Illusionary Competency

by Mr. Cheap

There’s an old parable about 4 blind Indian mystics trying to describe an elephant. The first, running his hand along the elephant’s side says “elephants are rough and wrinkled”. The second mystic, touching the elephant’s tusks declares “no they aren’t, they’re hard and smooth”. The third, feeling the trunk, argues “well, at least we can agree that elephants are a thick tube with an opening at the end” to which the fourth, holding the tail responds “they are a tube, but they’re a thin tube and there’s no opening on the end”.

I ran into this recently when an administrative assistant at the school did some work using Latex (a popular piece of software for creating documents with a precise layout, often used for journal articles and thesis preparation). She had been given some citations to put into bibtex format (a tool for managing references often used with Latex) along with some citations already in bibtex format to use as a template. She saw me in the hall and said “I put some citations into Latex and it was very easy. Why does everyone talk about Latex as if it’s complicated? I found it very easy!”

Beyond mistakes she made in the part she did (which was understandable, she didn’t know how to compile or cross link the documents so she wouldn’t be able to test if it was right or not), there are a massive number of capabilities that Latex has that she wasn’t even aware of. I was at a lose loss how to politely answer her and try to correct her limited view of a mature, sophisticated tool.

I think this is common when people start exploring a new area. They learn something and mistakenly believe they have achieved knowledge or mastery of the entire field (since, like the blind Indian mystics, they are unable to see the field as a whole). Gambling might be the most obvious example. I’ve linked before to Roger William’s “A Casino Odyssey” where he makes the observation that often people’s early experiences gambling will determine their life-long perspective on it (if they win the first few times they’ll get addicted, if they lose the first few times they won’t have any interest in it again). Stock investing can be a similar experience. If people happen to start investing in a bear market, after a couple months (or years) experience they’ll start thinking they’re the next Warren Buffett. Then the market turns on them and they realize (hopefully) how little they understood what they were doing. Conversely, I’ve known people who put a big chunk of money into the market recklessly, lost big, then sworn off stocks for life. The market isn’t as dangerous as they believe it is, but they’re unwilling to learn more about it or try again.

Even when someone starts feeling that they’ve mastered a complex area of human knowledge or skill, it can be difficult to assess their actual expertise. It can be even harder to assess this ourselves. The Beardstown Ladies, among others, show us that publishing a book (and having Japanese investors making a pilgrimage to meet you) doesn’t prove that you understand the basics (even concepts such as rate of return).

As much as I’d love to finish this post with a simple way you can actually assess your competence, I’ve got nothing. Standardized tests and certification can be easily gamed (Q: What do you call the guy who graduates at the bottom of his medical school class? A: Doctor). Having other people assess you is often unreliable and can be easily influenced by factors about you other than your ability in that area. Plus, how do you ensure that they’re competent *TO* assess you? Similarly, in the workplace or other fields where proficiency is judged, many other elements in addition to the person’s skill in a particular area affect their performance (such as their work ethic, how personable they are, how well they get along with team mates, etc).

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