Unskilled and Unaware of It
Perhaps the greatest compliment I’ve ever received professionally came to me a few years ago in the form of a reference letter from a company leader I’d once worked under. There was a line in the letter that said something to the effect of, “he knows what he knows, but more importantly he knows what he doesn’t know and possesses the initiative and intelligence to find out how to learn it.” I remember being surprised at the time that someone else would notice such an obscure and subjectively assessed skill.
The skill: Viewing one’s thoughts, actions, decisions and motivations somewhat objectively and within a broader context, aware of environmental factors and interactions with others, and fully trusting one’s own intuition, inate curiosity, resourcefulness and perseverence to evaluate situations and to solve particular problems. I think that innovative specialists and exploratative generalists both share this ability. Given that it is pretty much impossible to be an expert at everything, such a learning skill can come in quite handy across the board.
This observation comes from reading a study about how incompetent individuals lack the metacognitive skills necessary for accurate self-assessment: Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments by Justin Kruger and David Dunning of Cornell University. Kruger and Dunning presented participants with tests that assessed their ability in a domain in which knowledge, wisdom, or savvy was crucial: humor, logical reasoning, and English grammar. They then asked participants to assess their ability and test performance, thus often demonstrating overconfidence in an overestimation of one’s knowledge.
In essence, we argue that the skills that engender competence in a particular domain are often the very same skills necessary to evaluate competence in that domain–one’s own or anyone else’s. Because of this, incompetent individuals lack what cognitive psychologists variously term metacognition, metamemory, metacomprehension, or self-monitoring skills. These terms refer to the ability to know how well one is performing, when one is likely to be accurate in judgment, and when one is likely to be in error. For example, consider the ability to write grammatical English. The skills that enable one to construct a grammatical sentence are the same skills necessary to recognize a grammatical sentence, and thus are the same skills necessary to determine if a grammatical mistake has been made. In short, the same knowledge that underlies the ability to produce correct judgment is also the knowledge that underlies the ability to recognize correct judgment. To lack the former is to be deficient in the latter. …
When can the incompetent be expected to overestimate themselves because of their lack of skill? Although our data do not speak to this issue directly, we believe the answer depends on the domain under consideration. Some domains, like those examined in this article, are those in which knowledge about the domain confers competence in the domain. Individuals with a great understanding of the rules of grammar or inferential logic, for example, are by definition skilled linguists and logicians. In such domains, lack of skill implies both the inability to perform competently as well as the inability to recognize competence, and thus are also the domains in which the incompetent are likely to be unaware of their lack of skill. …
In particular, work on overconfidence has shown that people are more miscalibrated when they face difficult tasks, ones for which they fail to possess the requisite knowledge, than they are for easy tasks, ones for which they do possess that knowledge. Our work replicates this point not by looking at properties of the task but at properties of the person. Whether the task is difficult because of the nature of the task or because the person is unskilled, the end result is a large degree of overconfidence.