In 2009, Cameron Anderson, a psychologist at the University of California–Berkeley Haas School of Business, decided to run an experiment on his students. He gave them a “list of historical names and events, and asked them to tick off the ones they knew.” But he also stacked the deck with fakes: Made-up figures he called “Queen Shaddock” and “Galileo Lovano,” and a fictitious event called “Murphy’s Last Ride.” Anderson found that the students who ticked off the most fake names showed signs of excessive confidence, if not competence. At the end of the semester, he surveyed the students about one another and found that those who held the most “respect, prominence, and influence” in the classroom were the same ones who claimed they totally knew who “Queen Shaddock” was. Anderson concluded that it’s confidence, not ability, skill, or accomplishment, that ends up swaying other people. “Whether they are good or not,” he said, “is kind of irrelevant.”
Anderson’s anecdote should be the perfect cautionary tale about how know-nothing sociopaths rule the business world. Instead, it’s a data point in Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s new self-help book for women, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know. In the book, which also got a splashy Atlantic feature this week, Kay and Shipman diagnose women with “a crisis”—“a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes.” Women don’t speak up in meetings, while men interrupt. Women ruminate over their mistakes, while men “simply spend less time thinking about the possible consequences of failure.” Even Sheryl Sandberg wakes up feeling like a fraud. To treat the affliction, the authors interview powerful women like Valerie Jarrett and Sandberg about their imposter syndromes, pull lessons from assertive men, confer with scientists for biological clues to confidence, then translate their lessons into action points for the female reader, like “Fail Fast,” “Don’t Ruminate—Rewire,” and “Speak Up (Without Upspeak).”
The Confidence Code is a kind of Lean In: Redux, and like Sandberg’s book, its mission is to vault America’s most ambitious women into even higher echelons of power. Also catering to this set: The 10 Habits of Highly Successful Women, a new collection of testimonies from powerful gals, and the just-released Thrive, in which Arianna Huffington advises readers to focus on the “third metric” of success, well-being. (This one’s for women who have already read about securing the first two metrics—money and power, obviously). The Atlantic also took time this month to ask why female CEOS are holding themselves back in comparison to their male peers. (Can you believe Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles made only $403,857 in 2012? Sounds like somebody needs to “lean in.”)
Why is this genre enjoying such a moment right now? A few years ago, in the wake of the financial crisis, the think piece du jour centered on how overconfident men were a danger to themselves and their country. Now, women are being told to ape these poisonous personality quirks for feminist life lessons. Buy these books and you, too, can become a successful blowhard.
Even Kay and Shipman appear disquieted by the social implications of their work. They found the results of Cameron Anderson’s fake history quiz “dismaying.” (The confident may end up being more successful than the competent, but is that dubious form of power worth striving for?) They worry that by trying to act more like successful men, women may be “chasing the wrong thing”—just like we did with shoulder pads. They know that trying to succeed in the business world isn’t a particularly appetizing prospect to many women, as “every morning we have to drag on our office armor, trying to win a game we don’t understand or even like.” And they admit that it’s not just confidence keeping women down—it’s also a culture where “women are being judged by a confusing and shifting yardstick,” or else outright harassed for their gender.
Enough, ladies: Would a man subtly layer his own self-help book with anticipated criticisms? But while we’re at it, here’s my own critique: It’s a little crass to push out book after book fawning over the success secrets of the world’s rich and powerful when so many Americans are living on the unfortunate end of extreme income inequality (and not because they don’t raise their hands enough in board meetings). Post-financial crisis, it’s not particularly progressive to write books idolizing America’s richest men and encouraging the rest of us to tug on our bootstraps to be more like them. But just inject a bit of feminism into the discussion, and it’s suddenly socially acceptable to distract from our fundamentally unfair economic system by focusing on gender equality at the very, very top.
When Sandberg reached billionaire status early this year, The New Yorker’s Vauhini Vara argued that her obscene payday was an important milestone for all women. “Concentrations of wealth distort democratic processes,” Oxfam’s Nick Galasso told Vauhini, and that’s unquestionably a bad thing. But Sandberg, at least, has shown an interest in using her “wealth for philanthropic and political purposes,” including “improving women’s economic prospects.” In other words, the system may be totally messed up, but at least some women are involved.
Then again, I’m a shade too unsuccessful to even aspire to be one of those women. Just reading chapter after chapter about my insufferable meekness is exhausting, and I definitely lack the constitution to try to warp my personality into that of the most popular guy in the MBA class. Books like The Confidence Code and Lean In smartly target the perfectionist overachievers who are the most likely to gravitate toward self-help—women who are woefully deficient in self-esteem yet are committed to studying overtime in an attempt to make up for it. The Confidence Code may not bring them success, but it will gladly take their money.