Overconfidence can create big blind spots
May 30, 2014
A few years ago, I suffered a serious skiing accident and almost killed myself.
Now, before I let you in on what happened, let me give you a bit of background on my skiing experience. I've been skiing since I was nine years old. Growing up in Boulder, skiing was part of everyday life. At our grade school, I took ski lessons every Friday from fourth through sixth grade and skied every chance I got. I've gone backcountry skiing, heli-skiied the remote Monashee mountain ranges of the Canadian Rockies, been in the halfpipe, jumped off 25-foot cliffs … you name it.
At the time of my accident, I had been skiing for almost 40 years and NEVER had a serious skiing accident, hadn't broken a bone or been taken off the mountain in a sled.
The big fall
After several tests, we learn that my brain is bleeding and I have cracked a couple of vertebrae in my neck. If I wasn’t wearing my helmet, then I would be dead.
The day of my accident was a beautiful, sunny, spring day in late March. My wife and I were skiing with a group of friends guided by former Olympic downhill racer, A.J. Kitt. Kitt had competed in four Olympics during the late '80s and early '90s and raced on the World Cup circuit for 11 years. Now in his 40s with a little less hair and a bit more weight, my friend Marc and I were teasing Kitt about being old and slow.
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Safety tip here …never challenge a former world-class athlete's athletic ability no matter how old or out of shape you think they are.
Kitt calmly suggested we see how slow and out of shape he is by racing to the bottom on the final run (you can already see where this is going). Not knowing what we were getting ourselves into, Marc and I happily agreed. As we stepped off the chairlift, Kitt begins his tuck. Quickly, Marc and I fall behind and are desperately trying to catch up. Within a matter of seconds, Kitt is 200 yards ahead of us and still gaining speed. I'm now skiing faster than I can ever remember and am losing ground fast. As I come over a blind roller, the snow changes from packed powder to deep, spring-slushy, sticky snow. Instantly, my skis get stuck in the snow and come to a dead stop but my body keeps going. As I am ejected from my skis, I fly about 50 feet in the air and land on my forehead, knocking myself out cold.
My wife skis up a few minutes later to find me unconscious, lying in a crumpled heap. After I regain consciousness, I don't know where I am, don't know what happened and don't know what day it is. Luckily for my marriage, I do correctly remember my wife's name. I'm taken off the mountain in a sled and rushed to the hospital. After several tests, we learn that my brain is bleeding and I have cracked a couple of vertebrae in my neck. If I wasn't wearing my helmet, then I would be dead.
Fast forward three months, I now have a neurologist, an orthopedic surgeon, a chiropractor and an acupuncturist that I'm regularly seeing. As I sat with my neurologist talking about my injury, he shared with me that the only people he sees with injuries like mine are expert skiers skiing intermediate runs on bright sunny days.
"Why is that?" I asked.
He responded, "It's because you're just not paying attention. You're overconfident."
Success breeds overconfidence
That leads me to the topic of today's article. Overconfidence is a common psychological phenomenon that leads us to decision-making mistakes. Overconfidence is not the same as self-confidence. Instead, overconfidence is too much confidence and is the byproduct of success. You can know that it requires a certain amount of self-confidence to be successful.
However, the longer we are successful, the more we suffer from overconfidence. Said differently, success is the byproduct of self-confidence and overconfidence is the result of consistent, prolonged periods of success.
To reiterate, the longer we've been successful at something, the more we suffer from overconfidence.
When we're overconfident, we tend to overlook things, make assumptions that aren't accurate or are outdated and miss the details. As you can see from my example above, the results can sometimes be catastrophic.
Not only does overconfidence affect us individually, but we see it in business as well. We've all seen organizations that are tremendously successful, can do no wrong and everything they touch turns to gold. Take Blockbuster, for example. Blockbuster video stores were everywhere 20 years ago, and their business model enabled them to virtually print money. In September 2010, Blockbuster filed bankruptcy.
What happened to Blockbuster? It's likely a combination of many different things — didn't change with the times, missed business opportunities, etc. However, the common, underlying theme may have simply been overconfidence. The organization was so successful, they may not have noticed that the business environment around them was changing — just like the snow changed as I came over that blind roller.
So what can we do about overconfidence? Pay attention. Be aware of areas where overconfidence may be creeping into our lives, our business or our relationships. Don't take things for granted. Don't put them on autopilot. And, make sure you wear a helmet!
Chuck Wachendorfer is a partner and the chief operating officer at Think2Perform, a business and sports performance firm that improves bottom-line results for executives, athletes and organizations. It is a member of the Vail Chamber. To learn more visit http://www.vailchamber.org or http://www.think2perform.com.