I question my own ability several times a day, every day.

I look at others in my field of professional expertise who seem to have supreme confidence and I worry that I may actually be grossly under-qualified to be putting myself out there in the same company.

I worry because it’s scientifically proven that most incompetent people don’t know they are incompetent.

It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect after two psychology researchers from Cornell University who conducted a series of experiments after noting many references in other studies to people’s ignorance of their own performance. David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that for a given skill, the majority of incompetent people will:

  1. Fail to recognise their own lack of skill
  2. Fail to recognise genuine skill in others
  3. Fail to recognise the extent of their own ineptitude

The researchers noted the irony of the situation is that in order to recognise those things, the person would need to possess the very skill they lack!

The other significant finding they made was the reverse applied to people who did have the skill in question…

Actual competence tends to weaken self-confidence and people with true skill generally under-estimate their own ability.

This is not a new concept though. Noted philosophers and scientists have been talking about it for centuries.

Confucius said “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance”.

Charles Darwin said “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”.

Bertrand Russell eloquently put it like this: “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”.

They Probably Won’t Try To Improve Either

Dunning and Kruger found that incompetent people can recognise their own previous lack of skill if they are exposed to training for that skill. The problem is that they are unlikely to seek out such training.

Why would they if they don’t know?

Public speaking is a classic example. People who seek help with public speaking typically do so because they lack confidence. But the bigger problem (in the business world at least) is confident speakers who really could use some help because they are confusing, offending, and boring their audiences.

What Do We Do Then?

A couple of important points to keep in mind:

  1. Not all confident people are incompetent
  2. Not all people who feel self-doubt are highly skilled

I think our best bet is simply to have enough self-awareness to look objectively at our own performance on a regular basis and couple that with the desire to really master whatever is we are trying to do. Even better, get a mentor or coach, or find someone we trust completely to provide us with informed objective feedback and guidance.

Doing those things will always put us a step ahead of those who never ask any questions of themselves and sure enough, the genuine ‘earned’ confidence that only comes from actually being good at what you do, will follow.

(Originally published Nov 2013. Updated April 2016).

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