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.

83 thoughts on “The Self-Awareness of Incompetence (or Lack Thereof)

  1. Hey John,

    Good read! On a semi-related note, Steve Schwartz has an interesting essay on the Three Types of Knowledge (also titled “Nobody knows what the **** They’re Doing”).

    http://jangosteve.com/post/380926251/no-one-knows-what-theyre-doing

    I think people who believe the goal is to increase Category 2 are much more likely to be unaware of their own incompetence. People who believe the goal is to decrease Category 3 usually seem to be more open to trying new things and the possibility that they might fail at something or be bad at something. As you note, that seems healthy.

  2. @2 – You beat me to it. Sarah Palin is the most prominent example I can think of regarding Dunning-Kruger syndrome.

    What helped me get past it, years ago, was a profound incompetence in athletics. I could spend hours a day on a tennis court, and will get nowhere. On the other hand, I’m a perfectly competent middle distance day hiker, at least when I’m not on chemotherapy.

    Applying those realizations to things like, oh, writing, is a little more to the point and a little tougher, but like Our Host, I’ve reached a point in life where I *can* without making myself feel weird.

  3. I’ve always observed that the most skilled people in any field are the most modest about their accomplishments, while people with average to suck-out-loud levels of skill often talk themselves up as being marvelous and wonderful people.

    I got a lot of this from working in IT, where getting the job required showing confidence in one’s abilities to HR personnel or managers with no skills in the field at all. So if a company wasn’t tech savvy their IT staff were a bunch of incompetent tits. Worse still, they didn’t realize that their network was showing a blinking neon sign on the Internet saying “Free Lodging to Hackers and Script Kiddies Here!!!”

    I also see it in my current career/hobby of miniature painting. You see something that transcends hobby and can be called art, and yet the painter/modeler/sculptor will say “Yes, but I still need to work on my inability to do….” and then go into a long speech about all the things they don’t feel they’re good at.

  4. At Jay Lake #3

    If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend the Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. It’s a fascinating read, and shows more than anything just how much our world will change as we understand more and more about how the human brain works.

    It helps that the techniques described in the book for improving skill do work, or at least they have for me.

    One of the examples given in his journey to the skills centers of the world was a tennis facility in Russia where most of the world’s tennis champions have come from.

  5. You think a huge chunk of the world’s problems result from people’s unwillingness to admit they can’t do something or don’t know something? I kind of do.

  6. At Glen Murie #4, on the phenomenon of painters delivering a long self-critique: My violin teacher was very aware of this phenomenon, and one of her pre-performance talks was always on How To Take A Compliment. (Her answer: Say “Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it.” And nothing else.) Almost twenty years later, I’m still amazed at how difficult it can be to do that — I sing in a church choir, and I still have to restrain myself from saying things like “Thanks, but I blew the G” when congregation members thank us for the performance.

  7. Watched a Myth Busters special last weekend. They brought up that they actually learn more when things don’t work the way they expect and when things go wrong. They even seem to take joy in it when things explode (the wrong way, not the big-badda-boom way they have fun with).

    I guess it comes down to, are you dependent on external validation for your actions or do you stand on your own two feet?

  8. Or as Clint Eastwood said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

    (Actually, a screenwriter wrote the words for him in one of the “Dirty Harry” movies.)

  9. Didn’t they also find that even after you show someone how incompetent they are, they STILL wildly overestimate their incompetence in an area? It’s more than just overconfidence, there’s real cognitive dissonance going on here. (or some kind of weird non-scientific twisting of evidence into belief)

    Re: Glen
    I see the same thing in my hobby of LEGO. A lot of (adult) builders are modest about their skills. I think part of it has to do with the rise of blogs about ridiculous creations done by others. (and I’m not talking about straightforward sculptures ala Sawaya)

  10. Yes, but these are all examples of knowing. The anosognosia is about the unknown unknown. In that case, you would be completely blind to the fact that you do a thing badly.
    Its a scary thought. You wouldn’t and couldn’t know it. It would be like Scalzi actually sucked at photoshop and continued to play and publish photos because he thought he was good. (this is not related to any anything Scalzi – I have no particular opinion on your photoshop ability) It would never occur to him to think otherwise, because he actually would see good work when he viewed his pictures.

    So ultimately, I don’t know if there is any cure for Dunning-Kruger Syndrome, which I find horribly distasteful.

  11. I love Errol Morris’s blog posts at the Times. I wish he’d do them more often. The three-part post about the Valley of Death and the veracity of photography was brilliant.

  12. Hmmm… I’ll need to read this – black and white, binary distinctions generally aren’t accurate as reality’s not that simple, so for most people doing most things it’s not competent vs incompetent but rather shades of competence.

    I, even though I have no talent at visual arts, could probably learn to draw decently. Competently, if you will. The 13 year old daughter of a friend of mine is already, though, MUCH better at drawing things than I’d ever be. She has a talent for it, I don’t. Am I incompetent at drawing? Yeah, if you’re ranking me on an absolute scale that includes Picasso, Da Vinci, or even most art students. No, if by competence you mean the ability to do something that most people would comment on as ‘that’s not bad…’

  13. My mother couldn’t find Africa on a map.

    It was a map of the world and Africa, the largest continent and also the birthplace of humanity, was labeled “AFRICA.”

    Then I asked her where the stars were and I got a response very like a Native creation myth.

  14. I remember your original post on Dunning-Kruger. I tried explaining it to co-workers, and got blank stares, proving that either they’ve got it, or I do.

  15. Whoops, “Valley of the Shadow of Death”; a different valley. But not very different (hat tip to the late Donald E. Westlake).

  16. Incompetence, however, is not always a reason to stop doing something. I will never be a great musician, but I enjoy playing the guitar and banjo and singing. You may never be a great tennis player, but you can still have fun playing.

  17. Sometimes, however, the competent judge themselves less competent because they are good enough to recognize what real skill is.

    Consider Salieri from Amadeus. The unwashed masses (I guess everyone was unwashed then, but you know what I mean) thought that Salieri was as great a composer as Mozart. Salieri, however, had enough talent to recognize that Mozart skills were not merely greater than his own, they were of a completely different nature. Salieri thought of himself as mediocre because he’d seen real talent and knew he didn’t have it.

  18. “Salieri thought of himself as mediocre because he’d seen real talent and knew he didn’t have it.”

    No. He DID have real talent. But Mozart transcended mere talent. That’s what Salieri realized – that he was a fine composer and might have been considered the best of his generation in Vienna but for having a once every century genius like Mozart as competition.

    Salieri fell victim to the syndrome several others have mentioned already, that someone good at something realizes all of the ways that they can be better. Combine that with having Mozart as the standard, and it’s disheartening.

  19. I used to use a digital photo manipulation program to produce artwork that I really liked, and everybody else hated. I had a lot of fun. The end product pleased no one but me. I did not stop until computers stopped supporting that particular photo manipulation program. I knew full well that I was (am) universally viewed as being incompetent at digital photo manipulation. I was undeterred because of the personal pleasure I got from both the task and the end result. All of which is to say, incompetence is sometimes O.K.

  20. #20, Another Liz…
    We could call it “You didn’t look at your a$$ in a mirror, did you” syndrome. My friend is the night (restocking) manager at the local Walmart, she says the real freaks come out after midnight.

  21. The Dunning-Kruger Syndrome feels a bit like the Lake Wobegon Effect where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

  22. From the article: “We believed that they should know they were doing badly, and when they didn’t, that really surprised us.”

    And that’s something that’s left me confused for many years. When you encounter someone–maybe as a co-worker or colleague, maybe as a patient, customer, or client, etc.–who’s doing a consistently TERRIBLE job, and they DON’T REALIZE it. I’ve always been puzzled, because if you keep failing at a task over and over, or doing tasks again and again that others have to re-do or that people complain about… How can it NOT occur to you that this (“this” possibly being your profession or your job) is something you’re not good at?

    Which is why my attention was really caught by the part of the article about how many people Dunning has studied who are unaware of (or in denial about?) something much more conrete, such as a paralyzed limb. WOW.

  23. What’s it called when you recognize your limitations and that there are some things you’ll never be able to do competently, but your supervisor does not and insists you continue to perform poorly, because they don’t have the money to hire someone with the necessary skills and they’ve already promised their boss an end result that is out of everyone’s league? Because I have that.

  24. It’s OK to try something new. But to keep up this habit for five years, take lessons, subject your family to this nonsense is crazy. Talk to my husband. He seems to think that he can actually play guitar and subjects friends and family to it constantly. He will not take the hint. We aren’t even subtle anymore. You can’t play the thing worth a damn, I finally had to tell him. He still will not listen. This fits him to a T! He does so many other things very well. I just don’t understand.

  25. “…if you keep failing at a task over and over, or doing tasks again and again that others have to re-do or that people complain about… How can it NOT occur to you that this (“this” possibly being your profession or your job) is something you’re not good at?”

    @laura resnick – the article seems to mix examples of things like that and examples of people being merely decent at something (i.e. the Scrabble example) and the two simply are not equivalent.

    People often come up with answers to problems that are o.k., but are not the best solutions. The reason they don’t come up with those solutions is that they are simply not aware of them.

    To me, coming up with an OK answer isn’t in any way equivalent to incompetence. YOUR example is and I wish Morris had spent less time indulging himself in untangling Rumsfeldian logic about unknown unknowns and more time getting to the point.

  26. I don’t think what’s described in the original post–the inability to know that you’ll never be good at something–is Dunning-Kruger, exactly; that’s the inability to know that you *are* no good at something.

    What’s described is someone who’s, for example, trying to learn to sing, and knows that they have a long way to go, but keeps telling themselves that if they practice like mad, they could be better. The problem, really, is people who don’t think they need to take advice and work to improve, because in their own minds they’re already the next Ruben Studdard, when, really, they’re just the next William Hung.

  27. Rick:

    “Salieri fell victim to the syndrome several others have mentioned already, that someone good at something realizes all of the ways that they can be better.”

    There’s little actual historical evidence that Salieri was gripped with feelings of his own inadequacy regarding Mozart’s talents. Most of that stuff comes out of fictional representations of the relationship between the two composers. There is evidence of a professional rivalry (and of Salieri often getting the upper hand in it), but that’s neither here nor there about how each felt about the other’s work artistically, and how it related to their own work.

  28. I had a prof once describe ignorance as the surface area of your knowledge, and it was only where what you did know came into contact with what you didn’t that you were aware of your ignorance.

    So if you don’t know that there is such a thing as molecular biology, for instance, you would never know that you knew nothing about it.

  29. Sara @12: There is a way to combat the unknown unknown, though. The same studies that show that incompetent people vastly overestimate their competence also show that highly skilled people generally underestimate their skill.

    Skilled people can see the flaws in their work, and the places where they can improve. Knowing that, it’s pretty easy to come up with a Dunning-Kruger Litmus Test. If you can look at your work and see the places where it needs improvement, then whatever your skill level, you’re probably not in danger of ending up in a textbook on Dunning-Kruger. If you look at your work and think it’s perfect, or possessed of only insignificant flaws (or, alternately, if you meet every flaw with an explanation of how it’s Not Your Fault), then you’re probably in bad shape.

    That’s how I double-check for myself, anyway. As Scalzi says above, though, I think a big part of it is that you have to be ok with being bad at things. People who aren’t willing to accept that they have room for improvement are always going to find justifications for their failings.

  30. I’ve always observed that the most skilled people in any field are the most modest about their accomplishments, while people with average to suck-out-loud levels of skill often talk themselves up as being marvelous and wonderful people.

    I very much disagree with this. In my experience, it is the highly skilled, but not exceptional people who are modest about their abilities, whereas the truly dominant ones in the field are correctly and firmly arrogant about their own abilities. When one considers Babe Ruth, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Cristiano Ronaldo, or a world-class sprinter, the first thing one notes is their utter and in-your-face confidence in their abilities. They don’t tend to go in for false modesty… hence Muhammed Ali’s famous comment: “It’s not bragging when you can back it up.”

    Of course, these examples are all drawn from competitive sports, but I have never met a top-flight programmer who was at all modest about his coding abilities. If anything, they tend to be more contemptuous of the mediocre than the athletes.

    On the other hand, you’re correct. There are no shortage of loud-mouthed, mediocre chest-beaters.

  31. I have come to a point in my life–possibly related to being 46, rather than, say, 32–in which I accept that some things I do because I enjoy them or because I can and because I want to, not because I’m particularly good at it, or likely to be. I say that as someone who three days a week straps on running shoes and waddles around the neighborhood with his dog, noting that not only am I not very damned good at it, I probably never will be. But it’s a level of physical endeavor that is rather easy to lose totally after a certain age (and weight), so I plod on, reluctant to be one of those folks who says, “I can’t run anymore (all evidence to the contrary).”

    There are other things, like playing guitar, and perhaps even karate, where I have the benefit of knowing that by doing a little bit regularly over a very long time, I will acquire a certain level of competence. If I stay humble about it, I might seem like a genius eventually, even though it’s really a matter of having scraped at the roughness for a couple decades.

    In my professional life I’m willing to “plumb the depths of my ignorance” in many areas, but there are some I’m wise enough to stay away from so I don’t destroy my career and hurt somebody in the process.

  32. Makes you appreciate how far ahead of his times someone like Socrates was when he said that the only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing.

    I’d like to say I recall that from school, but it was actually because of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”.

  33. Laura Resnick: I’ve always been puzzled, because if you keep failing at a task over and over, or doing tasks again and again that others have to re-do or that people complain about… How can it NOT occur to you that this (“this” possibly being your profession or your job) is something you’re not good at?

    Having made the mistake of watching the ritual-humiliation portions of some of those horrible talent shows, I think it’s pretty clear. The mic was cheap. The judges are prejudiced. The performer is just ahead of their time. That’s just, like, your opinion, man.

    People are disturbingly good at post-hoc justification. If the mental model (I am a fabulous singer) fails to match reality (a reasonably fair panel of impartial judges told me I’m terrible), the subject will be far more likely to change the reality (well, the map thereof in their head), e.g., “a panel of biased and incompetent judges whose opinions don’t matter told me I’m terrible”, rather than changing their mind on something that matters to them, e.g., “I am not a fabulous singer”.

    Everyone does this; it’s a well-known way in which our minds fail to be rational. People who are extraordinarily incompetent, however, will have to deceive themselves in extraordinary ways, and that’s what sticks out as ridiculous to us. The difference is in degree, not in kind.

  34. “The Artist’s vision” rarely becomes reality, it only approaches it asymptotically. The viewer/critic can never see “The Vision”, only the expression. The difference can be tremendous to the artist, and irrelevant to the viewer/critic, who can be legitimately awestruck by what the artist sees as an utter failure. The artist sees what he tried to create and the gulf yet to be crossed to get there, the critic sees what has already been done. Looking at the same painting, sculpture, … they look at different works. It is hard to see both shows; the one on stage the audience sees, the one in my mind they can never see.

  35. 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.

    That’s the rub, isn’t it? As Socrates said (or is said to have said), some 2500 year ago: we know next to nothing and we must be aware of that fact if we want to learn anything. And also that we must begin by knowing ourselves.

    I doubt Socrates had specifically in mind knowing one’s limits when he uttered his famous “know thyself”, but it’s certainly key to avoiding becoming prey to the D-K effect.

  36. VD: In my experience, it is the highly skilled, but not exceptional people who are modest about their abilities, whereas the truly dominant ones in the field are correctly and firmly arrogant about their own abilities.

    I don’t know anyone who’s the greatest something in the world. I do, however, know several serious musicians, and from what I can tell, the better they are, the more critical they are of their own work. As far as I can tell, this is how they got so good, by identifying and addressing every flaw they could find in their music. The more intense the critical eye, the more refined the result.

  37. Perhaps a corollary to this is that as I get older, I’m less patient or interesting in finding out whether, or where, I am in that crossroads. There’s a certain amount of effort you have to put in for things you can achieve competency in, which become wasted effort if it turns out you suck, and I’m less and less willing to gamble the time and effort. It’s like Robin Laws’s comment when he got an early Googlewave account: just one more damn thing I have to figure out how to do.

    Which is not to say that learning sucks, nobody should try anything new, blah blah blah. Just that when I was younger and more energetic, I was a lot more willing to put a couple of months into figuring out whether (say) I was ever going to learn to play the piano. Not so much now.

  38. The truly great get there by intensive examination of what they’re doing. Whether they are arrogant or humble about their success is an interesting division. Some of the arrogance of sports performers can be attributed to an attempt to distract direct opponents through intimidation, I suppose.

  39. Sometimes it’s OK to suck at something, sometimes it’s not.

    Like Golf. I know I pretty much suck at it. I’ve been playing off and on for close to 30 years and never made a par round of say, 75(or even close really) on an 18 hole course.

    It’s the only sport I’ve ever played where I wasn’t consumed by capital W, Winning. Probably why I like it so much.

    The definition of incompetence (IMHO) is exactly what this syndrome describes. Being bad at something is one thing, not realizing that you’re bad at something and then resisting trying to improve is another.

    My Dad pointed out something to me when he got a really outstanding evaluation. He said, “This thing says I walk on water. I know that I wade most of the time. The difference is how hard you work at it.”
    I’m working at it Dad, but I’m still wading.

  40. Jeff S.:

    “Sometimes it’s OK to suck at something, sometimes it’s not.”

    If you suck at something, but you enjoy it and your doing it does not cause problems for anyone else, knock yourself out.

  41. And some of us who aren’t that good at guitar, violin, piano, etc. keep on going because playing the instrument brings us enjoyment. I play for MY pleasure and MY amusement.

    If you don’t like it, you don’t have to listen.

  42. If you really want to see this in action, just watch Public Access television. You see a fascinating amount of stuff that the person making it couldn’t possibly realize how bad it was, or else they wouldn’t have aired it.

  43. Wine Guy @46: there’s a difference between knowing you’re mediocre at something and doing it because it’s fun, and being incompetent at something without any awareness of same. It’s the difference between you or the Really Terrible Orchestra and the middle-aged guy who is convinced that with a just a little more practice, he is so totally going to be ready to launch that rock band he’s been wanting to start since high school.

  44. @Keith (26): It’s called Update Your Resume syndrome :-)

    More generally, I agree with John & others who say that as I’ve gotten older I’ve accepted there are things I’m not good at, just as I’ve accepted some of my personality quirks (e.g. I’m a planner and listmaker, but love surprises).

    I’ve also accepted that it’s OK not to like to do things I can do and may even be good at. I CAN write good software; I mostly don’t want to code anymore. That took me out of the running for a mgmt job at a big name Internet company, but I knew I wouldn’t be happy, and therefore successful, trying to manage a team and code. That’s me – lots of people would be fine with that.

    Now that I’m trying out my long time dream of being a fiction writer I’m leaving myself room to a)not be good at it, b)not like doing it, or c)all of the above.

  45. “If you suck at something, but you enjoy it and your doing it does not cause problems for anyone else, knock yourself out.”

    Guess it’s time I get back to Victorian Chicks in Space novel.

    ;-)

  46. @Ruth Ellen #18 If you can play the guitar and especially the banjo so that people don’t run screaming from the room, you HAVE talent. I, on the other hand, while perfectly competent at several sports and having decent hand-eye coordination, always sucked at tennis. I quit when it finally dawned on me it was ZERO fun being bad (there’s a decently high level one has to obtain or you’re just walking/jogging around and I’ve found that at least 95% of players never learn to serve), and LESS fun getting killed by people who mostly couldn’t beat me at any other sport. I did recognize very early that downhill skiing was mostly likely to get me killed or maimed so never even WANTED to try that.

  47. I think there are some problems with some of the posts.
    The sports and art anologies are a problem for me.
    Most sports have rules that try to make them more objective and less subjective. If you play a game when it is over you know how you compare to your oppenent. This is especially true in professional sports. If you play triple A baseball for five years you pretty much know what your skill level is.
    On art it is the opposite. It is very subjective. So you could work at your art for decades and rationalize your lack of success away by thinking you are great but nobody understands your artistic brilliance.
    The thing that I think best exemplifies the Dunning-Kruger Syndrome is the 100 mpg carburetor. The story is that some smart guy came up with a carburetor that enabled a car to get 100 mpg back in the 1950’s and that the oil companies bought the patent and burried it. What the people who believe this theory don’t know or refuse accept is that a patent is only good for ten years.
    In fact I think the whole field of energy is fertile ground for Dunning and Kruger because it is full of people with ideas and claims that seem to ignore basic scientific laws. So much so that the Mythbusters did a whole episode on it.
    Then again I could be suffering from Dunning-Kruger Syndrome.

  48. What’s even worse is when this syndrome runs over to people that think they are good enough to *teach* to their core incompetency. When I was working at a very very big law firm, I had a boss who was a nightmare of a person, but had this insane delusion that he was a good mentor. Ordinarily, big a-holes at big companies usually are too busy to pay attention the people they crap on. Not this guy — he would go on insane rants then — when confronted about it — explain how he was just showing his great talents as a mentor. It was truly a grotesque combination.

  49. So ultimately, I don’t know if there is any cure for Dunning-Kruger Syndrome, which I find horribly distasteful.

    There is, actually. It’s called improving your skills. The second half of the initial Dunning-Kruger experiment involved training the incompetents to the point that when they were tested again, their ability to self-assess was improved.

    The bad news is, when you do that, you have to cross what I refer to as the Dunning-Kruger Threshold when you get good enough at something to be fully aware of how bad you are.

  50. @#33 VD…

    “In my experience, it is the highly skilled, but not exceptional people who are modest about their abilities, whereas the truly dominant ones in the field are correctly and firmly arrogant about their own abilities.”

    What this misses is that it’s entirely possible to be really good at something (a natural gift, as they say) and still be subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect. A modestly skilled “competent” individual is inevitably aware of their own failings. However, at the top end of the spectrum there does truly seem to be a solid split between “geniuses” who are humble and open to constantly improving themselves, and “jerks” who have a huge amount of raw talent and honestly believe they’re the penultimate evolutionary achievement in mastering their discipline.

    Anyone who truly believes they have nothing to learn has learned nothing at all.

  51. “If you suck at something, but you enjoy it and your doing it does not cause problems for anyone else, knock yourself out.”

    And depending on the activity, you may well knock yourself out! Ha!

    I’ll be here all night folks. Don’t forget to tip your waitress.

    My friends call me the funny man.

  52. In my experience, VD is about half-right (which is more agreement then I’ve ever had with him before). I know a few people who are truly world-class at their chosen professions. For the most part, they are aware of where they stand comparatively to the rest of the world. On the other hand, they’re not comparing themselves to the rest of the world; they’re comparing themselves to the ideal in their head. Arrogance is not an overarching characteristic of the class – confidence in competitive situations certainly can be though.

    Our choir director when I was part of a competitive choir was one of those. She was (rightly) absolutely confident of our ability to win a competition. Which didn’t at all stop her from drilling us for weeks on the precise difference between our triplets and sixteenth notes – after we won an international competition with the highest score they’d ever given out.

    I learned a ton from that woman.

  53. My experience with working with “incompetent” person who are not aware of their “incompetence” is to listen with reserve to them. Maybe they aren’t so incompetent. If they are a person that is open to discussion, I will gently point out facts and information that may improve their decision making (“you might want to consider…”), or lead to my understanding of why they aren’t as incompetent as I thought.

    Otherwise, I follow the recommendation of Jesus (Mathew 7:6): “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” Why bother trying to point out or explain to an “incompetent” person their “incompentence” if they will not understand your argument?

    I have not read all of Dunning’s argument, nor do I have a complete understanding of it, but I wonder if he might be suffering from his own argument??? What is truth? What is competence? With so much unknown unknowable, can any of us say with conviction what competence is other than what we collectively agree is competence is (everyone agreed the world was flat at one point, and to state that otherwise at that time would mean that the person stating otherwise was incompetent in his understanding of the world?)? Obviously, I’m not good at philosophy, nor have I taken a class in it (incompetent).

  54. Kathy E.:

    “Why bother trying to point out or explain to an ‘incompetent’ person their ‘incompentence’ if they will not understand your argument?”

    Frequently the issue is not pointing it out to them, but pointing it out to others.

  55. Nick @56, as well as the problem of those who confuse intelligence, and/or extreme talent in a particular area, as smarts and talent in all areas. I don’t know if the fallacy has a name, but it’s the assumption that because I’m a smart person and great at A and B, I can just blather on about C because, you know, I’m smart, I know shit. (This is what makes doctors so easy to cross-examine.)

    Taptetum @58, but there’s a big gap between arrogant and confident.

  56. “What this misses is that it’s entirely possible to be really good at something (a natural gift, as they say) and still be subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect”

    @56 – actually not as I understand them. the effect is that someone’s [b]incompetent[/b], not merely less than world-class and does not realize that they’re not good at the thing under discussion.

    I wonder how much of this is similar in psychology (or even neurology/neurochemistry) to the phenomenon uncovered by body image studies that find anorexics view themselves as fat, a stance that’s objectively ridiculous.

  57. Mythago @61 – True, but it’s entirely possible to be arrogant about your abilities respective to competitors, and still never be satisfied with yourself. People who are arrogant to the point of being self-satisfied tend not to become world-class, because they don’t put in enough effort.

  58. Scalzi @60: Very true, in my experience, if done strategically. (I publicly admit, while I embrace the manipulative un-spayed female dog within me… Which I selectively release at times after much contemplation about “the greater good”).

  59. So… just checking.

    This entry was more inspired by Joe Barton than the entries for the Wheaton/Scalzi Fanfic Contest to Benefit the Lupus Alliance, right?
    ;)

  60. you never fail to write interesting blog entries. I may not agree with your politics, but you certainly do post thought provoking blogs.

    I have trouble understanding how you can create this much material.

  61. @ #67 amazing reader
    Typo there, amazing, you misspelled Bush!!!
    *keeps a wary eye out for the Loving Mallet of Correction*

  62. @ #53:

    “The sports and art anologies are a problem for me.

    Most sports have rules that try to make them more objective and less subjective. If you play a game when it is over you know how you compare to your oppenent. This is especially true in professional sports. If you play triple A baseball for five years you pretty much know what your skill level is.

    On art it is the opposite. It is very subjective. So you could work at your art for decades and rationalize your lack of success away by thinking you are great but nobody understands your artistic brilliance.”

    Yes, that’s been my observation as well. If you work (or compete) in a field where there’s regular, semi-objective feedback — you beat all challengers in one-on-one fights, or you can run faster or leap further or design a better-performing machine or whatever — then you get clear confirmation that you are indeed better at that field of endeavor than anyone else, and can be confident in your skills. Conversely, if you suck at something, you learn that early and often after you lose all the time. I’d be surprised if there’s a lot of Dunning-Kruger in competitive sports.

    If it’s subjective, and _especially_ if it’s subjective and a generally lonely field with sporadic and often contradictory feedback, then you see a lot of self-doubting talented people and a lot of wildly overconfident people who are terrible at what they do. Art and writing are the #1 and #2 fields for this, in my experience.

    @ #62: my personal experience with anorexia was that many anorexics don’t actually believe that (I certainly never did, and most of the people I talked to on pro-ana forums didn’t either), they just keep telling themselves that in order to push a little further. Like a marathoner telling himself “just one more step” around mile 15; you know it’s not actually true, you just tell yourself that to push past that step and on to the next one.

    Which is not to say that body dysmorphic disorder isn’t real or that people don’t genuinely suffer from it, just that it’s not a universally accurate generalization as to anorexics and, I think, not really a parallel to Dunning-Kruger.

  63. In training circles, we used to talk about “what you don’t know you don’t know” as being the most potentially risky thing in the world (versus what you know you don’t know, and what you don’t know you know…) We had to create situations to set up expectation failures so that people got a chance to SEE what they didn’t know they didn’t know. Then they wanted to learn it.

  64. John @ 45 and others

    You’re totally right. My golf mediocrity doesn’t hurt anyone else. Which is why my example is probably not on topic as well as it could be.

    I’m heading back out to the course this weekend and probably shoot a 110, and be happy in my lovely walk on a Saturday morning.

    KayTi @ 70
    Had to read through it twice but got it. Kind of like going into a another country or society and thinking that the way you act at home is perfectly acceptable where ever you are. Very dangerous thinking, that.

  65. Funny, I had this argument recently and got a fairly typical response by somebody when I listed my short-comings. I can’t help thinking that a lot of people who read too much Heinlein at an impressionable age fall victim to this because they want to be the kind of Heinleinian competent man who can build a space ship in their barn.

    I like to try things out to see how they feel, or at least to be able to know enough to know what I don’t know. But I try not to delude myself that I’ve got anything resembling in depth knowledge, nor ability to do something.

    I used to have great arguments with my father about this when I did my engineering degree. He was of the opinion that the degree would allow me to pretty much fix anything on a car or around the house when, in fact, all it taught me was how little I knew about any of those things.

    Knowing you limits is essential in some fields so you can focus on the stuff you are good at, and not get yourself into trouble on the ones you’re not.

  66. Daveon @72 I think some people are naturally generalists and others specialists. Being a generalist type myself it means there are only a few things I’m expert in but more things I’m competent in. It’s a tradeoff. I admire people who have the focus to being experts at one thing.

    So, yes, I DO want to build a spaceship in my garage, because I love knowing just enough about a lot of things to make them all work together. I once had to debug a manufacturing system hat consisted of four operating systems, four different applications and two communications protocols and I was blissful. But I’ve very glad there are experts who can help me when just enough isn’t.

    However, I totally agree about the engineering degree – mine taught me that I can usually fix things if the problem is electronic or software related, and I have no instincts at all if it’s mechanical. So fixing the washing machine is right out!

  67. Me, fix something with moving parts larger than electrons? Ha. Very rarely. I’ve gotten smart enough about it to not try, I just call for help.

  68. DH and I have a (largely) equitable division of labor: I take care of anything mechanically oriented, including cars and household wiring, and he keeps the computers debugged and properly functioning. We haven’t burned down anything yet, so I guess we’re at least adequate.

  69. Thanks. That was really an excellent long article that I am unlikely to have slogged through if not for your recommendation. It also gave me a deeper appreciation for Rumsfeld. It was really a very nice, informative piece.

  70. anosognosia. Hm, until now, I didn’t know that I didn’t know that term or condition existed.

    Speaking of which, anyone know who would have been the first person to come up with the idea of “not knowing what you do not know”. (As opposed to knowing that you know, say, Geometry; and knowing that you don’t know, say, French; but not knowing that you don’t know, say, Anosognosia, because you didn’t even know it existed so you didn’t even know you didn’t know anything about it?

    I think that’s slightly different than Dunning-Kruger.

    Dunning-Kruger is knowing about the existence of singing and music and all that but not knowing that you’re bad at it.

    I’m looking for the “didn’t know that you didn’t know” concept, and whoever would have said the phrase “don’t know that you don’t know” first.

    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.

    There’s a road you’ve got to travel before you get to that cross street though. No one knows if they’ll be a great guitar player until they’ve practiced, a lot.

    And no one really knows how long before they or someone else might suddenly have the internal shift to become really good.

    Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.

    Insert laundry list of spectatular failures by politician, author, musician, artist, etc before they suddenly had a breakthrough and became famously successful here.

    I think if you’re trying to learn some craft that is public, i.e. learning to play guitar is often a skill people learn so they can play guitar for other people to hear, then you have to be willing to allow each member of teh audience to have their opinion, rather than just accepting the good reviews and ignoring the bad ones. And you’ll have to respect people’s wishes when they don’t want to read your manuscript or listen to you sing, just like any relationship has such boundaries.

    But sometimes there seems to be an attitude in the audience or observer or listener that the author or singer or musician or artist etc has reached the “crossroads” and that it is time for them to stop.

    Which, I think, crosses the same relationship boundary, just in the other direction.

    Just because the performance was bad doesn’t mean the performer should stop trying.

    I try not to watch the American Idol type shows because there seems to be an almost smug voyerism in getting someone who can’t sing but thinks they can. It’s as if Simon (etc) thinks he’s a better person than the singer because he’s judging them. And I’m thinking, hey, this isn’t like the singer is forcing himself on someone who doesn’t want to hear him. Good for them for having the intestinal fortitude for getting on stage, trying, and failing, rather than playing it safe, staying at home, and judging those who dare try and fail.

  71. Drat all of you – you’re making me think!

    No, seriously. How can one find one’s limitations without stretching? Not everybody is bloody marvelous out of the gate; sometimes WORK is required. I think of those folks that became fabulous musicians/scientists/writers/artists/pilots/whatever because they a) worked their tails off and b) refused to take No for an answer? I know personally of one lady who clawed her way out of the projects to get a graduate degree in Astrophysics and is now internationally known for her specialty. She was told over and over that she should settle. She didn’t. Was it easy? Nuh UH.

    I guess my conclusion after reading y’all above is that, this issue is more about the human being’s capability for denial than their capability for incompetence. YMMV

  72. Lauretta @78, people stretch because they know they’re not doing as well as they’d like. The D-Kers don’t need to stretch (they think) because they’ve got Talent, and anyone who doesn’t see that is Blind To Their Greatness.

    A friend who teaches martial arts is always having to bolster his blue and green belt students who have gotten to the point of being able to see everything that’s wrong with what they’re doing, but not good enough to fix it. That’s a really hard hill to get over.

  73. The D-K effect in martial arts (as opposed to MikeT’s friend’s mid-belts) would be the green belt who wandered into our dojo, and offered to “exchange” teaching with my sensei – who has been a black belt and teaching roughly six times longer than said green belt had been in karate at all.

    Should he quit karate because he’s no good? Of course not. But he needs to develop some awareness of his own flaws (arrogance not the least), or he’ll never progress from his current, rather pathetic position.

  74. I don’t know, folks (re. recent comments in the 70s and 80s) – ignorance is not the same as arrogance. There are plenty of people who are unaware of what they don’t know who, when seeing what they don’t know staring them in the face (having had the opportunity to see it as something they don’t know) are capable and willing to change their worldview to adjust for this information they previously didn’t even know they didn’t know.

    Then there are assholes.

  75. given an arbitrary scale of knowledge from 1 to 10, with 1 being completely ignorant and 10 being genius level, we could sumarize DK as someone who is a 3 who thinks they’re a 8.

    So, there’s a self score (how the person rates him/her own skill) and an external score (how everyone else rates the person’s skill). And I think pretty much every possibility discussed so far can be summed up as self versus external skills:

    incompetent-and-not-aware (DK): self=8, external=2
    (i.e. arrogant, or maybe overconfident is more accurate)

    incompetent-and-self-aware: self=2, external=2
    (good place for a beginner to start learning, ignorant and knows it)

    experienced-and-under-evals-self: self=6, external=9
    (someone knowlegable who downplays their knowledge/experience. May be due to lack of self-confidence, or may be due to having a humble personality)

    God-like-knowlege-and-knows-it: self=10, external=10
    (not sure if “arrogant” is the correct descriptor if you can back it up. Can’t really think of a “positive” descriptor specifically for someone who is a 10 and knows they’re a 10 and will tell other people they’re a 10. “confident” could describe lots of different self/external scores other than 10/10)

    dont-know-that-you-dont-know: self=(undistinguished), external=0
    (you don’t even know that there’s a field about topic X, so you don’t even know that you don’t know anything. And I don’t know if there is a word specifically for this category either)

    I think that’s everyone.

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