Why stupid crooks keep getting caught

I’ve been writing a lot about self-awareness and authenticity in the past couple of months.  Self-awareness and competence have a strong linkage as well.  I read a  NY Times interview between Errol Morris and David Dunning about the relationship between self-perceived competence and actual competence. 

Dunning’s research suggests that we can often be highly confident of our abilities when we are actually quite incompetent as measured objectively.  Why?  We require the same skills to be competent as to measure our competence.  In other words, “we don’t know that we don’t know”. 

This might explain the great number of disagreements I have with students over grades. They lack experience and knowledge, and over-estimate their own abilities. It explains the number of bad reality tv shows about the stupid theives who are easily caught. It also explains effectively why so many new businesses fail.  Their owners over-estimate their abilities, and under-estimate the likelihood of failure.  We all think we’re smarter and more competent than we really are.

My dear friend the Accountant (okay so he’s a major pooh bah at a big multi-national corporation) tells me that humility is a fundamental part of leadership. Understanding and admitting that we don’t know something is hard on the self-esteem.  And it seems to be greatly lacking in the corporate and political world.   We made fun of Donald Rumsfeld when he referred to “unknown unknowns” during the Iraq war. Yet Rumsfeld was right. There were lots of unknown unknowns.  Our followers expect us to know.  I think that the Accountant might be right.   It’s a sign of competence to have the humility to admit that we don’t know. The world is far more interconnected and far less predictable than we might have thought.

Smart isn’t necessarily about knowing things.  Maybe smart is also about knowing what we don’t know.


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