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You Might Be Dumb if You Think You're Smart

·3 mins

Okay, the title is clickbait, and I am ashamed of that. So, I’ll give you the bottom line up front: the Dunning-Kruger effect is (in my experience) spot-on, and even though it’s a bit of a pop psychology trope these days, I have encountered this effect many times. There’s a delightful (sacrasm) synergy between Dunning-Kruger and imposter syndrome where these two can work together in confusing ways.

To put it impolitely: the most incompetent people I’ve ever worked with have generally been highly confident in their abilities, and some of the most brilliant people I’ve known tend to be more reserved, less assertive, and more willing to admit when they don’t know something. This results in the phenomenon where the loudest idiots rise to the top, and the quiet geniuses are overlooked.

I’ve encountered this time and time again, although there are certainly exceptions. I’ve also met very smart people who are aware of the need to work around these psychological quirks to be successful. But, in general, I think the Dunning-Kruger effect is real, and it’s worth being aware of it.

I can think of one memorable person I worked with who was remarkably incompetent, yet incredibly confident of his brilliance to the point where it became clear I could no longer work with this person because he was a danger to himself and others (figuratively speaking). In the end, I chose to take the path of passivism, and eventually, I was “managed out” as they say. He was my manager, so there wasn’t a whole lot I could do to affect change beyond smiling and nodding when appropriate.

Sometimes, we end up in situations with no good options, and we have to either leave or accept the situation. In my case, they chose for me, which worked out remarkably well in the end.

That brings me to the clickbait title: I’ve used a fairly effective heuristic over the years for separating the bullshitters and idiots from the competent and intelligent people. Generally speaking, people who are truly competent and intelligent are more likely to be aware of their limitations and more willing to admit when they don’t know something.

People who are less competent and less intelligent are more likely to be overconfident and less willing to admit when they don’t know something. Smart people say things like “I don’t know” rather than making up an answer on the spot, and they’re more likely to ask questions to clarify their understanding. Smart and competent people are also willing to admit when they’re wrong and change their minds when presented with new evidence.

So, when you hear someone say, “I don’t know”, this is almost always a good thing.