How to Stop Sabotaging Ourselves by Learning to Recognize our Ignorance


“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.”


The mind is a subject of eternal fascination. We remember things we never experienced, and with Google just one short click away, we may think we know more than we do. Learning to think for ourselves is a good first step to help us self-assess. We can ask for feedback, but often business relationships and social constructs blunt the more useful data points.

Knowing we don't know

American author and aphorisms writer William Feather once wrote that being educated means, “being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.” Professions like engineering, law, and medicine, which have a clear set of fixed and knowable rules and a process for continuing education make it easier to tell what one knows and what they don't.

However, when it comes to professions that require more general knowledge and a greater deal of soft skills like marketing, communications, sales, economics, business strategy, and recruiting for example, it is much easier to hide behind a carefully constructed wall of ignorance. Harder to spot for ourselves as well as for others. Ironically, these professions require a higher degree of thinking and a broader capacity to live with ambiguity.

When we ask Google what is the opposite of learning, we find the word ignorance. That is the condition of being uneducated, unaware, or uninformed.

Professor David Dunning, says it is possible to be both unskilled an unaware of it. Dunning is one of the researchers who coined the term and as a scientist he continues to add to our understanding of the phenomenon. Dunning says#:

“In many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Dunning and then graduate student Justin Kruger published a paper that documented how, “in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize — scratch that, cannot recognize — just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.”

The value of uncluttering

Poor performers, in other words, cannot recognize their lack of skill because they lack the skill to assess what having this skill would entail. Further in the article, Dunning says:

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge. This clutter is an unfortunate by-product of one of our greatest strengths as a species. We are unbridled pattern recognizers and profligate theorizers. Often, our theories are good enough to get us through the day, or at least to an age when we can procreate. But our genius for creative storytelling, combined with our inability to detect our own ignorance, can sometimes lead to situations that are embarrassing, unfortunate, or downright dangerous.

We should learn to value reaching an understanding of the limits of what we know, understanding how far our circle of competence stretches, and becoming more humble about what we still need to figure out.

According to Socrates (attribution), “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” But knowledge workers have a harder time making that one stick  —our livelihood depends on the commercial value of what we do know.

Ignorance is bliss, but that may not be a good thing for us.

How to stop sabotaging ourselves

Compounding our errors can make a small problem become a big risk factor for our credibility and reputation.

When we are curious to find out if we are creating the problem we can tell by looking at the data —are we the only constant in what is otherwise a pattern? For example, when organizations have trouble retaining skilled individual contributors they may look at the constants like management or how they make decisions.

Groundhog Day and customer service have a lot in common, after all.

In an article# at The Guardian, psychotherapist Philippa Perry deconstructs Groundhog Day, the movie, to help us see how we sabotage ourselves. The story is set in Punxsutawne where weatherman Phil Connors lives the same day over and over again, until he figures out how to live it more intentionally.

Perry says:

When we first meet Connors, played by Bill Murray, whatever happened to him in his past has made him grumpy, sarcastic, antisocial and rude. He is trapped in the narcissistic defense of assuming he is superior to everyone else and we see people being circumspect around him and not enjoying his company. In psychotherapy, we often talk about “self-fulfilling prophecy” – if you expect everyone not to like you, you behave defensively and, hey presto, your prophecy comes true. Being trapped in the same day is a metaphor for how he is stuck in this pattern.

Although the movie is 101 minutes in length, director Ramis stated in the DVD commentary that he believed 10 years pass. He says, Ramis wrote, “I think the 10-year estimate is too short. It takes at least 10 years to get good at anything, and allotting for the down time and misguided years he spent, it had to be more like 30 or 40 years.”

Valuable lessons take time to absorb, more time yet when we are unwilling participants or blissfully ignorant of our role in perpetrating the illusion we are working on tree-ideas, the stuff that makes history, when instead what we have are weed-ideas, the stuff that clutters.

Says Perry:

The tradition of Punxsutawney is that if the groundhog, also called Phil, can see its shadow on Groundhog Day, the town will get six more weeks of winter. It takes Phil the weatherman quite a long time to see his shadow too, but when at last he does, the day miraculously moves on.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” says Socrates. We are better off when we learn to recognize our ignorance.