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Arrogance, confidence, and the four kinds of experts

FILE - Stephen Hawking...LONDON - (FILE) Professor Stephen Hawking delivers his speech at the release of the 'Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' on January 17, 2007 in London, England. According to Cambridge University, April 20, 2009 the 67-year-old physicist is "very ill" in hospital. (Photo by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)When it comes to experts, there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance. I’ve spent plenty of time on both sides of that line. I’ll share my insights about the types of experts and how to get the most out of them.

All experts have confidence, but confidence itself is complex. Some people have confidence in themselves, while others are insecure. Some have certainty in their conclusions, but others remain curious. These two axes generate four kinds of experts.

  • Arrogant experts know they’re smart and never doubt their conclusions.
  • Analysts believe they are smart but can change their conclusions based on evidence.
  • Apprentices aren’t sure about themselves or their conclusions.
  • Assholes are insecure but certain of the truth anyway.

Let’s examine each type and how best to work with them, as shown in this chart.

4 experts


Arrogant experts

Arrogant people thrive on certainty. They believe in themselves and their conclusions without reservation. Think Donald Trump. This level of certainty is dangerous, because in reality conditions are always changing, which requires a more flexible mindset.

How they become successful. Charm and luck. When their decisions match reality, they look great.

How they expend their energy. Publicizing their success and defending their viewpoints. The arrogant expert is consumed with explaining away or threatening anyone that presents an opposing viewpoint. A favorite strategy: cherry-picking facts to match theories.

How they are as leaders. Dangerous. They exude charisma but are narcissistic, especially under attack.

How to work with them. If you agree with their viewpoint, tap their deep expertise. Avoid using them as your sole source, or you’ll succumb to bias.

If this is you. If you’re even asking the question, there’s hope. Seek contradictory evidence and avoid the defensive posture. You might learn humility and curiosity and reform yourself. Nah, probably not.


Analysts are confident, but curious. They draw firm conclusions but constantly test them with new information. Think Stephen Hawking.

How they become successful. Research and confidence are a great mix. Do it right and you can see things that no one before you has noticed. That attracts attention.

How they expend their energy. Testing their ideas, refining their conclusions, sharing their results with others, and thinking about other points of view.

How they are as leaders. Confidence without arrogance is a great combination for a leader. Their weakness is that they change their minds, which can frustrate their followers.

How to work with them. Ask why they believe what they believe. Turn them loose on your hardest problems. Try to stump them — they’ll go off and find answers for you.

If this is you. Don’t let contradictory evidence undermine your confidence. Don’t spend more time publicizing and defending your ideas than you do testing them, or you’ll become arrogant.


Apprentices aren’t (yet) sure of themselves, and are constantly testing ideas. Think of your average bright college student. They make great researchers and can mature into analysts.

How they become successful. If they identify a great insight, they can become thought leaders.

How they expend their energy. Relentlessly learning and proving themselves.

How they are as leaders. Not yet ready. Apprentices are more likely to be followers.

How to work with them. Tap their intellectual curiosity. Trust their research, but not necessarily their conclusions.

If this is you. Find a mentor who is an analyst, not an arrogant expert. Use research to build your confidence. Test your ideas in front of the most senior people you can find.


If you’re insecure but sure you’re right, you’re an asshole. The only justification for your certainty is blind faith. Think Kim Davis. (I’m not saying Kim Davis is an asshole, but her decision process appears to match the classification I’ve made up here.)

Note: I’m not against faith, which is by definition belief in the absence of evidence. Faith is fine in matters of religion and matters of the heart. But in business, science, and politics, evidence should be more important than faith. This is what makes true believers so dangerous.

How they become successful. Faith. Other incurious people follow them because they like their ideas.

How they expend their energy. Whining about people who attack them.

How they are as leaders. Awful and terrifying. Insecurity and ill informed belief create brittle, hidebound leaders. Their followers share their blind faith.

How to work with them. Avoid them. They have little to teach you.

If this is you. Try to entertain ideas that contradict with your own. Accept that those who criticize you can help shed light on new ideas. Dialogue may lead you to a better place. Please do us a favor and stay out of politics.

If you’re in business, choose leaders with the analyst mindset. In science, build teams from analyst and apprentice types and avoid arrogant experts and assholes.

Politics attracts people on the right side of this chart. Always be skeptical of people who are certain that they are right.

Photos: Stephen Hawking via Getty Images, Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons, College Student by CollegeDegrees360 via Flickr, Kim Davis from Gawker.

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  1. Useful typology. I reckon most people, at least on the internet, fit into the asshole or arrogant category, unfortunately.

    Also it seems that if you’re arrogant or an asshole, the media will pay you much more attention. Trump is an obvious example but I can think of many more (Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh etc). New Zealand’s media, where I’m from, is dominated by these idiots. The UK, where I’m living now, the situation is a bit better (as long as you don’t read the tabloids!).