How often are you blind to your incompetence?

Today is June 28 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often are you blind to your incompetence? There is no doubt navigating the chaos requires one to have a strong belief in their skills, traits, and knowledge. Overcoming one obstacle after another for extended periods of time requires a good deal of energy in maintaining that anything is indeed possible. But when such belief blinds one to their own incompetence it jeopardizes progress, and sometimes derails it altogether.

There is a fine line between imagination and being blind to one’s incompetence. For example, in his book The Element, Ken Robinson talks about a little girl who was drawing a picture. When her teacher asked what it was the girl said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” The teacher responded, “but no one knows what God looks like” to which the girl replied, “they will when I show them my picture.” Such childhood innocence allows one to use imagination to solve problems without any concern for an awareness of competence.

Adults, however, are held to a higher standard and must have eyes wide open when it comes to their incompetence. This blend of being blind to one’s incompetence is known in social psychology as the Dunning-Kruger effect coined in 1999 by then-Cornell psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. The irony of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is according to Dunning:

“the knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task—and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at that task.”

The 1999 paper that launched the Dunning-Kruger Effect was called “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” Across 4 studies, Professor Dunning and his team administered tests of humor, grammar, and logic. And they found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile grossly overestimated their test performance and ability.

As Mark Murphy wrote in Forbes, you can find examples of the Dunning-Kruger Effect everywhere. One study of high-tech firms discovered that 32-42% of software engineers rated their skills as being in the top 5% of their companies. A nationwide survey found that 21% of Americans believe that it is ‘very likely’ or ‘fairly likely’ that they’ll become millionaires within the next 10 years.


Moreover, back in 2000 a Time magazine survey asked people if they were in the top 1 percent of earners. Stunningly 19 percent of Americans said they were in the richest 1 percent and a further 20 percent expect to be someday. So right away you have 39 percent of Americans who thought they were in the top 1 percent of earners in the country. Talk about being blind to one’s incompetence!

Additionally, drivers consistently rate themselves above average. Medical technicians overestimate their knowledge in real-world lab procedures. In a classic study of faculty at the University of Nebraska, 68% rated themselves in the top 25% for teaching ability, and more than 90% rated themselves above average (mathematically impossible).

For many professions it is important to surround yourself with people who can tell you when you make a mistake. For example, an accountant should not be ignorant of laws governing taxes. Such ignorance could be troublesome for the accountant and client.

Decades before Dunning and Kruger identified this phenomenon the titan of industry Andrew Carnegie recognized it and noted "a genius is a person who surrounds himself with people smarter than himself.” You simply cannot have all the answers all the time. Real self-awareness will help you understand this. Poor self-awareness will have you succumb to the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

If you are blind to your incompetence why are you afraid of surrounding yourself with people who are willing to tell you things you may not want to hear? Are you such a disbeliever that someone could be looking out for your best interests, not their own?

Building a team with complementary, diversified skills and experience to help you travel your path of navigating the chaos is a critical strategy to employ. If you are too blind to such an option, then your incompetence will most likely continue to jeopardize your progress. You will simply remain in your own way.

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