Sometimes you cannot help but wonder

A couple of months ago I was instructing a level two course.

These courses can be a bit tricky, as often as not you get groups with quite mixed levels of abilities and competencies – which can in turn make it challenging to ensure that you are not boring one half of the group whilst going way over the heads of the other half. I tend to simply stick to the syllabus of the course we are instructing, this seems to me to be transparent and fair, a sort of what you see is what you get-kind of deal.

And let’s face it, it has never hurt anybody to hear something twice.

This course was no exception, one of the participants obviously felt we were really wasting his time – despite the fact that in climbing it became apparent that there were significant gaps in his knowledge. Oh, it had never even occurred to me to think about it that way. No shit, Sherlock?! Ignorance, as they say, truly is bliss. And if you never ask any questions, yes, indeed you can comfortably recline in your fuzzy bubble of omniscience – as there are no questions to answer. But this is a long way from being proficient in an activity, or having a deep understanding.

Similar type situation the other day: we were working on a tree overhanging one of those outdoor street gyms. Soaring levels of testosterone and cheap chat-up lines à gogo. Not my scene, but hey, who am I to judge? Anyway, one of the guys “coaching” one of the women takes a break to approach me during the tidy-up – with a roll-up hanging from the corner of his mouth – and says that what we are doing looks pretty chill.

Errr, does it?

Yeah, he says, you would not believe all the things I have done in my life – without any formal training. I reckon I could do this. Formal training is all about making money, never about learning.

Gotta go, I said.

Both of the above are examples of the Dunning Kruger effect in action.

This is what Wikipedia has to say about this bias:

In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. The cognitive bias of illusory superiority comes from the inability of low-ability people to recognize their lack of ability; without the self-awareness of metacognition, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence. On the other hand, people of high ability incorrectly assume that tasks that are easy for them are also easy for other people.

The other day I was struck while watching an interview with John Butler, a highly talented Australian guitarist, of how it  illustrated the other end of the spectrum: the person conducting the interview said how he was under the impression that the musicians of the John Butler Trio were genuinely enjoying playing together. John confirmed this and went on to describe how he felt for the first time that he was slowly getting the hang of this performing in front of an audience business, in contrast to the first ten years of his career, where he had been terrified of being rumbled as not being good enough or a fraud.

Now you would have thought that a person who is obviously as proficient at what he does as John would not need to doubt himself like that – but the contrary is the case. The guys in the first two examples are less competent at what they do, this lack of knowledge and experience leads them to overestimate their actual level of ability, while a deeply competent operator like John has much more accurate tools to gauge his level of ability – and will therefore be less prone to stumbling into the Dunning Kruger pitfall.

Whilst being competent leaves place for self-doubt, it also equips you with better tools to assess your true level of competence.