In his book, The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin wrote: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” This statement is often completely contrary to what we believe or assume to be true – that the more knowledgeable we are, the more confident we will be.
It turns out that Charles Darwin was completely right. In more recent years, we have come to understand and accept the Dunning-Kruger effect: a cognitive bias that states that the less we know, the more confident we are. It gives new meaning to the saying, “A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
In 1999 Professors Dunning and Kruger published the paper “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” In it, they prove the phenomenon that people with very little knowledge on a particular subject are confident and outspoken on the subject. This lack of knowledge leads to two things – firstly, you have little idea of what you are actually doing or talking about, and secondly, your sense of confidence makes it impossible for you to realize just how little you know.
Its fairly easy to see how this can happen, and most of us will recognize this in ourselves and in others. As you start to learn a new skill your progress is rapid – you learn quickly and make progress fast. This makes you feel like you are really good at the skill, and pretty soon you feel like you’ve got this – you’re terrific at it! You have essentially learnt enough to be able to perform the skill, but have not yet learnt enough to realize what you don’t know.
As you then gain knowledge and start to realize just how little you do know, your confidence will plummet and reach an all-time low. If you choose to continue to build your knowledge by learning and gaining experience, your level of confidence starts to rise again, finally matching your level of knowledge.
I absolutely love the graph that illustrates this phenomenon – I can recognise myself standing right there on top of Mount Stupid when it comes to certain areas of knowledge. In other areas, I am in the Valley of Despair, and in others I am climbing the slope of enlightenment as my knowledge and confidence slowly grow.
So the real question is – are you standing on Mount Stupid and confidently and loudly declaring your knowledge and opinion as a rehab therapist? Because if you are, you are putting patients’ lives and outcomes at risk. It is worth learning to recognize our own shortcomings, just as we are so frequently exhorted to recognize our strengths.
Are you dwelling on Mount Stupid?
There are a few signs we can spot in ourselves when we are:
- We will be rather loud and opinionated.
- We will overestimate our own skill.
- We fail to recognize the skills and knowledge of others.
- We fail to recognize our mistakes and shortcomings.
- We feel like there is not much to learn from anyone else.
- We won’t actively pursue learning opportunities, read research on a regular basis, and delve into a specific subject or condition in great depth to allow ourselves to gain a deeper knowledge and understanding.
- We don’t take criticism well.
- Other people might describe us as being arrogant (although we may not know it).
If you recognize aspects of yourself, don’t berate yourself; we have all been here. The question is, are we going to stay here, or will we recognize our shortcomings and do something about them?
Are you in the Valley of Despair?
The path off Mount Stupid can be rapid, sudden and traumatic, or it can be a gentle stroll down a hill – it all depends on how we decide to respond to the realization that we are not as great as we thought we were. It will also depend on how long we have kept ourselves up there on Mount Stupid! I think for most of you, not long.
As we stand in the Valley of Despair, having lost all confidence in ourselves, we are faced with a decision. Do we re-assess ourselves, our knowledge and our skills and start to find ways of correcting our inadequacies? Or do we give up and try something else?
Are you climbing the Slope of Enlightenment?
If you choose not to give up, but to find a way forward, to reflect on your decisions, experiences and mistakes, and start to fill in your gaps, you will find yourself slowly climbing the Slope of Enlightenment.
To remain on the slope requires work and discipline. A continuous process of self-evaluation and an absolute dedication to continuing growth and learning takes time, energy and effort.
Are you on the Plateau of Sustainability?
At some point, continuous growth and learning becomes more than a habit; it becomes a part of you, a part of your very nature, your character. And this is when sustainability is achieved. You can calmly and confidently keep on carrying on!
And somewhere along the way, something truly magical happens. We become humble and wise, and our hearts are moulded to those of a servant. We take pleasure in learning, never assuming we know it all. In this place, we can truly serve our patients, our clients and our professional community. Here we can grow and mentor others, share our knowledge and experience, and for the first time really contribute to a greater cause.
If you want to find out how to avoid Mount Stupid altogether, you can download the PDF below:
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