything OK. So I think while intrinsic CLUE=1 is truly optimal, there is a benefit as others note to an external projected CLUE>1 by leaders.

    Relatedly, all advice I read that’s directed as women invites us to know of our strengths, i.e., to boost our CLUE. Most entrepreneurship advice, its main audience perhaps being men, suggests the opposite danger, warns us to tamp our outsized CLUE with tough questions, evidence, wisdom, caution. Truth is well served with CLUE=1. Nice and useful rubric. Have a CLUEful day all!

  • I think you’re on to something but as you point out, identifying in the <= 1 what's going on can be tricky.

    My metric has always been ego:clue ratio (where clue for me was what you define as competence). So the same ratio values, just slightly different definitions.

    In both your 'confidence' metric and in the 'ego' metric, the big negative is really the extent to which someone needs to, as Tom Lehrer said, 'provide helpful advice to those who are happier than they'. Which isn't exactly confidence.

    So for me, when it comes to interviewing an employee or investor, it usually requires either background diligence checks or subtle additional questions to determine what kind of confidence they have. I've found a quick first pass proxy is the old standby – how much is it 'I' vs 'we/team'.

  • I love it! Great post.

  • Brad – Are you using a proxy for a simpler metric : Trust ?

    If I say I can handle it and I can then Trust tends to 1 (if you can assess)

    If I say I cant handle it (but I could ) then Trust tend to < 1 (if you can assess)

    – under-confident / work shy

    If I say I can handle it (but I can't) then Trust tends to < 1 (if you can assess)

    – over-confident / poor self / assessment

    TL;DR :

    a) You like people you believe you can trust

    b) You prefer people you believe you can trust with more

    Hello world! 🙂

    • I think trust is a different thing. But they are correlated.

      • I have always used Credibility as the metric. My equation has been Credibility = Trust x Competency. As you say confidence and trust are correlated, but if you do some basic algebra and substitute terms between your equation and mine you come up with Trust = Confidence. Definitely something wrong there…

  • Dave D

    Great discussion.
    I think this could be a measure/definition of arrogance. What do you think?

    My personal take on it is that sligthly above 1 is not necessarily a bad thing for success in general, as long as you are personally aware you are slightly over confident. I would call this challenging yourself. I would think that most great explorers, politicians and entrepreneurs are probably slightly above 1.

    • It’s definitely similar to arrogance. A high number for CLUE is an arrogant person.

  • Frank Wood

    Confidence is a bi-product that results from a type of awareness, the fancy word is tacit awareness – this is the awareness of a the use of a thing … like the awareness on how to ride a bicycle or the awareness of the use of a coding language.

    There is a different type of awareness, explicit awareness, this is the awareness of the thing … like awareness that a bike is a bike and that the coding language is a coding language.

    There is a moment in the life of a child, when the parent supports the child explicit awareness of the bike and supports the child … at a point, the child will gain a tacit awareness of the bike … and BOOM the child is riding the bike.

    It is in that moment that confidence emerges into the child … and joy fills the child.

    Ditto with other skills that we learn (not explicit awareness but tacit awareness) … and we we are now aware of how to use that thing … and oh the place we can now go!

  • Byran Theunisen

    Thanks Brad, this helped shaped my thinking after seeing this chart on Mark Suster’s blog (courtesy of Simon Wardley) a couple of days ago re the evolution of knowledge and expertise

  • DavidERangel

    Brad – this is a good framework and I’ve thought about a similar one many times. So here is something to layer on (which you start alluding to in your post):

    Let’s assume someone’s competence is relatively easy to gauge. On a scale of 1-100, you will know where someone sits (at least over a few interactions).

    But I think you can split what you have as “confidence” right now into 2 sub-categories.

    The first is “awareness”, and it is harder to gauge. Someone can:
    – know what they don’t know, or
    – not know what they don’t know

    Both of these can cause a perceived confidence or lack of confidence in an observer. Everything else being equal, the person who doesn’t know what they don’t know, will probably appear more confident, and vice versa.

    The second is “innate confidence”. By this I mean that, everything else being equal:
    – some people are just more confident
    – some people are just less confident

    The reasons for this can be complicated. Everyone has different personal “issues”. And obviously these can also affect how you act and are perceived. Once again, everything else being equal, someone with negative personal confidence “issues” will appear less confident.

    So where does this leave us? You could imagine 3 axes:

    x: competence. higher (up) is better.
    y: awareness. more (right) is better.
    z: innate confidence. more (out?) is probably better (but not too much).

    And this leaves you with 8 potential areas in which to categorize people. Of course, this is overkill and not all that useful. But you can take some of those categories as the useful ones.

    For example:

    – high x, high y, high z – this is a superstar (although perhaps not too likable?)
    – low x, low y, high z – this is a buffoon (Trump? To be fair, he is probably medium competence)

    Another further complication: you would think that at the highest levels of competence, some of these axes “collapse”. In other words, you would think that a very highly competent person in a certain area *has to know* what they don’t know. In other words, they have to be highly aware – otherwise they just wouldn’t be that competent. Furthermore, if you know you are very highly competent and you are also highly aware, can you help but not be very innately confident?

    So that means that a very high x implies high y and z. There are no people with a very high x but low y or z.

    The same would not be the case at the opposite ends of the axes.

    Anyway… this got complicated quickly. But it’s fun to think about.

  • In other words, “Be focused on getting good at what you do, and be humble without being a pushover…and get shit done.”

    And thrown in as a bonus just for good measure: “… and be kind and compassionate in the process”.

    • Peter Bassett

      Just ‘getting shit done’ requires subtle confidence and applicable competence. Coupled with being good to others is a real find. The key is finding people with these traits to associate with. They will usually recognize these traits in others.

      • Yeah, to find someone with the genuinely the complete set of these qualities is a rare find indeed.

  • to be credible and build credibility, it helps to be consistent, and transparent.

  • JP Anderson

    Interesting, from the UK I tuned in to see what score you were attributing to Trump (whilst acknowledging this may well be the punch line of the second last sentence)?

    • StevenHB

      Clearly, Trump is in the (significantly) >1.0 category. He has no experience in the public sector, no experience in government, but thinks that he’s qualified to hold the most powerful position in the federal government. I know that there are many who believe that an “outsider” with business experience will be an effective president. I don’t buy it – I think that you need relevant experience for almost any job.

  • Martin Alvemo

    A phrase we use all the time for describing an over-competent person is in my opinion “talented”. Talented people are people who are more competent than what one could expect by looking at the context that those people have situated themselves in.

  • Funny thing about over confidence is that it’s often a proxy for fear – “I’m scared out of my mind they’ll find out, so I’m going to over-compensate”. So, that “confidence” part of the equation can be a lot more flaky than expected. Great post – thanks!

    • That’s an interesting point – I was just talking w/someone yesterday about how you can often get a good measure of a person based on what they do with anxiety. The competent person is often more comfortable saying “I need more info” and willing to go get it.

      • Ahh yeah – I like that. So true. Thanks! Competence doesn’t mean you don’t exeprience fear, but it can send you to be honest with what you don’t know. Competence goes well with healthy perspective of yoursef.

  • alanweinkrantz

    I would like to suggest we add in “H” – Humility. Being confident – super. Being competent – you get stuff done. Humility – a mix of grace, listening, and being grateful when good fortune and good things come your way….

  • You could break it down into sections. A CLUE between 0.85-1.0 would be a good learner while a CLUE < 0.5 would need some better support or professional help. CLUE between 1.0-1.2 could be a great salesperson or politician. It would be hard to define my highest limit of acceptable CLUE.

  • Diane Cairns

    Having represented and nurtured talent, I’d like to add the following notions:

    Hype and bravado – Okay to a degree. They’re going to need some to penetrate the noise and confusion.

    Boisterous – Okay if amusing and organic. Not okay if they are poor listeners and
    collaborators. And nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.

    Arrogance – Without portfolio? They’re a poseur, immature, and worst of all, not a doer. With portfolio? The truly talented don’t need to hoist a flag.

    Salesmanship – Salesmanship is over-rated. What one needs is knowledge.

    Shy – Be prepared. Bring your talent to the room. The rest will follow.

    Know-it-all – Danger, Will Robinson.

    Management – Coaster, or roller-coaster? An over-bearing taskmaster, or and inspiration to move a body forward?

    Attitude – Chronic complainer, under-achiever, or victim kills the momentum.
    Learnings – If they don’t love to learn, see “know-it-all”.

    So I’d add time and portfolio to your equation. And maybe a wild card, like “gratitude”. But you do the math (you’re probably better at it than I am!)

  • I wrote an article covering this annoyance as well. People don’t do well with uncertainty so as a self defense any answer right or wrong or irrelevant works better than not knowing. If there is any positive to squeeze out of this is that the curious people that look for facts keep digging and finding some things as plain fiction. Because more and more of society becomes more distracted and “busy” by each passing day, suddenly an average person asking questions is both crazy until they are “innovators”. I pointed to this article (also Harvard from 2011) to articulate this so much better than I ever could. Helped me be less annoyed and realize as sad as it is, it’s also a conpetive advantage as a result.

  • josh

    instinctively it’d be awesome if we had an objective clue ratio. as subjective measure i’d be worried about purpose outside of bias reinforcement. your idea is intuitively great so you could def quantify it. would CLUE follow a normal distribution and is 1 the center or just the center for you? also reminds me bit of your vanishing mediary post, as those w/clue>1 could easily put themselves in the middle of things where they add no value. is this necessarily bad? i struggle with this sometimes because i would not want to be perceived as CLUE>1, but i value people’s time and when I see people better on social media than I, i wonder if public consciousness isn’t just a big shared network where you’ve got some transmitters like trump or KK whose value comes from their ability to jam other signals. you may not want to invest in the top of his stack or a kardasian backend, but they’re still agents on the network.

  • David C. Youngentob

    “In an era where everyone is an expert”

    It is a perplexing phenomenon. I think humble confidence is the most genuine, but to be frank over-confidence when expressed delicately can tee up opportunities. But, some level of competence is obviously essential to deliver on what’s promised. What’s interesting from my own experience is when over-confidence can end up with a bigger mouthful than I can chew — the panic of “oh no, what have I got myself into” combined with (manic anxiety) the motivation to deliver can stretch my capabilities and talents to new level.

    Either way, thanks for the post. Definitely on the mark. Good read!

  • Great concept Brad! However, I think you need to have an absolute scale reference too. Imagine if someone was 90 out of 100 competent, and also 90 out of 100 confident => CLUE=1. However, if you came across someone who was 1 out 100 competent and 1 out of 100 confident => CLUE=1. I think you wouldn’t be attracted to someone that was clearly incompetent but knew it……

  • Ryn Miake-Lye

    Thanks to Michael Demarais for RT to this thought-provoking narrative.
    Here are some positive phrases used to describe over-competence: “best boss ever”, “plays to where the puck/ball is headed”, “can do it all, humbly”, “once-in-a-generation”
    And here are some negative phrases invoked by haters about the over-competent: “Who ARE you?”, “a threat to the status quo”, “attention-grabbing power-monger”, “overqualified”, “mad scientist”, “crazy artist”, “well, they’re um different”

    Upon further reflection, please read the first chapter of Andrew Solomon’s “Far from the Tree”. He communicates it so eloquently. (Exceptional = Over-competence)

  • #Like. Reminds me of this article by James Altucher, from a different perspective/angle, but similar “keep it in check” CLUE perspective.
    Quote: “There are three types of people,” astronaut Chris Hadfield told me, “-1, 0, and +1″.

  • myBestHelper

    Agree, esp with “…people who now what they know and know what they don’t know”. Competence is often misunderstood to mean “know it all”, and for decades, admitting “I don’t know” was seen as a sign of failure and incompetence. Liked the yin and yang of confidence and competence, the one aspect I would add is something linked to evolution (not static competence, but evolving competence). (Alexandra T. Greenhill, cofounder CEO