05 Jan I will no longer write for the incompetent
This blog post is logically correct, but for many readers otherwise completely unsuitable and incorrect. First, a word about the logics. I am proven1 to have exceptional reasoning abilities and a high capacity working memory. I’ve also heard that sometimes utilizing these attributes makes me sound incorrect and outspoken. Well, these features do go hand in hand, and if you prefer to read some feel-good self-help, stop reading now. There’s no patting on the back here.
For a few years I haven’t said publicly anything about abilities, competence and intelligence. In 2013 I wrote a series of columns for the largest subscription newspaper in the Nordic countries, Helsingin Sanomat. In one of my columns I referred to a study suggesting that the students in The Finnish National Defence University are less academically orientated than their peers in other universities. Two months later, in January 2014, I claimed in an interview in the Finnish Broadcasting Company’s national talk radio, Yle Puhe, that it is more acceptable to say that you run faster than others, than that you think faster than others.
Both statements caused a lot of debate, which wasn’t a surprise. What surprised me was that I was described as a presumptuous bungler, not having a clue of what I was talking about.
My capabilities are questioned every now and then, mostly because of my lack of a university degree. Again, last week I wrote about the qualifications of a successful change manager and the issue of not having a degree was brought up immediately. It is true that I don’t have any formal education. But when it comes to judging competence, I’m pro.
Instead of wasting my time and replying to all the received feedback one by one, I’ll clarify the true nature of competence in this blog post. Focus.
I never studied even though I was good at school. I didn’t have to. People many times more successful than I am believe that the most valuable expertise in a changing world is not taught in schools. Creating new requires contemporary know-how. What has not been done before–things that don’t exist yet–can simply not be taught by means of empiric education.
A degree doesn’t determine competence. Know-how does. At least according to Mikael Jungner, who is among other things a member of the Finnish parliament, a former party secretary, a former director of information society relations at Microsoft Corporation, the former managing director of the Finnish national broadcaster and the former aide to the prime minister. When anyone with a track record like that speaks about competence and claims that a degree isn’t the right metric for judging it, I listen carefully.
Then why do people hang on to formal qualifications and get offended when abilities and competencies are discussed? My guess is that by relying on academic merits, one escapes the unpleasant and sometimes overwhelming task of recognizing the competence in others.
Incompetent people are, after all, inherently unable to judge the competence of other people.
If you’ve ever studied (pun intended) any psychology, you already knew this. The sentence above is the popular simplification of a study made nearly 20 years ago by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, both of whom worked as researchers at the Department of Psychology at Cornell University. They made four key findings about competence.
- Incompetent individuals, compared with their more competent peers, dramatically overestimate their ability and performance relative to objective criteria.
- Incompetent individuals suffer from deficient metacognitive skills, in that they will be less able than their more competent peers to recognize competence when they see it–be it their own or anyone else’s.
- Incompetent individuals are less able than their more competent peers to gain insight into their true level of performance by means of social comparison information.
- The incompetent can gain insight about their shortcomings, but this comes (paradoxically) by making them more competent, thus providing them the metacognitive skills necessary to be able to realize that they have performed poorly.
Bottom line is that less competent people are unable to judge competence in themselves or others. The picture below shows the correlation–or as the study shows, even causality–between perceived and actual capabilities.
Why does this matter?
Steve Jobs was technically never fired from Apple, but he was stripped of all responsibility which lead to him leaving Apple for more than a decade. He was undoubtedly a difficult person in a way talented people often are, as described in the first paragraph. He also never graduated. Nevertheless, he was competent enough to make Apple the most valuable company in the world.
In turn, the most infamous human resource decision in business history was done because Jobs “didn’t know much about running companies.”
Let’s take another, less known example.
Eight years ago the founder of WhatsApp, Jan Koum, pitched his idea of early WhatsApp on a forum that already back then had hundreds of thousands of users and millions of posts. One person (1!) commented on the post.
Four years later Koum returned to the thread writing “some of you might be using WhatsApp now ”. An idea worth one comment had grown into a service with more than 300 million users and today has more than 1 billion users.
It would be easy to say that geniuses and their ingenious ideas are ignored because people are stupid. But then again, that would be both wrong and stupid.
The point of the Dunning-Kruger study is not that stupid people have difficulties evaluating competence. The point is that incompetent people, in other words those who are not familiar with the subject at hands, don’t know which skill sets are required and how these skills should be spotted and measured.
Read that paragraph again. It says that incompetence is not a term of abuse. Incompetent people just lack the related abilities. And that, by definition, is what being incompetent is. Incompetence might have a negative connotation as a word, but it doesn’t define human dignity. It can be measured in the same way as we can measure how fast someone runs.
And just as with running, competence can be nurtured by training. As the study found out (but because this finding wasn’t shocking enough, the finding never got wide-spread), improving the skills of the incompetent, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.
To become less incompetent is easy. As Dunning himself said, one should pause to worry about one’s own certainty, not the certainty of others. So stop taking offense and start self-examining.
About the writer
Tommi HermunenTommi is best described with passion and professionalism. He has lived and worked abroad in Europe for several years and is specialized in change management within new geographical and cultural business environments. He has gained practical experience in General Management, Finance & Control, Human Resources, Sales and Operations owing to his various positions in private sector within an international group and in public sector as a public servant.