As a person who has always been plagued with insecurity and anxiety, I am fascinated by the Dunning-Kruger Effect. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s the reason your totally incompetent colleague believes that he’s God’s gift to [insert subject here].
Articles abound on the subject, and you can even read the original academic paper by David Dunning and Justin Kruger “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” online if you’re interested.
One of the points that Dunning has tried to drive home over and over again in subsequent articles is that Dunning-Kruger isn’t something that those other idiots suffer from. Nope. It doesn’t work that way at all. The sad fact is: We’re all idiots, and often, we’re not aware of the fact because we don’t have enough knowledge to identify how little knowledge we have.
Since you can’t know what you don’t know, it can be tricky to figure out when you’ve fallen victim to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. By definition, you wouldn’t be able to recognize it in yourself.
So how do you find and eliminate these invisible (to you) gaps in your knowledge if you can’t even see them?
Be like Socrates
According to legend, when Socrates was told by the Oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest man in the world, he had this to say:
The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.
As with most problems, the first step to curing the Dunning-Kruger Effect is to admit that there’s a problem. Accept that there are a lot of things that you don’t know and that there are a lot of things that you think you know that aren’t accurate.
If you get comfortable with the fact that there’s a whole lot of stuff that you know nothing about, the best response is to become more curious. The more you explore the world and your ideas about it, the more confident you’ll become in your own ignorance (and also in your own capacity to reduce – but probably not eliminate – your ignorance).
Decide to live on a boat
I’m beginning to suspect that a surefire cure for the Dunning-Kruger Effect is deciding to live on a boat. Or maybe, more generally, deciding to completely change your lifestyle and uproot yourself from the familiar.
We haven’t even finished restoring the boat, and I’m already overwhelmed (and thrilled) by all of the new things that I am completely ignorant about. I’m also recognizing my limitations in areas that I’m not totally incompetent at.
For example, cooking
I know how to cook well enough. On land. But on a boat, new problems are posed. There’s limited storage space for packaged foods and bulky kitchen equipment, which means a greater reliance on cooking things from scratch the old-fashioned way. While rocking back and forth. Without wasting energy.
So then I have to think to myself, “Do you really know how to cook well enough? What culinary insight are you really bringing to the table?”
The truth is that I know how to cook a few things well, but I learned them by rote from a cookbook or a family member. I don’t know much about the art and science of cooking from my actual brain. I’m not one of those people who can look at a stack of raw ingredients and instantly think of fifteen possible ways of preparing them. (Yet.)
This isn’t a problem on dry land because when we’re bored with the few things I know how to cook, we can go to one of the hundreds of restaurants in the city. That won’t always be an option when we’re underway.
And an even harsher truth is that my true culinary genius likes in cooking things that have already been put together at a factory – like Totino’s pizza, Ragu spaghetti sauce, Pace salsa, and Eggo waffles. (Judge away.)
A more efficient use of space than 4 jars of spaghetti sauce and 4 jars of salsa would be 8 cans of crushed tomatoes, which can be turned into both spaghetti sauce and salsa (or so I’ve been told) as well as tomato soup, Ethiopian red red, and butter chicken. We can get greater variety (and healthier options) with one ingredient than with an equivalent amount of packaged foods.
Accepting the (severe) limitations of my culinary expertise, I’m reading Michael Rhulman’s books Rhulman’s Twenty and Ratio to gain a better foundational understanding of cooking. And – holy cow – it’s working so far. Two chapters into Rhulman’s Twenty, and I’d tried my hand at three different dishes – no recipes, all staple pantry ingredients and fresh stuff. All of them turned out pretty freaking well (but, to avoid Dunning-Kruger, they all had room for improvement).
In other words, deciding to adopt this new life means that subjects that are pretty boring on land – probably the subjects I’m most likely to assume I’ve mastered – take on a new challenging aspect, which makes them suddenly more interesting.