Kanye's confidence

Despite his manic rants, insensitivity, and general antics, there's something about Kanye West that I have to revere as an artist.

He is the pinnacle of self-confidence. He best represents what it means to believe in yourself completely, no matter what others say or how deep in the gutter you might be. Recall that he got himself into over $53M in debt, and still managed to come out of it a billionaire. He also compared himself to Shakespeare and God without a hint of irony in his voice. It is only through his unbridled self-confidence that he is able to both accomplish and fail at the level that he does.

There is an asymmetry in confidence vs. intelligence. On balance, you are more likely to be prolific if you are highly confident but unintelligent than if you are highly intelligent but unconfident. And a lot of success in the creative arts comes thanks to the increased surface area of luck one garners by being prolific.

Confidence breeds prolificacy because it defies the main obstacle to action: fear. If you think laziness is at the root of your inability to produce, think again – there's a good chance it's fear in some form. Maybe it's fear of failure, or embarrassment, or even success itself (because it means change and change is scary). Whatever it is, it's almost always fear at the bottom of what stops us from taking action.

Kanye is especially intriguing to me because he is one of the most controversial and polarizing figures of our time. Despite the massive backlash he receives, he rarely ever backs down on his word, and that baffles me. There are cons to this, of course. The same confidence which leads Kanye to produce prolifically and collaborate with the likes of Nike and Adidas also drives him to make petty remarks about Pete Davidson and beg for his ex-wife back during a live performance.

Kanye's overconfidence has often caused him to make an utter fool of himself in the public eye (see: his comments on slavery). But it's also what allows him to bounce back from failure and embarrassment like it's nothing. After his debacle at the 2009 VMAs interrupting Taylor Swift's win, Kanye went ghost for a while. Yet only a year later, he released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy -- a work considered by many to be his best.

I'm not the first to highlight Kanye's absurd amount of confidence. The Internet is teeming with articles on how to gain a "Kanye level" of confidence. Why it is that people as "obnoxiously confident" as him turn out to be successful. USA Today even has a generator which pulls up some of Kanye's best (most pompous)  quotes at random. The button is aptly titled "Give me more Kanye-fidence."

It seems society has an obsession with Kanye precisely because of how confident and self-assured he is. Of course, his art plays a great role in attracting fans. But the reason both fans and haters stick around is so that they can witness his incredible self-importance in action. I've noticed that Internet bloggers like to turn examples of this into productivity pieces on how to increase your self-confidence. Skimming through some of them out of curiosity, I found that a lot of the advice centers around one of Kanye's guiding principles/questions: If I don't believe in myself, then why should anyone else believe in me?

I think this question gets at the heart of why the asymmetry between confidence and intelligence exists. To affect considerable change, you must be able to convince others to take action. And to convince others to take action, you yourself must first be convinced to act. Few feel compelled to act after hearing someone who seems unconfident in their own call to action. High self-confidence also signals to others that you will stick to your word. It is a pre-requisite to gaining passionate support for a cause. This is why the greatest revolutionary leaders in history have often been described as obstinate and hard-headed.

If confidence is like heat, then insecurity is like the cold. Insecure people suck the confidence right out of their audience, and leave them worried about the same issues as themselves. Both like to "spread," in a sense. If the CEO or board of a company is unconfident in their own business, then that insecurity will trickle down and eventually reach lower-level employees. If they are headstrong and hellbent on its success, then that confidence too will radiate throughout the entire company.

I read a Fortune article on Kanye titled, "The Kanye West Effect: Why Obnoxiously Confident People End Up Successful." It's short and uninteresting, but it points to a fascinating paper by Cameron Anderson et al. exploring the relationship between overconfidence and social status. I read through it, and thought I'd end with a quick summary of its findings.

As Anderson points out, studies have shown that overconfidence can improve self-esteem (Alicke, 1985) and even mental health (Taylor & Brown, 1988). However, a third reason why overconfidence might be so prevalent in society is because it provides social benefits. Anderson et al. explore this reason in-depth in the study – specifically, whether or not overconfidence in a task increases social status as well as peer perceptions of ability in that task.

The paper consisted of 3 studies, and the results of each were strong: overconfidence in one's abilities predicted peer ratings of competence with r=0.42, p<0.01 (Study 1). It also predicted status with r=.21, p<0.05 (Study 1). They also found that this effect lasted over long time periods (15 weeks, in Study 3).

Interesting to note: after controlling for peer-ratings of competence, the strong correlation between overconfidence and status vanished. This hints at the idea that peer ratings of competence directly mediate the relationship between overconfidence and peer-rated status. Functionally, this makes sense. Either you're overconfident at a task and your peers buy it and rate you as competent too (raising your status) or your peers see right through you and rate you as incompetent (lowering your status).

In short, being overconfident in your abilities has a lasting positive effect on how others perceive your abilities, as well as your social status.

Obviously, it's not wise for us to aim for overconfidence. But how can we reliably increase self-confidence? Affirmations? Slow and steady progress? Maybe I'll leave that to be explored in a future post.