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Sat, 11 Feb 2006:

Do you think you are competent ? I mean do you really *know* that you are competent to do what you are actually supposed to do ? I ran into this fundamental question on thursday night - I had to interview someone on friday morning and this thought just bubbled up. What if *you* were wrong about your competency ? Would that automatically disqualify you from judging other people's competency. This was a quite disheartening thought - I had always been very doubtful about my abilities and have often gone farther than I would've to prove to myself that it's all good.

The problem with having a mind like mine is that it doesn't care what it is doing as long as it is doing something. Like the proverbial genie out of the bottle, it has to do something productive to keep itself from turning back on the body that feeds it. I'll talk about the Stimulus Struggle some other day. But right now, I had this thought eat through my brain for nearly twenty four hours till I found an an answer.

Let us first postulate the predictions that we need to verify about incompetent induviduals :-

  • overestimate their ability
  • are unable to see competent people when they trip over them
  • never realize they have screwed up
These were the three things I had in hand to compare myself against. I will not judge myself or others - but feel free to use them on me. After all proper social feedback is one defence against bad meta-cognitive skills - if only you are willing to accept criticism (back to square #1).

I remember reading the following off a 1996 calendar hanging near our TV at home. I am not sure it was from Confucius or not, but it does convey what I want to point out.

He who knows and knows that he knows, he is a master; follow him.
He who knows and knows not that he knows, he is asleep; wake him.
He who knows not and knows that he knows not, he is a student; teach him.
He who knows not and knows not that he knows not, he is a fool; shun him.

Before I wander off into depth, I found out that there is indeed a real word for knowing what you know - metacognitive skills. Apparently it is a vicious cycle problem where people who are not aware of their shortcomings never work towards fixing them and as the proverb advised are shunned by those who can see.

So the first thing an interviewer needs to develop seems to be a clear awareness of his or her own limitations. There may be people who are secure about their own skills because they have proved themselves - but it is difficult to actually measure the skill of someone who is confident and competent versus someone who is merely confident because of a total lack of metacognitive skills. Turning a blind eye towards your own deficiencies can actually pay off very well when you are dealing with an interviewer with bad metacognitive skills. Quite appropriately, Charles Darwin said that "ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge" .

One of my classmates once said something very insightful about the true value of a man.

The numerator being what he really is capable of and denominator 
being what he thinks of himself - the best always come up above 

So the conclusions I reached were basically :-

  • the more competent you are the more flaws you'll find in yourself
  • it takes one to know one
  • humility is to be valued
Too bad the modern management values visibility over humility - being self-effacing is just not a good idea. When I have another weekend to waste, I'll ponder over the gray area that we all live, in terms of these. You have to feel incompetent to be remain competent - That is the Zen of Competency.

Nothing worthwhile gives all the answers, so I'll leave you a question to chew on. Does knowledge make you less confident ? Some of my friends seem to think so ... but I can't be certain .


  1. Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments -- Justin Kruger and David Dunning, Cornell.edu
  2. Coming to terms with failure: Private self-enhancement and public self-effacement. -- Brown, J. D. & Gallagher, F. M
  3. The "below-average effect" and the egocentric nature of comparative ability judgments. -- Kruger J
  4. Managerial myopia: Self-serving biases in organizational planning. -- Larwood, L. & Whittaker, W.

Luke Skywalker: Your overconfidence is your weakness.
Emperor Palpatine: Your faith in your friends is yours.

posted at: 23:12 | path: /philosophy | permalink | Tags: ,