Crushing Humility

November 10, 2013

You may’ve heard of the Dunning-Kruger Effect before. Essentially, it’s the tendency for human beings to be bad at estimating their skills or ability.

Imagine you’re in an entry-level course in a subject you’ve never studied. As soon as you begin to grasp the basic concepts, you’re very likely to begin thinking you’re more knowledgable and skilled than you really are. Beginner’s luck, some nice breaks, and a few a-ha moments will lead you to believe you’re a natural badass. And, while you may be taking to it nicely, keep your head down and keep working.

Nearing proficiency, you begin to see how much there really is to learn about this subject with which you’re more familiar than ever. The rabbit hole seems endless and you start realizing your naiveté at being so confident so early on. And you start doubting yourself.

When edging in towards expert level – or mastery – the Dunning-Kruger effect becomes more about underestimating one’s ability. I think this is due to a new perspective on the subject at hand. It reminds me of one of those old adventure games in which you could only ever see the rooms you’ve been in. A beginner will only see a few rooms lit up and feel like they know everything while the expert has already been in each and every room and knows how many there really are.

We see the Dunning-Kruger effect in action often in society. People having surface-level knowledge of a subject think their opinion is equally as valid as an expert’s (see global warming or evolution). It makes me think of this Russell quote:

One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision. -Bertrand Russell

So when learning a skill, don’t let that confidence get to you early on. It will make you feel relaxed and sure of yourself and you may slow down and stop being as voracious with your learning. Doubt is good, but don’t let it get to you. We all have to find a balance.

Don’t compare yourself to others – compare yourself to what you know you’re capable of. If you’re living up to it, be proud of yourself, stay humble, and keep rolling. If you’re not, be honest with yourself and step it up.