88. Is it better to be underestimated or overestimated?

Don’t worry about the picture. It’s about underestimating someone.

I’ve just had a breakthrough in understanding — both of myself and of others. I’m still not completely sure what to do with it, but it feels kind of profound.

Yesterday, I wrote a blog post. Some people found it insightful. Some people found it provocative. One of my good friends got hopping mad about it. This sometimes happens when I post something. In such cases, heated discussions follow, and there’s always something to be learned.

In this case, the aha-moment came when I was talking to my wife, Marie, about the whole thing. It’s been a standing joke-with-truth-at-its-core in our marriage that I tend to overestimate people’s capabilities, mental health and power, while she tends to underestimate them. I’ll be convinced that someone is doing just fine, and she’ll be sure they’re on the verge of a personal crisis. I’ll say “Of course she can do that” and she’ll say “I really don’t think she can”.

Often, we land somewhere in the middle, and while there’s no clear-cut ratio of who’s more wrong, it leads to interesting talks about both ourselves and the world.

Yesterday, spurred by the debate that followed my post, we talked about this again, and I realised something critical.

Marie prefers it when people underestimate her.

I prefer it when people overestimate me.

That’s damn interesting, we both thought, so we tried to pick it apart and find out what’s in play there.

What followed was a long and complex discussion, but here are some of the highlights.

  • Marie describes herself as a bit of a pleaser, and will go a long way to make other people happy. This is something she’s been struggling with, because while it sounds great for others, it’s not always a good trait to be saddled with. I, on the other hand, am quite ready to have people disagree with me, or dislike me. I prefer it when they like me, of course, but I don’t lose too much sleep over people being mad at me, if I think I’m in the right.
  • Marie didn’t use to have a huge network of friends, so conflicts with friends weren’t easy for her. Each close friend made up a significant part of her circle, and so represented a solid risk to her social life. I’ve always had a lot of friends (if not necessarily as close), so if one of my friends decides that I’m an asshole, I’ll live. Again, assuming that I feel that I’m doing what I think is right.
  • Marie dislikes it when people judge her or stuff she’s done. When we discussed it, she confessed that even the thought of somebody estimating her skill levels felt intrusive to her. “Can’t they just leave me alone?” was her gut feeling, and while being overestimated or underestimated both rubbed her the wrong way, just the fact of “being estimated” was disagreeable to her. I, on the other hand, am so used to having many people having opinions about me and assessing me in myriad ways, that I seldom give it a thought. I’m of course susceptible to people making (what I feel are) wrong judgements about me — but the fact that they make judgements/assessments/etc. is for me just part of life.
  • Marie hates letting people down, and if somebody says “Oh, I’m sorry. I overestimated your skills/time/power/etc. I thought you could do this, but it turns out you can’t. Sorry. I’ll revise my estimate.” she feels that she’s failing them by not living up to their expectations. I am the complete opposite. If someone says that they thought I could do something and it turns out I couldn’t, I usually feel flattered.
  • Marie is much better at being underestimated. People who say “Wow. I had no idea you could do that!” generally boost her ego, because they give her a chance to shine and over-perform. When someone says “Claus, I had no idea you could do that.” I tend to get a bit annoyed, and ask myself why they had such a low estimate of my competence. Of course, this is only when I feel they should know. I don’t expect people to know everything about me, so some surprised “Wow” is quite pleasing. But when it’s a skill I feel they should know I possess, it annoys me to be underestimated.
  • Realising that this difference in not only world view, but also underlying assumptions and feelings was there, makes a lot of my frustration melt away. Some of my most bitter moments have been where people have underestimated my capabilities, and I’ve always seen that as unnecessarily insulting. And some of the biggest fights I’ve gotten into have started when I’ve told someone that I thought they were great at something and they disagreed.

Of course, neither of us are objectively right or wrong in our way of approaching the world. We each struggle with our respective demons, and we each try to grow better at dealing with the world.

The reason this was such a breakthrough to my understanding was that I hadn’t realised the underlying mechanics. I’ve always felt that I insulted people by underestimating their capabilities, and I’ve never grasped that the meaning of phrases like “Who are you to judge me?” wasn’t necessarily what I thought.

I’ve always thought that expressions like that were to say:

“Who are you to make a judgement about me and expect it to be right, without knowing that it might not be?”

Turns out that it wasn’t necessarily that.

And whether this keeps me out of unneeded conflicts over the subject in the future remains to be seen, but it was definitely an eye-opener.

I’d still rather be overestimated than underestimated, but I’ll do my best to not assume that this is logical, and try to see that as personal preference instead.

*And the picture? It’s of me playing an evil prince at a larp, disguised as an old beggar lady. The kids tried to steal from me because they thought I was old and slow. So when they put their hands into my beggar’s cup to take the money, and I grabbed their hands, they were mighty surprised. In this case, it was fun to be underestimated, but then again, I was player a character. ;-)

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Director at The College of Extraordinary Experiences, Coach at McKinsey & Founding Partner at The Global Institute For Thought Leadership. Author of 31 books.