I had a great childhood. Growing up with my three older brothers and three younger sisters was nothing short of beautiful. One of my brothers, Jerry, was exceptional at playing set drums. He probably still is. He played remarkably well since the age of about six and won awards at it. But his skills were a child’s play compared to what I believed I could do with drums. I consistently created phenomenal beats in my head and with my mouth and couldn’t wait for the right time to unleash my genius.
One day I went along with my brother to rehearsal, and I got given the drum sticks. I smiled confidently as I balanced myself behind the drums and held the sticks firmly. Finally, it was my moment to show the world the stuff I’m made of.
But something wasn’t quite right. The beats in my head weren’t flowing through. It was as though I’d lost all control over my limbs. The drums made different sounds than I wanted them to, and my hands would uncontrollably freeze for my foot to kick the bass drum below. It was certainly not the outcome I had imagined. I was told that I held the sticks rather too firmly, and I was overtly too rigid. That day, I learned to appreciate how good my brother really was and how much I sucked at drumming.
You see, what happened to me at the drums is what Psychologists describe as the Dunning–Kruger effect.
Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias that tends to give incompetent people an illusory superiority that makes them self-assess their incompetency too highly. It is the delusion that we are better than we actually are. Have you ever wondered why your favourite soccer player couldn’t just shoot the ball into the net right in front of him while watching a game? You were sure that you wouldn’t have missed that much-needed goal if you were to be in the same situation. Well, you’re not alone, it happens to the best of us.
The Hierarchy of Competence
- Unconscious Incompetence: The more incompetent a person is at something, the less accurate they are at self-assessing their competence because of invisible pockets of incompetence and knowledge gaps that they are not even aware of. So we tell ourselves the story that we prefer to hear. At this stage, you don’t know that you don’t know something. This is not an ego issue; it’s an ignorance problem. The most helpful thing to do is to self-reflect and ask for feedback. However, you need to be open to receiving the feedback even if they are not very pretty, as they would most likely be if you’re incompetent.
- Conscious Incompetence: Now that the feedback is in, light is shone on the black holes of your incompetencies, and you are aware of them. Now you know that you don’t know something. That is hugely empowering. You can now decide on how you want to improve on your weaknesses and make a conscious effort at getting better. Take a course, read a book, speak to an expert, etc. The only cure to ignorance is knowledge.
- Conscious Competence: You’ve learned all there is to know, but you have to remember to apply the knowledge. Now you know something, but you have to think about it as you do it. This is not as easy as it sounds in practice. Remember when you started learning how to drive a car? It probably took a deliberate effort not to run the lights or someone over. Practice makes perfection.
- Unconscious Competence: At this point, you know something so well, you don’t have to think about it. It has become second nature to you. Congratulations! That’s the stuff experts are made of. You can now drive your car safely from A to B without actively thinking about everything you do. Experts are usually accurate in self-assessing their skills and abilities. However, they often tend to make the mistake of thinking everyone is as knowledgeable. That’s why it’s crucial to feedback into the competence loop by teaching others and giving them feedback.
I never became a drummer boy like Jerry. But I’ve learned to always seek out my knowledge gaps by asking for feedback and working on improving my incompetencies through the hierarchy of competence as prescribed above. In the end, knowledge is never-ending. The more you know, the more you know you don’t know. That is what keeps us humble and thirsty.