"[I]gnorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge."
— Charles Darwin, 1871
If you were granted the opportunity to choose between two states of being, which would you prefer: being stupid but not realizing it, or being intelligent but not believing it?
Ignorance itself isn't something to be ashamed of. We're all ignorant in certain areas. When combined with a lack of self-awareness though, it could mean the difference between being harmless and dangerous.
Humility isn't dishonorable either. Or perhaps you wouldn't consider not believing your own intelligence to be defined as humility; maybe you prefer the phrase de rigueur: impostor syndrome.
Given the choice between these two states of being, which would you choose?
"Ignorance is bliss," as the saying goes, but that only applies to the ignorant―those on one side of the equation. What about those whom are the victims of ignorance, whether it's hapless or willful? The principled among us would feel responsibility for any damage our actions cause others. The ignorant? Not so much. I'm not sure I could live with such a state of being.
"The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world, the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt."
– Bertrand Russell, 1933
In Mortals and Others, the philosopher Bertrand Russell included a scathing essay titled "The Triumph of Stupidity," written in 1933. It was aimed at Germany, but could just as well apply to America today. In addition to this misplaced sense of confidence, he also points out that along the way, there's a moral failing as well: "if intelligence is to be effective, it will have to be combined with a moral fervour which it usually possessed in the past but now usually lacks."
Amid the COVID-19 response, we've seen a moral failing in scientific leaders who have missed opportunities to speak up when political leadership says misguided or ignorant things (e.g., "light inside the body" and "disinfectant"). The willful and hapless ignorance of these leaders resulted in cases and deaths that outstrip the rest of the world. Conflicting messages and uncertainty, combined with many Americans' desire to get back to normalcy and lack of self-discipline, combined with their skepticism of scientific experts have given us an America that is woefully ignorant of its decline.
This might be summed up most succinctly in a quote from Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who said on June 30, 2020, in a pandemic hearing regarding the role of public health in the reopening of schools: "We shouldn't presume that a group of experts somehow knows what's best for everyone."
The Dunning-Kruger Effect on a National Scale
The Dunning-Kruger effect, named for social psychologists David Dunning (University of Michigan) and Justin Kruger (New York University's Stern School of Business), states that people of average abilities tend to overestimate their competence, while those of above average abilities tend not to realize how proficient they are. That is, confidence does not align with competence. It's illustrated in this graph:
The loudest voices tend to have the most confidence but little competence. In the animal kingdom, the ape or the lion expresses domination by virtue of a roar, but their sounds are backed up by ability. The weaker animal who tries to dominate by voice can receive his comeuppance with a drubbing if his physical abilities don't match his vocal abilities.
"What a king must suffer! For he knows, deep down in his heart, that he is a poor, cheap, wormy thing like the rest of us, a sarcasm, the Creator's prime miscarriage in inventions, the moral inferior of all the animals… the superior of them all in one gift only, and that one not up to his estimation of it — intellect."
— Mark Twain, 1906
With humans? Not so much. We often see leaders asserting their primacy of knowledge in a wide variety of subjects. It's impossible for anyone to master many topics; this is why the best leaders assemble teams that contain subject matter experts, and then rely on them for advice and counsel. Leaders and experts know that there are limits to what they know; if they're presented with something outside of their sphere of knowledge, they're not afraid to say “I don’t know.”
Add to this the concept of cognitive dissonance, and it complicates matters further. The minute we make any decision we begin to justify the wisdom of our choice and find reasons to dismiss alternatives.
You've probably encountered your fair share of leaders in business who don't seem to have the skills to match their positions. This was first captured as an idea by Dr. Laurence Peter in his 1969 satire The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. Stated simply, the Peter Principle is this: "In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence."
It's based on the idea that employees will continue to receive promotions until they ultimately land in a position that's above their skill set. We often reward individual performers for success that has nothing to do with the positions they'll be placed in next. That is, we might see a proficient analyst or marketer, and based on the successes they've generated, put them in leadership positions.
"I consider my ability to arouse enthusiasm among the men the greatest asset I possess, and the way to develop the best that is in a man is by appreciation and encouragement."
— Charles M. Schwab, 1897
Leadership requires a different set of skills than positions of individual performance. It's one thing to hone a deep level of expertise in a specific area; it's quite another to handle the functions of management and leadership. Suddenly, you're no longer responsible for the output—you're responsible for your people.
Have you ever found yourself in the midst of a project, a speech, or strategic planning and thought, "I shouldn't be here. I don't have the skills or the ability to do this, even though people think I do."? If so, you've experienced an aspect of impostor syndrome.
Despite astonishing accomplishments, some people still feel a nagging sense of self-doubt and severe inadequacy. They might even feel like frauds.
“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius."
– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1914
Even though many people struggle with impostor syndrome, I see two upsides to this. The first is it's evidence of self-reflection. Good leaders have a high degree of emotional intelligence (EQ), and one aspect of EQ is self-awareness. You can't have self-awareness without reflection. So, even though impostor syndrome brings self-doubt, you can be sure that those who struggle with it are not suffering from ignorance.
The second point is a corollary to the first: Intelligence looks in the mirror and sees ignorance. Ignorance looks in the mirror and sees intelligence. The only people who don't suffer from impostor syndrome are actual impostors. Remember that.
What's a Leader to Do?
As we try to bridge the gap between ignorance and competence, and to provide ourselves and others with well-reasoned rationales, there are a few steps we can take to minimize detrimental behavior.
Don’t assume everyone knows what you know. Even if there are certain topics that come easy to you, take the time to bring everyone along on the journey. Overcommunicate without being patronizing.
Make it okay for people to ask questions. No castigating or belittling: we are all on different stages of our journeys, whether it's in a career or in life.
Failure is an option. We don't want to celebrate incompetence, but we should acknowledge it, free of stigma, and encourage learning from mistakes. To ignore it or punish it outright only gives people reasons to hide failures.
Set time aside for reflection. Self-assessment is an always-on effort. We learn by honestly assessing our words and actions with others. Encourage self-reflection in your team as well.
Find your inspiration. Look to others you admire and try to understand their journey to success. Yours may not be identical, but you can learn from them.
And don’t forget Hanlon's razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."
So have you decided whether you'd rather be stupid without realizing it, or intelligent but doubtful of it?
It's not an easy choice—and of course it's a false one because these are not absolutes. But given the choice between the two, the latter at least provides a path toward enlightenment.
And a path forward is all we can ask.
This originally appeared in the July 29 issue of the Timeless & Timely newsletter. What are you missing? To see this issue in its entirety, with entertaining and thoughtful links, recommendations, and more, please click here
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