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Do You Underestimate Yourself?


Conventional thinking would have us believe that the problem suggested by the title does not exist. If anything, there seems to be a superabundance of people overestimating themselves. From Trump on down, we live in an age that encourages and rewards boastful, arrogant, shamelessly self-promoting louts who believe they can do any job or take on any task without the slightest bit of preparation, study, or experience.

Trump of course is an extreme case; but you have no doubt encountered the kind of person I’m talking about in your everyday life. He is the man who, hungry for advancement and more money, exaggerates his ability to do a job, and having blustered his way into it fails miserably—leaving in his wake chaos, confusion, frustration, and more work for everyone else.

However, the opposite danger also exists. In the field of psychology, the Dunning-Kruger Effect consists of a cognitive bias in which people of low ability suffer from an illusory belief in their cognitive superiority. In the various tests that have been done to prove the soundness and validity of this hypothesis it was found that people whose abilities are actually superior underestimated themselves.

The more educated you are the more aware you are of how much you don’t know. This can lead to a tendency to shy away from tasks, jobs, and challenges that are unfamiliar to you, or that you do not feel completely mastered in. But this is exactly the wrong attitude to take.

When I was a naval officer, I recognized almost immediately the benefit I had gained from my four years of study at the U.S. Naval Academy. Junior naval officers are shuttled from one job to another with very little training and experience in the departments they are assigned to. Sometimes they are sent to month-long training courses to fill a specific billet. But when they arrive to the ship they find that circumstances have changed and they are told to run a completely different division or department.

This happened to me a few times. I had to master the inner workings of the division that was put in my charge quickly; not so much to run the day-to-day operations, which was done by the senior enlisted, as to keep my immediate superiors updated on what my people were doing and how it fit into the ship’s overall mission.

Two lessons from this experience can be applied more generally. First, if you are in the same field or practice and have the opportunity to work in an area that differs from yours in a slight or moderate way, then you should go for it. My years of schooling gave me a few advantages as a junior officer, moving from job to job. They instilled in me considerable skill in problem solving and some knowledge of how warships and the naval service in general worked.

The other thing you ought to keep in mind is that your role may require that you only master the principles of the work you will be involved in. This is especially true of management and supervisory positions. Unless the job requires highly specialized knowledge, learning the aims, processes, problems, difficulties, interconnections, and main practices of the work is usually sufficient to function as head of the group that carries it out.

The bottom line is that you should be on guard against underestimating yourself. Your education and experience count for more than you might think. You should not shy away from tough assignments because you have not mastered every detail of what they might include.

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About Christopher Reid Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.


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