March 9, 2012
Recently I was wondering what it feels like to be unaware of your own incompetence. This led my frail mind to the disturbing realization that incompetence probably feels exactly the same as whatever I was feeling when I was pondering the question. Studies show that incompetent people don’t know they are incompetent. Apparently incompetence feels exactly like competence. Uh-oh.
I have always assumed that my thoughts and opinions are correct about 80% of the time. That means a troubling 20% of my thoughts are batshit stupid and I am blissfully aware. Or is it worse than that? I have no basis for assuming I’m right 80% of the time. My estimate is based on a feeling, and feelings are not reasons.
Imagine you’re a detective, and you have to solve the case of how incompetent you are. What evidence can you find to support the assumption you have about your own incompetence?
You could start the investigation by asking yourself what sort of people generally agree with you. Are they toothless hillbillies or Nobel Prize winners? I generally align my opinions with the consensus of experts, and I would expect the consensus of experts to be wrong about 20% of the time. But wait… I have no objective way to know if experts are usually right. All I know is that if feels that way, and feelings are not reasons.
I can look at my educational background, and my scores on standardized tests, but tests only compare me to the competence of other people in a limited and artificial way. Good SAT scores might not predict who can, for example, bake the best pie, or buy a new car at the best price. And since I don’t know how competent the average person is, it doesn’t help me to know I’m more or less competent than the average. Am I only slightly more competent than people who are wrong most of the time?
I could look at the success I’ve had over my lifetime as a gauge of competence. Smart decisions should lead to better outcomes. But my observation is that all success is born of hard work and luck. One needs a minimum level of competence, but effort and good fortune seem to make the difference once you’re above the minimum. I became a famous cartoonist without much in the way of art skills, so apparently the minimum competence requirement for my field was quite low, whereas the luck requirement was sky high. When I launched Dilbert, the world was simply ready for a common employee’s irreverent view of the workplace. The comics I drew were nothing more than my autobiography. If I had been a dancer turned cartoonist, my comic never would have been published.
When I blog, dozens of thoughtful people disagree with just about every paragraph I write. Most of you haven’t had the joy of being publicly judged for your mental competence each and every day. It’s a fascinating experience, and humbling in a healthy way. Luckily for me, my ego died years ago, so I don’t mind being called an idiot by people who might be idiots themselves, or possibly geniuses. None of us can be certain which team we’re on.
I also wonder why being awake is considered the preferred state of awareness compared to dreaming. We assume our waking lives are something approximating “real” and our dreams are fake. But that worldview assumes we can judge our own competence, which we know we cannot. By that I mean we assume our daytime perceptions are recording something about the universe that is mostly true and accurate, while our dreams are mostly random nonsense. But objectively, we have no evidence to support that view. Being awake just feels more legitimate and real, and feelings are not reasons.
Everyone reading this blog believes that he or she is right, and competent, most of the time. On what do you base your opinion of your own competence?