What We Don’t Know About Ourselves Is Ruining Our Lives

Here is a piece of research work that has, slowly but cumulatively, had a very profound effect on my thinking over the years. It is the original work by David Dunning and Justin Kruger that gave birth to the “Dunning-Kruger effect” theorem.

I urge you to make the time and read the paper to the end. Yes, it is a technical paper, and you are very busy. But it is written in such a lively and straightforward style (ahem….a skill I am far from mastering myself) that it can be a finer substitute for your facebooking and gossip news reading if you just give it a chance today. You don’t even have to read it all at one go.

In short, Dunning and Kruger argue that the biggest behavioural deficit in many under-performers (to me, that’s most of us really, since we all perform below our potential most of the time) is the lack of ability to accurately assess our own strengths and weaknesses and ruthlessly work on them. But it is more profound than that because it is more specific: the poorer your skill in a particular domain the weaker your ability to appreciate how really bad you are!

This is very serious. It means that we have blindspots in the areas where we need the most help with.

So, for example, if your logical perception is very weak you are more likely to assume that your logical perception is actually very fine.

If your sense of personal discipline is horrible, you are very likely to think that you are better than most people when it comes to personal discipline (such as sticking to a schedule, prioritising important tasks over feel-good tasks, not letting the momentary spikes of ego get in the way of empathetic communication etc.). If your ability to read how others perceive your attitude and behavior is off, you are more likely to be jumping to conclusions about how much peers and bystanders respect your style, etc.

Dunning-Kruger isn’t some general notion about IQ as many people seem to believe. It is often badly summarised as: dumb people are over-confident and smart people lack conviction.

This is an ironic caricature, given that the concept is about misperceptions and misapprehensions more broadly speaking. Particularly, Dunning-Kruger is about our ability to spot self-deceit and be alerted about pernicious complacency, regardless of our latent endowment of intelligence or intellectual potential; i.e. it is primarily about behaviour not makeup. Behaviour that can and ought to be unlearned. In other words, it spotlights our tendency to get comfortable with our junk.

Over the years, I have come to the view that steadily improving one’s capacity to operate at “peak” requires “routine paranoia”, a constant sense that one’s lack of skill in important domains is causing serious damage even if one is not aware of the full extent of the damage.

Such paranoia should help create a habit of looking around for signs of harm, responsibility for which one can only fragmentarily sense and appreciate, and start working right away to mitigate them as much as one can.

Where I have been less effective is then following the trail from the debris to identify what skill deficits my blind spots are covering up in the first place in order to work more systematically on fixing the root deficits in various skill areas.

It goes without saying, certainly in the experience of many people who have thought long and hard about this, that operating at peak capacity in order to get difficult yet lucrative things well done to the appreciation of those who matter (whether they are clients, peers or the “public”) is a far more rewarding attribute than any credential can ever be.

Credentials are increasingly, in a world of 7 billion people all seeking for glory and fame or at least fulfilment, far too common and much too hard to measure to matter all that much. What everyone is looking for, and is willing to pay for, is the unique capacity to bring very hard concepts into fruition. Almost always, what is required in these contexts are subtle blends of subtle skills, which change from task to task, sometimes almost imperceptibly. A much smaller elite is capable of hitting this truly higher bar. It takes unique, well honed, metacognitive abilities to correctly sense the right skill sets to be prioritised in order to sustain the effective translation of a truly value-adding vision to fruition.

The problem is that very often we don’t even recognise these skillsets because we lack the self-assessment capacity to evaluate ourselves in the areas in which we exert our energies and intellect.

We have serious blindspots about our “cognitive bearings”. We often don’t know what we are actually doing well enough; are ignorant about the skill sets required; and frequently falter in estimating where we are in our efforts to develop and hone those skill sets.

When we start to bumble all over the place, we can’t even tell that we are bumbling, and when we fail we don’t even know that we have failed, much less trace the failure to a lack of capacity in a particular domain so that we can start work on improving it before it begins to ruin the whole endeavour. That is the story of most of our lives.

That is the extraordinary insight of Justin Kruger and David Dunning and why it is so so so critical that we all pause and take a hard look at ourselves, where we are, what we are doing, and how we are doing it.

If we are diligent, and humble, and persistent, we shall begin to see these blindspots and the mess they are covering up and start to address them. As we grow in confidence and wisdom, we may even begin to overcome our weaknesses and start to grow from strength and strength in the direction of our true potential.

Those of us exposed to the Abrahamic faiths during our upbringing know well the allegory: God in the Garden calling out to wo(man), but they are in hiding. Why? Because for the first time in their lives they have tasted the fruit of knowledge. Unfortunately their sudden knowledge of their nakedness had not come with the self-awareness to confront their deepest shortcoming: their lack of responsibility and self-accountability. And from this lack of self-knowledge: the root of eternal damnation.

May our destinies be different.


  1. Great piece… I think we need to look how practically to assess your weakness and strength.

  2. Our problem is not the absence of self-awareness but our disdain to take honest feedback which lead people to massage our self-esteem that perpetuate the vicious cycle

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