Humble Expert, or Confident Idiot, Do You Know Which You Are?

[This article is based loosely on the Dunning-Kruger Effect.]

Have you ever been part of a meeting where someone whom you suspect has no idea what they are talking about, is actually the one controlling the meeting’s outcome? Or the opposite; been part of a meeting where you KNOW someone in the room is an expert on the relevant subject, yet remains quiet? Now combine the two; the expert stays quiet while the idiot rambles on.

I’m sure at some point I’ve been both, and if I’m honest, mostly the idiot.

One of the many aspects of human nature is our susceptibility to bow to confidence. Con artists and organised religions alike (but I repeat myself) have preyed on this for millennia. Politicians, emperors, dictators, cult leaders, you name it, all have the ability to make us believe utter nonsense. We are invariably less influenced by what is said, than how it’s said, and by whom.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
– Voltaire

The opposite aspect of this is that even if you are an expert on something, if you aren’t confident in your presentation, your knowledge and skill may be of little impact. Potentially, even if you did speak up, your hesitant manner would negate your audience’s trust in your message. That’s if they were even listening in the first place.

Yet another aspect of human nature is that we really don’t care about other people’s opinions. We are either pleased when people agree with us, or we’ll debate, argue, even fight with those who don’t. Our tolerance for alternative opinions, was well as our ability to adjust our own, only gets worse as we get older. We spend our lives surrounding ourselves with things that make us comfortable, all of which do nothing but reinforce our established beliefs.

I have long been a proponent of self-reflection. The ability to take an objective-as-possible look at yourself, maybe even from another’s perspective, is critical in being able to adapt to whatever the world throws at you. From my experience, there is a direct correlation between the ability to self-reflect and the ability to accept responsibility for both your life, and your actions.

Blaming others is a form of blind-faith, it suggests an infallibility that can never exist. Both experts and idiots are affected equally on this point, both negatively.

The lines between confidence and arrogance, faith and stubbornness, mentorship and patronisation are all blurry, and entirely dependent on the recipient’s perception, not the deliverer’s intent.  Self reflection / observation is the only way you can adapt to the person(s) opposite you, and without that adaptation your own needs will not be met. At least not in full.

While being aware of your tendencies does not equate to an ability to make immediate adjustments (as I know very well), we all have to start somewhere. Whether you’re an expert or an idiot, everything you do is in some way contextualised by those around you. It’s up to you to maximise your impact in a beneficial way.

In your personal life, do as you wish, but at work you are beholden to someone; employer, stockholders, customers, or just your immediate team. Neither the humble expert nor the confident idiot are any good to anyone.

Including yourself.

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