Overconfidence Comes From Watching, Not Doing

Maybe you've seen a video or read about the feat: the astounding tablecloth trick. Someone sets a table with a full place setting, with a vase stuffed with flowers or a bowl of fruit for added effect. With one yank, they remove the tablecloth but manage not to disturb any of the settings. Very cool! Now that you've seen it, you think you could probably do it, right?

That's what researchers at the University of Chicago wanted to test. They divided more than 1,000 participants into three groups: One would think about performing the tablecloth trick, one would read about it, and the other would watch a video, sometimes multiple times. As it turned out, watching an instructional video makes you super confident that you're already able to pull it off (so to speak) — but there's not much proof that you've actually mastered anything.

This research has big implications for mastering skills at work, as well as the ongoing need for mentorship, good management, and learning by doing. It's also worth considering the source of your or a colleague's overconfidence. While you may have seen your boss run a meeting dozens of times, you may not appreciate how much work she's doing until you have to try it yourself. Take any chance you can to practice new skills and refine them with guidance. It's not just good for advancement; as the West Wing clip below ably demonstrates, it can also keep you out of potentially sticky situations.