Daily Archives: June 21, 2010

The Self-Awareness of Incompetence (or Lack Thereof)

Long-time readers of Whatever will remember that a couple of years ago I made mention of the “Dunning-Kruger Syndrome,” in which an incompetent person is not aware of his or her own incompetence. Over at the New York Times, noted filmmaker Errol Morris has an interesting interview with David Dunning, the Cornell professor of psychology who co-discovered and lent his name to the syndrome, and it’s apparently the first of five, with four more installments upcoming. As a person with a more than passing interest in incompetence, I found it to be a fascinating discussion, and naturally I recommend it to for your own reading.

Part of the reason I find it fascinating is that I think there’s a critical intersection between being willing to try things you’re not good at (or good at yet) to learn and experience them — and thus accepting that there’s an interim period of incompetence in the area while one gets up to speed — and the self knowledge (or lack thereof) that no matter how much effort you put into something, you won’t ever reach a sufficient level of competence. Or in shorter words, there’s a cross street between “try something new” and “give it up, already,” and I think it’s interesting to find out, when people get to that particular curb, if they actually know where they’re standing.

For myself, I’ll say that one of the nicer things about getting older is that I think I’ve become better aware of what my own incompetencies are, based both on experience and my own self-knowledge as a person. Even better, I’m less motivated to pretend that I don’t have incompetencies, because at this point I don’t have much ego invested in the idea there’s nothing I can’t do, in no small part because I know there are things I can do very well, and that knowledge allows me to relax about other things. Which is to say I’ve found my niche and have done well enough in it that I don’t need to worry that there are other niches I’m better suited for. I still love trying new things, both personally and professionally, but the way I tend to approach them is “let’s see if I do with this” rather than “I can totally do this.” This works out for me because when I can totally do something, I’m happy, and when I can’t, I’m not crushed.

Also, to be blunt about it, it’s sort of a relief to be able to say “you know what? I don’t do that well. You should get someone else.” Less stress for me to try to do something I’m not good at, less stress for whomever I’m supposed to be doing that thing for or with, because then their opinion of me doesn’t have to go down as a flail about, nor do they have to clean up my inevitable messes. Everybody wins in that scenario, and especially me. Among other things, it gives me more time to do what I know I’m good at.

I don’t think I’m 100% accurate in my assessments, either of what I do well or what I don’t, and thus there are screw ups and missed opportunities because of that. But no one’s perfect, least of all me, and I think that awareness keeps me from being a Dunning-Kruger poster boy on most days. That works for me.