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


The Art of Authentic Communication (Be The Glass Goblet)

The Art of Authentic Communication (Be The Glass Goblet)

The Art of Authentic Communication (Be The Glass Goblet)

The Art Of Authentic Communication (Be The Glass Goblet)

“You have two goblets before you. One is of solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns. The other is of crystal-clear glass, thin as a bubble, and as transparent. Pour and drink; and according to your choice of goblet, I shall know whether or not you are a connoisseur of wine. For if you have no feelings about wine one way or the other, you will want the sensation of drinking the stuff out of a vessel that may have cost thousands of pounds; but if you are a member of that vanishing tribe, the amateurs of fine vintages, you will choose the crystal, because everything about it is calculated to reveal rather than to hide the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain.”

Back in 1932 a lady named Beatrice Warde used that metaphor in a speech to the British Typographers Guild. The speech itself debated whether design should embellish or elaborate the printed word. Over 80 years later the same metaphor can still be applied to modern forms of business communication.

These days the ’embellishments’ that business communicators use range from a tidal wave of information to overt creativity. Some modern day embellishments include:

  • Information overload designed to give the impression of knowledge.
  • The website (or other advertising) that tries too hard to be creative and ends up drowning out the message.
  • Social media gimmicks that serve no purpose other than to falsely inflate statistics.
  • Unnecessarily complicated language and buzzwords used in attempt to appear intelligent.

All of these things generally fail. Why? Because people are looking for genuine connection. They want to know what you think, what you know that affects them, and how you feel about the subject at hand – and they want it in a way they can understand.

Be more like the ‘glass goblet’ that reveals what’s inside and less like the bright shiny object that lacks real substance.


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.


The ‘93% of Communication is Non-Verbal’ Myth

The ‘93% of Communication is Non-Verbal’ Myth

The ‘93% of Communication is Non-Verbal’ Myth

A common statistic that is quoted by some trainers, consultants, and even the occasional uni professor, is that “93% of communication is non-verbal.”

The breakdown of communication elements they quote normally goes like this:

55% visual – facial expressions, gestures, movements etc.

38% auditory – tone, pitch, volume of voice

7% language – the actual words

Let’s think about this logically for a moment…

Language is an essential foundation of our society. Words are everywhere because they are essential to communication – much more than just 7%. Even primitive societies developed languages because grunts and hand signals were simply not sufficient.

So where does this 93% idea come from?

These figures are actually a misquote of some research performed in the 1960’s. A very smart man called Dr Albert Mehrabian was interested in finding out how communication was affected by conflicting gestures, expressions and tone so he designed a couple of experiments involving pictures of people with different facial expressions and audio using varying tones of voice and pitch.

The Real Conclusion

Dr Mehrabian’s conclusion was that when it came to the communication of emotion 7% was derived from the language, 38% from tone, and 55% from visuals.

So 93% of our understanding of other people’s emotions comes from their body language and voice. Unfortunately, that has become over-generalised over the years with people applying it to all communication.

Albert Mehrabian himself is on record as saying:

“I am obviously uncomfortable about misquotes of my work. From the very beginning I have tried to give people the correct limitations of my findings.”


“Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”

Words Are Important

The reality is for the actual information and details we need to be told using words.

When we ask someone “What are you so happy about?” or “What’s wrong with you?” what we are really saying is, “I can easily tell your emotions but to get the information I need you will have to tell me using words”.

So the next time someone tells you that 93% of communication is non-verbal, take it with a grain of salt and remember the context of the original experiment.

In the meantime, before you start thinking about how you look and sound, make sure you have a well-structured message that can be followed by your audience. Good delivery helps but it won’t save poor content.

The words do matter.

David Wise

David Wise

Owner, Wise Words Communications