Why we suck at assessing skill and difficulty level

Recently, as I’ve been learning more for my job and as I pick up new hobbies, I’ve been getting more aware of the things I don’t know. I’ve been trying to progress, but that requires some knowledge of what it is I’m trying to do, and what’s preventing me from doing it. Now that I’ve gotten going, I’ve realized just how much is left to do, and I feel like the list of things I have yet to learn keeps growing. I think we’ve all been in these situations, where we’re trying to learn more, and either we feel like we know it already or we feel like we know nothing and have to find some way to prevent ourselves from being discouraged. For that, I’d like to introduce two things: the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and the four stages of competence.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Let’s start with a graph, shall we?

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias that explains why we’re so bad at assessing our own skill level at a task. Most often it’s referred to when people with very little experience think they are experts on a given topic. Those people lack the experience to identify what skill looks like, and thus cannot possibly realize the inadequacies in their performance. As they learn more, though soon realize what it means to be good at something and their self-perceived skill level drops. From there, everything learned just leads to realizing there are more things they don’t know, so even once they become experts, they only see what they have left to learn, and they forget that the things they’re doing aren’t easy. They start assuming that everyone can do these things. A true expert in a field won’t really feel like an expert — they’ll only feel like they’re alright at something and that they have more to learn.

Simply put, we’re terrible at assessing difficulty level of a task. Either we aren’t good at something, so we don’t understand the nuances well enough to see difficulty, or we’re good enough that it seems like it should be easy to everyone. This is why we are not very good judges of our own skill level.

Four Stages of Competence

When learning something (or even in working towards better self-awareness), there are four stages we go through that describe our competence/ awareness.

Unconsciously incompetent:

This is when we are unaware of the skill or knowledge that we don’t possess. It’s very difficult to get out of this stage without gaining self-awareness or wanting to learn something.

Consciously incompetent:

In this stage, we are completely aware that we don’t know something. Perhaps we’ve just decided to start learning or something else has brought our attention to our ignorance. Once in this phase, we can quickly make steps towards improving.

Consciously competent:

Here, we have to work to be good at something. We are aware that we’ve gotten better, but perhaps it still takes thought to perform well. If we’re here long enough, we’ll eventually reach the fourth stage…

Unconsciously competent:

Which is when we have become adept enough at a skill that it’s become second nature. We no longer have to think in order to perform well, and it’s very easy to underestimate the difficulty level of the task.

Hopefully knowing about these will be even slightly encouraging when you get started in something new. What I’ve learned from all this is that just as soon as I start feeling like I have no idea what I’m doing, I should push through and keep trying, because I’m right on the verge of actually getting it.

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