Oh To Be Blissfully Unaware Of Our Own Incompetence

Oh To Be Blissfully Unaware Of Our Own Incompetence

Oh To Be Blissfully Unaware Of Our Own Incompetence

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).

David Wise

David Wise

Owner, Wise Words Communications


Introvert At Work. Hold That Thought.

Imagine you’re a marathon runner and you’re just getting into that zone where you’ve settled into a comfortable rhythm. It’s taken a few miles to settle into that rhythm but now everything is working well and you’re really making good progress. All of a sudden someone you know beside the road calls your name and steps out in front of you waving their arms.

You feel obliged to stop running and ask “What’s wrong?”

They say “Oh, nothing. I just saw you running along there and haven’t seen you for ages so I just wanted to say “Hi!””


You resist your desire to to choke them, politely say “Hi” and get back to your running. Except now you’ve lost your rhythm and it takes a while to get back into it again. Unbelievably, just as you are getting back into your zone, it happens again! And of course, once again, you have to start over and try to re-focus on the task at hand.

Outwardly you try to be polite but underneath you are absolutely seething. Isn’t it obvious you are busy with something? By the time it’s happened another eight or nine times you are ready to explode with rage. Your head is spinning and your body is so tense that it’s impossible to think about anything – let alone what you were doing in the first place. In the end you either don’t finish the race or it takes about ten times longer than it should.

Hands up if this scenario reminds you of a typical day at the office?

Every time you get into your ‘zone’ you feel someone hovering at the door, the phone rings, or someone just barges in. Every time it happens you feel your stress levels rising.

The odds are that you are probably an introvert and you aren’t alone.

Even though roughly 50 percent of the population are introverts, it is one of the dilemmas of modern life that workplaces are very much designed to suit extroverts.

If allowed, we introverts can get deep inside our own minds to a place that is extremely productive. The problem is that things like open plan offices, technology on tap, and the idea that being a ‘team player’ means always being available, are all barriers to getting to and staying in, ‘that place’. Once interrupted it can take a long time to get back to where we were.

It’s not that we aren’t sociable – introversion and shyness are different things. We’re quite happy for a chat during morning tea and lunch and many introverts are actually great speakers and insightful leaders – it’s just that we need space to let our minds work without our thoughts being interrupted.

For the extroverts, when you see an introvert deep in thought, please be assured that they don’t need to be cheered up or rescued. In fact they are probably deliriously happy being alone with their own thoughts. If you have a thought that you feel must be shared straight away or you will absolutely die, please try to find another extrovert who may appreciate it. Once the introvert has accomplished what they need to, they would probably love to hear about it as well.