The valet: What a parking gig taught me about overconfidence

When the cottagers I did yard work for hired me as the valet for their anniversary party, I neglected to tell them that I had no idea how to drive a stick shift.

But how hard could it be? As a resourceful 17-year-old, I was confident I could learn on the job.

On the surface, the job was straightforward enough. Greet party guests as they arrived, and then drive their vehicles back to a grassy field at the top of the steep, gravel hill. Of course, the first customer of the day had a manual transmission.

I waited until the couple was inside the cottage before putting my grossly undeserved confidence to the test. The sounds that emerged from the luxury vehicle were grotesque. Sweat pouring off me, I made the poor car scream in protest as I ground its gears to a pulp.

Somehow, I eventually got the car into first gear and started creeping up the hill. At the top, I pulled into the parking area, inconveniently located next to a steep embankment. As I approached the edge, my brain got confused by the extra pedal at my feet. That’s when I stomped on the gas instead of the brakes. The car shot forward in a flash of terrified teenaged incompetence.

I screamed as the car sped toward the edge of the cliff. Mercifully, a second before Thelma and Louise-ing the vehicle into the woods, my foot found the brakes.

Screeching to a halt, the car slammed into the lawn chair I had brought, sending it flying.

I threw the car into park, checked to see if I had soiled my gotchies and hurried down to attend to the next guest… who was also driving stick.

As humans, overconfidence is one of the biggest cognitive biases we face. Consider one study, which revealed that 93 per cent of U.S. drivers believe they’re better behind the wheel than the median — a statistical impossibility (Source).

That inflated sense of our abilities can create bigger problems than a mangled lawn chair. Overconfidence in the accuracy of your beliefs can make you less open to other points of view. Overconfidence in your investments can result in buying a house beyond your means. And overconfidence in your navigating skills can lead you down a dangerous back alley that you ”know” is a shortcut.

Overconfidence can create impacts on a much larger scale as well. Hubris put the “unsinkable” Titanic on a collision course with an iceberg. Armchair experts who think they know better than scientists flout COVID-19 lockdown measures, making the pandemic worse. Arrogant assumptions that technology will save us from climate change leads to watered-down half measures.

Confidence isn’t a bad thing. Far from it. But be sure to temper it with a healthy dose of humility. Accepting that you’re a work in progress and don’t have all the answers creates space to learn and grow, while reducing the sting when things don’t go the way you planned.

Excessive certainty about something is asking for trouble. At best, the rigid expectations that come with overconfidence will leave you disappointed.

At worst, you’ll end up driving someone else’s car over the edge of a cliff. And nobody wants that.