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Week 12, 2022—Issue #196

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Climbing Mount Stupid, Navigating the Valley of Despair, and Ascending the Slope of Enlightenment

Photo by Kalen Emsley on Unsplash

Each week: three ideas to help us build better organizations. This week: three ideas on how a bit of self-awareness can protect us from bouts of over-confidence.

I’ve been reading Adam Grant’s book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. It’s an entertaining read and I’ve particularly enjoyed his treatment of the Dunning-Kruger Effect — the cognitive bias that leads us to overestimate our abilities early on in the learning journey:

I find skill acquisition to be a fascinating subject and I’ve covered some of the better-known skill-acquisition frameworks in years past. The Dunning-Kruger Effect isn’t a framework per se, but it does make for a great complement.

Here’s how it works:

1. Climbing Mount Stupid

Our learning journey starts with a hike up Mount Stupid. No disrespect. It’s just that confidence tends to outpace competence early on, as we transition from novice to amateur. It happens to all of us: we misinterpret the progress made with all the progress there is to be had. As we crest the summit we confidently proclaim that “We’ve got this” and that “We have arrived.”

2. Navigating the Valley of Despair

Our bout of overconfidence is (fortunately?) short-lived. The view from up top is… eye-opening and it quickly dawns on us that we might have overlooked a thing or two…or maybe three. We walk a bit further and before we know it we are tumbling headfirst into the Valley of Despair. We realize our mistake and we begin to understand just how much work is left to do. Our confidence is painfully cut down to size.

3. Ascending the Slope of Enlightenment

Most of us never make it out of the valley. We give up and throw in the proverbial towel. But if we do make it through, it’s because we’ve somehow managed to convince ourselves to trudge up the Slope of Enlightenment. This is no easy task — it’s a long and grueling slog — but given time we begin to see light up ahead. If we trust in the process, we’ll gradually regain our lost confidence.

Writes Adam Grant in Think Again:

“When we lack the knowledge and skills to achieve excellence, we sometimes lack the knowledge and skills to judge excellence. This insight should immediately put your favorite ignoramuses in their place. Before we poke fun at them, though, it’s worth remembering that we all have moments when we are them.”

That’s a sobering thought.

But it’s true.

We’re all climbing Mount Stupid right now, just like we’re all right now also navigating the Valley of Despair and ascending the Slope of Enlightenment.

We’re beginners in one discipline, amateurs in another, professionals in a few, and completely ignorant of many more. We are multitudes, and that’s OK.

We can never escape the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Not completely. But a bit of self-awareness goes a long way. Grant suggests we cultivate a bit of “confident humility” when looking to acquire new skills, and that seems to be a good place to start.

That’s all for this week.
Until next time: Make it matter.


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