There are certain skills that everyone thinks they have. For example, almost everyone thinks they’re a good driver. In fact, 93% of Americans consider themselves above average drivers. But it doesn’t stop there. As Matthijis Van Veelen and Martin A. Nowak write in their paper, “Evolution: Selection For Positive Illusions”: “In a survey of 1 million high school students, a solid 70% rated themselves as above average leaders (versus 2% who thought of themselves as below average), and a spectacular 94% of college professors possess teaching abilities that are above average — according to themselves.”
The Overconfidence Illusion
When I first noticed this illusion, I became curious. Are there patterns to this tendency? Yes, indeed there are. Almost no one will tell you that they’re a good computer programmer or user-interface designer if they don’t have any experience in the field. Similarly, people won’t tell you that they’re experts in chemistry if they can barely describe an ionic or hydrogen bond. But people will puff up their chests and talk at length about their amazing ability to speak eloquently or persuade others (“sell”). And if you ask them whether or not they’re good at writing, they’ll quickly respond in the affirmative.
Lack of Feedback
So what separates speaking, persuasion, and writing from chemistry, UX/UI design, and computer programming? First of all, these are things that we all do fairly frequently. Almost all of us have to write on a daily basis, even if we’re just sending off text messages. Similarly, all of us have conversations and try to convince other people of our point of view regularly. But here’s the issue: even though we’re doing all of these things on a regular basis, we’re not actually getting good, critical feedback in these areas on a daily basis. Our text messages can be as grammatically deranged as we want; our friends probably won’t correct us. In addition, the quick emails we write to colleagues are unlikely to be incredible examples of rhetoric. Even if we make our point sloppily, most colleagues won’t admonish us for our poor word choice and awkward phrasing. And unless we have particularly type-A friends, we probably won’t hear about how often we use filler words, such as “um” and “like”, when we speak.
This lack of feedback causes us to keep on making the same mistakes. We get stuck in suboptimal patterns with no way of improving. Without feedback we have no way of turning our daily activities in writing, speaking, and persuasion into real, deliberate practice. As learning psychologist Anders Ericsson writes in his book, “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise”:
“But there is one very important thing to understand here: once you have reached this satisfactory skill level and automated your performance–your driving, your tennis playing, your baking of pies–you have stopped improving. People often misunderstand this because they assume that the continued driving or tennis playing or pie baking is a form of practice and that if they keep doing it they are bound to get better at it, slowly perhaps, but better nonetheless. They assume that someone who has been driving for twenty years must be a better driver than someone who has been driving for five, that a doctor who has been practicing medicine for twenty years must be a better doctor than one who has been practicing for five, that a teacher who has been teaching for twenty years must be better than one who has been teaching for five.
But no. Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement. If anything, the doctor or the teacher or the driver who’s been at it for twenty years is likely to be a bit worse than the one who’s been doing it for only five, and the reason is that these automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve.”
So not only are we going to be overconfident at how skilled we are in common activities, but our abilities are also likely to diminish over time–since we’re not getting critical feedback and pushing ourselves to the limits of our abilities. This leaves us in the tricky position. We think we’re good at writing, for example, and are thus unlikely to hire outside help when writing our investor update or website copy. However, basic areas like this are probably where we need the most help. I call this the overconfidence trap, and it affects us all in some of the most foundational parts of our lives. None of us will pretend to be good computer programmers or chemists. We know that we know nothing in these areas. But how many of us will admit that we’re terrible at expressing ourselves verbally or that we’re bad at logistics and planning? Self knowledge in this area is much lower, but that means it’s all the more valuable. Do a radical self assessment today. Your future may depend on it.