Dunning-Kruger

If you’re not familiar with the Dunning-Kruger effect, you owe it to yourself to read up on it. It’s a fascinating study that affects all of us, yet few of us can recognize it. Essentially, the unskilled have an illusory superiority effect, where they perceive themselves to be more skilled than they actually are. Conversely, people who are pretty competent at a given skill or task assume incorrectly that others are equally good. In other words, they don’t recognize their superior talents.

When I was in the Army, I coined the term “Moley” for someone who’s perceived self-importance outweighed their actual worth. I guess I had recognized half of the Dunning-Kruger before I’d ever heard of it. I suffer from the other half of the equation. I’m not suggesting that I’m highly skilled or particularly bright or what not, but tasks I find easy to complete I incorrectly assume others must also find easy. After being made aware of this phenomenon, I began to notice myself doing it in a fairly specific pattern: if I met someone who had tenure in a specific area, perhaps a new field I was venturing into, I automatically assumed they were better than I was. However, once I realized that I was pulling a Dunning-Kruger and paid more attention to their actual skills, I would see the illusion.

I am a moderately decent pianist and have a reasonable singing voice. I can keep a tune anyway, and if the melody is in the sweet spot of my vocal range, I can do a “competent” job. However, I am ridiculously self-critical. Every time I play something, I envision those who are better than moderately decent at the craft, seeing my efforts as sophomoric at best. Meanwhile, I don’t actually know anyone who plays at all. It may be a throwback to my college days when I switched majors from Engineering to Music and was suddenly surrounded by musicians and recording engineer wannabe’s. My days were spent talking about music, recording my own pieces, sitting in on piano for other’s recordings and generally being creative. But it was a highly competitive atmosphere. As in most areas, there’s always someone better than you, faster than you, more creative than you, more innovative than you, or more educated and experienced than you. Somehow I only noticed those folks, not the long train of mediocre players who thought I was one of the upper echelon.

It reminds me of a study published on American drivers where 93% of those asked rated themselves as “above average.” I hate to break it to most of those folks, but there ain’t no way. Math just doesn’t work that way. It may be that the best way to identify your own strengths and weaknesses, at least in any area where there isn’t an objective test we can take, is by following that most uncomfortable of paths: asking others.

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