Posted On: Thursday, 03 November 2022 by Rajiv Popat

An old Chinese proverb reads:

He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool, avoid him.

In reality however, most of us, don't know. And we don't know that we don't know. What a professional phycologist would call, “lack of insight”. Putting it colloquially, when it comes to skills and competence, most of us suck. And we don’t know that we suck.

And why do we lack insight about how good we are at most things? Because the neural circuits required to become good at a craft are the exact same circuits required to qualitatively judge how good you are at that craft.

Put simply, if you don't have the brain circuits to draw well, you also lack the neural circuits to help you evaluate just how bad you are at drawing. This also means that if you learn just a little bit of drawing, you start believing you know a lot about drawing and your brain starts to think of yourself as an artist. This happens because with your limited knowledge of drawing, you can only see painting with limited scope of putting the brush to paper and you still don't know the intricacies of the craft.

As you spend years drawing, the nuances of the craft open up to you and for the first time you start realizing the vastness of what you don't know. The irony here? It is only when you become a decently good artist, that you realize that you are a really bad one. In the chart below for example, you don’t reach the “I know nothing about this” realization till you are substantially competent at a craft.

dunningkrugerskillgraphThis is why as people become better at any craft their self rating in that craft keeps coming down. The less you know the craft, the higher you rate yourself in it. The more you know the craft, the more you know what you don’t know and the less you rate yourself.

There is a name for this. It's called the Dunning Kruger effect.

It's why managers with literally no organizational skill, can give you a long lecture on how you should organize your tasks better. It's why CEOs and founders, give coding advice to programmers who have coded for two decades, without blinking an eye or without realizing the inherent underlying irony and humor in the entire situation. It's why the most unproductive guy in the room usually goes around telling everyone how unproductive they are.

The effect may seem funny at one level, but ignore it and it has the potential of ruining companies, relationships, careers and even destroying lives. Its why the movie The Big Short (loosely based on the book which in turn is based on real life housing industry collapse) begins with the caption from Mark Twain:

One way to overcome the Dunning Kruger effect, is to have actively develop insight of how we can all fall prey to the effect. Mindfulness, and simply accepting that the effect is a scientific reality and happens to all of us, is a good starting point.

For example, I had driven for few years in the US; but I recently learned how to drive in the streets of India and after a month of practice, I genuinely started believing I knew everything my driving instructor knew. Then one fine evening, I had to brake a manual stick shift car on a hill slope without using hill assist. That’s when I realize how misguided my evaluation was on how much driving I really knew.

Another approach, is respecting results and payouts. Put simply, don't pass judgements on working styles of people who are more effective than you and particularly those who are paid more than you are in a given field.

The simplest way to start this practice, is by stopping to give commentary on how that expert soccer, baseball or cricket player ‘should have’ hit the ball, next time you are watching a match and they miss scoring.

Then take the concept to your professional life.

For example, stop passing remarks on how your multi-millionaire CEO should run his company and instead try to learn from him on how he runs his company and makes millions.

Working with an expert designer? Don't tell him to change the color of your website to light blue because dark blue just doesn't "feel right" to you. You feel you have a sense of esthetics, but in reality it's just Dunning Kruger effect at play, making you think that you are a designer. You’re not. You know nothing about the science of esthetics. Something your designer has probably read and practiced for years.

Instead, ask questions. Why did he pick dark blue? What was his rational? What basic rules of designing has he used. Practice humility. Learn from him rather than trying to teach him the craft he has already practiced for multiple decades and you know nothing or very little about.

Insight, humility and genuine curiosity are three biggest weapons you have against the Dunning Kruger effect and given how dangerous this effect can be to your professional and personal growth, I suggest you use all three.

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