Do you understand how SSRIs inhibit Serotonin Receptors to help treat mental health issues?…
…how about how computers process computer code at the lowest level to create the experiences you love?…
…how about how your body kills a virus that seeps into your system?
I’d expect you would not know one or all of these things. That’s fine, they’re really technically specific things.
The real question is… Do you care that you don’t know them?
We can appreciate that it is reasonable that we don’t know these things because they are far from our purview.
You do not expect to know them.
That is the key difference. You haven’t disappointed yourself.
We’re not thinking about it on a daily basis. If you thought about how much you didn’t know how could you focus on your daily life? The tasks immediately in front of us?
We give ourselves a free pass because we don’t know what we don’t know.
We don’t give ourselves trouble because we can’t even know what’s missing.
This is all part of the Dunning-Kruger Effect and will be the topic of today’s exploration.
In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is.Wikipedia
Their Precise Finding:
“the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”David Dunning and Justin Kruger
Their findings can be plotted as follows:
Breaking down the high-level journey to mastery of a skill:
- You start fresh with no expectations on your ability. You look up to those already doing well with aspiration.
- You become able to do basic tasks in the skill by repetition.
- You begin comparing yourself to the people you used to look up to… why is their work so much better than yours?
- Now you have broken through the veil and actually see how complicated things are when you want to do them ‘well’.
- Your expectations of your work sky-rocket. You now expect it to always be ‘good’ and never make any mistakes.
- This makes you lose confidence in your ability, because you still make mistakes.
- You become overwhelmed.
- You’re at the bottom of the dip. You want to give up. But you keep taking risks to try new things.
- You begin to realise you have gradually become comfortable with the complexity and can do things ‘well’ almost by muscle memory.
- Or maybe you don’t realise this… but you at least appreciate how complex the system is.
Alright, so that’s the 10 steps journey let’s break it down in detail and explore it!
Let’s break things down a bit. Knowledge is a plane, a HUUUUUUGE square of all things that exist. We, as humans, only know a very small part of that, and each one of us even less.
I’m going to attempt to visualise this and establish some key phrases to allow us to discuss the journey in a more structured way.
There’s a whole plane of possible knowledge, assuming you believe the universe to be real, then this contains everything – Zone 1.
A subsection of that is human knowledge – Zone 2, every idea and concept we’ve accrued over the last 10,000 years. There’s plenty of stuff that humans still don’t know.
Within that is the subset of knowledge that you know. The content you have inherited and acquired in your lifetime – we’ll call this Zone 3.
Now, there are areas in Zone 2 that you know exist, but don’t know deeply so they are not in Zone 3, yet. This is represented below by the faded blue circle – the Penumbra.
The Penumbra is what guides your growth as you move to expand your knowledge over time.
Zone 3 grows as you do. The more knowledge you absorb the bigger it gets. We’re each aiming to push the edge of our Zone 3 as far as we can. Eventually helping to push Zone 2 forward by discovering new knowledge for humanity.
Penumbra is a real word already, defined as: The half-shadowy faded bit on the edge of a shadow.
We can conclude from this that if the topic didn’t touch our Zone 3 Penumbra, we won’t have an expectation that we should know it. It isn’t even in the shadow of what we know.
It’s so far away we don’t even know we don’t know it.
It wasn’t at our fingertips but rather it hid beyond the horizon.
Okay we’ve established when you don’t expect to know something you don’t mind that you don’t know it. But what about when you do expect yourself to know it?
This is when you are aware of the concept at a high-level but don’t know the specifics of this concept. It slips into the Penumbra. This is likely to become an area of great sensitivity for you.
For example: If you’re a plumber and you don’t know something about fixing a leaky pipe this will be very embarrassing for you to reveal.
Your expectation is what causes your confidence level to fluctuate as you move along the Dunning-Kruger curve. The higher your expectations, the lower your confidence.
This sensitivity and lack of confidence can make it difficult to honestly explore what you don’t know.
If you feel like you should already know it, you will feel like a fool for asking about it.
How often have you, your friends or colleagues hidden the fact that you or they don’t know something?
Often you are your worst critic.
We’ll call this critic Mr Expectation.
It’s a manifestation of that bullying boss you had, constantly looking for ways to make you look bad. The easiest way to ensure you are disappointed is to set a really high bar.
If the topic is in your domain of ‘expertise’, it becomes a much more nuanced zone.
The Treacherous Path to Mastery
If we split picking up a skill to passive mastery level into 100 increments, we can start to describe the Dunning-Kruger curve in more detail.
Passive Mastery: Where you are able to do any task in the domain of the skill without thinking deeply about it and even create new processes and shortcuts.
0-1 is only 1% of the whole. But it’s an infinite percentage improvement from 0 to 1.
It is one of the hardest spaces because you’re pushing the boundaries of Zone 3 into Zone 2 from scratch. Discovering things in Zone 2 we were not even aware of.
You won’t have made much progress but you’ll have realised a good few things you didn’t know. Which is a start. This can be overwhelming at first.
This builds uncertainty, something which humans aren’t typically very good at dealing with.
This uncertainty makes Mr Expectations stronger. Barking at you over your shoulder.
I imagine this as little sparklers at the boundary of our knowledge, it’s a prickly experience.
Sort of like pins and needles.
Accepting the Challenge
It may have been a while since we had to admit to ourselves that we didn’t know something.
From 1-10 on our skill scale (0-100) it’s a challenging but rewarding ride.
You’re reading into Zone 2. Expanding the Penumbra and gaining abstract ‘chunks’ of knowledge. You don’t know where they fit but you have already gotten a decent landscape of what was needed from the previous stage.
You can use your pattern recognition to complete basic tasks of the skill. I.e. if you see someone else do it, you could follow along.
But it doesn’t feel natural, it takes a conscious effort and intense focus.
Then things start to fit together, all the ‘chunks’ you’d been gathering start to piece together. Things start to look up. From 10-90 it’s a steep curve.
If you still commit yourself with the same earnest effort as before, you will have to capacity to race up the S-bend of the skill curve. The stage is set, you’ve done a lot of the leg work learning the ‘chunks’. Now it’s puzzle-piecing time.
The thing with this pace of learning is that you are gaining a recognition of how much more there is to learn. It’s way harder to do something excellently than it is to do it plain well, and now you are starting to see it.
It’s just being ‘good enough’ is no longer good enough for you.
You feel the potential in your heart.
You start to compare yourself with more and more talented contemporaries.
Now your expectations rise.
The bar is set. The pressure starts to set in.
You may be improving faster than before but you’re starting to doubt yourself faster than you can learn the topics becoming available to you as you master the prerequisites of them.
This is where a lot of people give up.
You will feel you just aren’t cut out for it, that others in your field are better than you. How can you possibly compete with them.
You hit the bottom of the confidence curve because you see this insurmountable flood of issues with your work. Sure it works but it isn’t as good as it could be. As you want it to be.
The no-expectation care-free exploration you started with is long gone.
Then you reach a turning point.
If you don’t give up at this point, you start to see fewer and fewer things that you’re missing that you feel you really need to know.
The rates switch over and you start to learn faster than you identify things that you’re lacking.
The confidence starts to come back. At this point, you pass the 50 (out of 100) mark and it’s an uphill climb but it’s rewarding.
Realistically, it takes time but you finally feel like you’re making progress again.
Not just being buried.
The area of Zone 3 has grown substantially. The things that used to be foreign and difficult, that you could only do by copying a master or mentor of some kind, are now effortless and automatic.
Consequently, your focus is drawn to areas of previously inconceivable complexity as your muscle memory handles the first 80% of the task.
You have reached active mastery.
A skill level where you can consciously complete any application of the system of skill you’re learning; without assistance.
The final 10%
Next is the most difficult part. Transitioning from active to passive. You’ll likely have outgrown your mentor, multiple times over.
We’re at 90 by now. Let me introduce a floating Zone 4 representing the area of knowledge you’re trying to process and learn in Zone 2. Maybe it’s painting, maybe it’s computer programming, maybe it’s toxicology.
It moves and changes as humans make progress. Try to find one that overlaps your Penumbra and reaches into Zone 2.
To truly reach 100/100 you will need to become one of the humans making progress for humanity.
The point where the edge of your Zone 3 lines up with the edge of Zone 2 for that topic. When you learn new things, society learns new things. You are inventing.
If you are going to progress here you will have the largest battle with your ego.
You’re probably seen as an industry expert in your trade. People that see your work and have a decent grasp of the craft are wowed.
You desperately don’t want to disappoint them.
This reputation can stunt your growth, you will keep within your ‘comfort zone’, doing things you know will be excellent.
You could do just fine here.
This is what incumbent companies needing to report profits every quarter fall into, they don’t invest in their future to stay relevant.
Ultimately, this last 10% can take 90% of the time.
Filling in the tiny gaps in your knowledge is like finding 100 needles in 100 haystacks.
Problem Set Transcendence
Seeing the big picture.
By this point your Zone 3 almost completely contains the Zone 4 you were going after. You have learned most of what is known about the skill. Therefore, now almost nothing in that space is counter to your expectation.
The brush always makes the strokes as you envision in your mind.
We can call this Problem Set Transcendence (PST). You are no longer in the weeds of the problem. You start to look forward to the future of that conceptual space of collective human knowledge. A pioneer.
The art is picking the right shape of Zone 4, do you go deeper on a specific niche of that area, or try to integrate more and more adjacent zones?
Do you become a better Still-Life artist or branch out into Pointillism?
Do you become better at Mandarin or start learning Cantonese?
VITAL: The trap here is that we do ourselves the disservice of convincing ourselves that we’re at PST far before we really are.
Can we ever really feel like we’ve made it?
Will self doubt and the fact that we see every one of our imperfections and mistakes get in the way?
To be at PST isn’t to have achieved perfection, that’s not something that really exists. Being at PST just means you can fully meet your highest possible expectations.
You’re able to push forward human knowledge. In the language we’ve used so far, it’s when your Zone 4 overlaps your Penumbra and out into Zone 1.
By expanding your knowledge, you push Zone 2 (human knowledge) further as well.
You become the bridge to the expansion of human knowledge.
Thus, the goalposts are not set. We cannot define perfection.
Remember the graph from the beginning?
What does it all mean?
What’s we have explored is something deeply profound:
- The unskilled will often overestimate their skills, because they can’t appreciate how hard the activity can truly be.
- The highly skilled will likely be unfairly critical of their own work.
This doesn’t mean if you think you are bad at something you are automatically good. It’s just something that you should consider as a possibility.
If you feel like it’s impossible you’re probably just in the “I’ll never get this!” dip.
Keep on trucking, you’re almost there.
Where are you sitting on your curve?
Note from Joe: In the future I’ll explore more in detail about defining your Penumbra and acquiring new ‘chunks’ more rapidly. Subscribe to the podcast or the email list to be notified.