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The Critical Importance of Knowing What You Don’t Know

The Critical Importance of Knowing What You Don’t Know

Eric Schnell | January 18, 2023 | Blog | 3 minute read

"Dad, why is the sky blue?"

Each of my sons asked me that question at some point in their childhood. My answer was something like: "Well, you see, sunlight shines down and the earth somehow screens out certain colors, so that on most days, but not all days, only the blue light gets let in." Then, I would tell them "That was a good question!", feeling quite impressed with the knowledge I have obtained over the years.

Ok, so that probably wasn't the best answer. I could have started with "Great question! Let's do some research together and find an answer." But no, in the moment I felt like I needed to be the parent who has answers. I wanted the credibility, and heck, I knew a little about science.

I fell victim to one form of cognitive bias known as the "illusion of knowledge": thinking you know more than you actually do.

I also remember auditioning for a high school musical and getting to the dancing part.

  • Choreographer: "Here's the move I want you to do." and she does a dance move.
  • Voice in my head: "That doesn't look hard for her. I can do that."
  • My body: "I have no freaking idea how to move like that."
  • Result: Well, let's just say the role I got didn't involve much dancing.

Yep, I succumbed to another cognitive bias called the "Illusion of skill acquisition": thinking you have learned something by observing others doing it. It wasn't pretty. It's possible that more people are under this illusion because of our easy access to videos of people doing incredible (and sometimes, incredibly stupid) things via YouTube, TikTok etc.

In my two examples, there wasn't much of a price to pay because of my overconfidence. My kids eventually learned why the sky is blue and how to research their own answers to questions. And my ego did eventually recover from my disastrous dancing experience.

Overconfidence can lead to bad outcomes.

  • We may undervalue colleagues: We may overlook and undervalue the expertise of others, who know more about something than we do.
  • We may miss learning opportunities: Because of our inflated sense of what we know, we may miss opportunities to learn new things (or to correct our own misunderstandings) and develop personally and professionally.
  • We may lose a LOT of money: We may make decisions based on incomplete or inaccurate information, resulting in us taking unnecessary business risks and damaging our bottom line as in Billy McFarland and the Fyre Festival: "McFarland had reportedly grossly underestimated the cost and time it would take to organize a music festival on the scale that Fyre Festival's glossy promotions would promise… While McFarland's greatest talent was "selling himself," according to Vanity Fair correspondent Burrough, McFarland was also "just stunningly ignorant of what it would take to make his promises a reality." Investors lost $26M.
  • People die: Overconfidence on the part of a few can lead to groupthink, and groupthink can lead to very bad outcomes, as in the space shuttle Challenger disaster. (See "Looking back at the space shuttle Challenger disaster".)

Many of us have moments of overconfidence. In fact, one research study demonstrated how a subject's assessment of their ability to land a plane was unreasonably increased after they watched a "trivially informative" YouTube video of a pilot landing a plane. And it turns out that the people who are the worst performers of a task tend to be the same as the people who rate their confidence the highest (the Dunning Kruger effect). Yikes!

So, how can we keep overconfidence in check? Here are a few tips:

  • Test yourself. You're about to answer a question posed by a colleague. How confident are you in your answer? If you're 90% sure you know the answer to a question, do some research and see if your knowledge is accurate and complete. Don't let yourself get away with shallow, incomplete, and possible just plain incorrect answers.
  • Be a careful consumer of media and expertise. Make sure you know who the reliable sources of information are, and just as important, know who the unreliable sources of information are.
  • Be humble and transparent about your lack of knowledge. Don't be afraid to say the words "I don't know, but I'll find out for you". Your self-worth is not dependent on what you know, or what others think you know.
  • Be curious. Make a habit of looking for ways to deepen your knowledge, even of subjects you already think you know quite a bit about. Ask yourself, "What else can I learn?"

The Bailey Group coaches are ready to help you build your emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and self-management skills so you can have a more accurate understanding of what you know, and a plan for learning what you don't.

To quote Socrates: "The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing."

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