How to Avoid Being Incompetent and Unaware of it

How to Avoid Being Incompetent and Unaware of it

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” —Confucius

How to Avoid Being Incompetent and Unaware of it

How do you know, for certain, that you are not incompetent at something? Or, to put it another way: how can you know what lies on the other side of the farthest reaches of your competence, and where the line is? What are the implications if you are blissfully unaware of your own incompetence?

A recent study looked into this question (Dunning, Johnson, Ehrlinger, & Kruger, 2003), and the results are not encouraging:

Successful negotiation of everyday life would seem to require people to possess insight about deficiencies in their intellectual and social skills. However, people tend to be blissfully unaware of their incompetence.

What this means is alarming. It implies that merely having a sense of confidence, excitement, and a strong intuition that all is well does not actually prove competence or predispose a successful outcome. In short, it merely suggests a conundrum:

We do not know how much we do not know.

…if people lack the skills to produce correct answers, they are also cursed with an inability to know when their answers, or anyone else’s, are right or wrong. They cannot recognize their responses as mistaken, or other people’s responses as superior to their own. In short, incompetence means that people cannot successfully complete the task of metacognition, which, among its many meanings, refers to the ability to evaluate responses as correct or incorrect.

As if to make things worse, the study also indicates that poor performers tend to overestimate their performance (while those who are more competent tend to underestimate their performance.)

All hope is not lost!

Thankfully, the study suggests that there is a solution to the “ignorant but unaware of it” problem: increased knowledge.

This double-curse explanation also suggests a crucial hypothesis: If poor performers are given the skills necessary to distinguish correct from incorrect answers, then they would be in a position to recognize their own incompetence.

This solution could seem obvious to the point of being absurd. The solution to ignorance is increasing knowledge? Isn’t that self-evident?

Perhaps it should be, but it is fascinating to see how readily we tend to stagnate in a comfortable mix of some knowledge and plenty of assumption. Pushing through this stagnation by increasing knowledge and skill in applying it will enable us to recognize our own incompetence, and eventually overcome it. This diagram1 may be helpful to illustrate the stages of knowledge:

Knowledge Expertise

There are some important principles that can be applied to minimize the likelihood of winding up in the “blissfully ignorant” category:

  • Humility — “Pride goes before a fall.” Approaching life from the perspective of a learner that simultaneously has unique insights and also needs the insights of others creates a context that welcomes corrective input—input that may shed light on previously unrealized incompetence.
  • Cultivating a thirst for knowledge — One of the surest ways to perpetuate ignorance is (wait for it…) to cease learning. The objective should not be to simply consume more information, but to critically engage with new concepts and ideas in a meaningful search for truth—especially when what is discovered conflicts with cherished assumptions.
  • Peer review — “In an abundance of counselors, there is wisdom.” Blind spots are less likely to remain unrecognized when many people are looking at the problem (and your proposed solution to it) with the freedom to speak freely about the shortcomings or “gaps” they are seeing from their own perspective.
  • Seeking out dissenting opinions — Intentionally seeking out the input from those who disagree—especially if they do so vehemently—may help highlight faulty logic, undeclared assumptions, and missing variables. In that regard, dissenting opinions may prove to be some of the greatest assets when attempting to solve complex problems with innovative solutions.
  • Accepting criticism — If what I believe to be true is true (or at least, a perspective that is not in conflict with the truth), then criticism should not be threatening. I should be able to learn everything I can from criticism, because the truth is independent of my ability to defend it. Not only that, it may be that, buried in the criticism, is a perspective I had not previously seen that may decrease my degree of ignorance accordingly. If I have ears to hear it.

It is not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, that is the death of knowledge. —Alfred North Whitehead


  1. Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J. (2003). Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(3), 83–87.


  1. Made available under CC BY-SA by Simon Wardley.