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I’ve known people whose assessment of their abilities was, let’s say, somewhat imperfect. I once knew a professor, for instance, who thought she was the Second Coming of Maria Montessori, and she told us so, every week or so, in the departmental coffee room. In reality, she was one of the worst teachers I’ve ever known. I would pass by her classroom and she would be on a tirade about something or another, way off the topic. She would berate her students regularly, and her voice was a screech.
There is sometimes a downside to poor self knowledge. When I was a young man, I knew a pool player who vastly overestimated his skill. I was managing a pool hall at the time, and I watched this poor sap get taken to the cleaners regularly by pool players he shouldn’t have been gambling with. The guy would lose most of his paycheck the first of every month.
This lack of self-knowledge even has a name: the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is a bias in which a person, usually one of low abilities, overestimates his knowledge or ability.
If other people can be wrong in their estimation of their abilities, that means that I can also be wrong about mine. In fact, an episode from my past seems to indicate that this is so.
My workplace for 28 years was the 7th floor of Faculty Hall in a Kentucky university. It was an insular setting, full of pampered English professors who had worked there for years. In one of the petty feuds that went on there with some regularity, one of my colleagues satirized me in print, quite wittily I’ll have to admit, and distributed that satire around the department. (I had annoyed him by saying something mean to his harridan of a wife, who was also an English professor.)
I spent hours concocting a response until I was certain that my well-honed wit was going to eviscerate this guy, leaving him flailing about, confused and humiliated.
I was so proud of my response that before I sent it out, I rushed next door to show it to an older professor, a man whose judgement I greatly admired. After he spent more time than I thought was necessary in reading it (I was hovering), he finally looked up and uttered six words that irreparably damaged that fragile spot in my psyche that is normally reserved for compliments and attaboys: “It’s not all that clever, Kent.”
It’s not all that clever. Damn, I had thought it terribly clever, but I also trusted the old professor. Could it be that I had been overestimating my cleverness all these years?
No, no, certainly not. All of us are certain that we are self aware and accurate in our assessment of our own abilities. I certainly am. But the bad teacher and the poor pool player were also certain of their abilities.
I might regularly write pure drivel, devoid of wit and sense (including this very post), and not know it. In fact, by extension, you too might write drivel and not know it.
I know that some of you, in an earlier post, found the rationale that I came up with to support my vegetarianism diet terribly flawed. And despite my belief that I think I’m knowledgeable about spelling and grammar, I hardly ever write a post without some kind of niggling error. In fact, in my last post, I spelled the country of Chile as “Chili” — a small error no doubt, but ominous. One time I misinterpreted a Biblical passage and one of you, I won’t say who, called me on it.
Here’s what worries me even more: I’m 81 so the inevitable mental decline due to age is probably setting in. I’m probably whistling in the graveyard when I insist to Marie the wife that I’m almost sure that I will retain my mental acuity for as long as I live. That annoys Marie, I don’t know why, probably because I’m so cocky about it, so she tells me that I’m already beginning to lose it. I think she’s joking.
I have a friend who spent her final five or six years with Alzheimer’s. In her last couple of years, she lost her ability to read and write and didn’t recognize her children. Her caretakers would sometimes find her folding clothes that had already been sorted and folded. This could go on for hours. It seemed to annoy the caretakers, but my friend seemed almost serene. I think she retained a comforting memory of being useful when, long ago in her married life, she folded her children’s clothes.
Back to my thesis: Because humans need to protect their self worth, and because of the frailties of the human mind, we can never be certain that what our assessment of our abilities is accurate.
Postscript One: I’d better say here that I am fully aware that I have previously used that department feud episode in a post. I wouldn’t normally mention that because you’ve probably either forgotten it (I used it over two years ago) or didn’t read it. But Arahant remembers everything that goes on on Ricochet. He therefore might take the repetition of the episode as a sign of my mental decline. So forget it, Arahant. Everything is copacetic.
Postscript Two: Remember that bad teacher I began this essay with. She’s in her late eighties now and still teaching. She has two things on her side: age and sex. An employee can no longer be let go because of her age. Besides, when the university tried to fire her awhile back, she sued on the basis of sex discrimination. She won. They’re now afraid of her. So they’re stuck with her until she dries up and blows away.
Postscript Three: On an unrelated note, here’s a photo I took of Bob early this morning as I was writing this post. I looked back and Bob had wrapped himself up the way you see him. I don’t know how he did it. Is that a clever dog?
By the way, I’m pretty certain that when I am reduced to little more than drool and drivel, Bob will still think that I’m the greatest person in the world. Dogs don’t care how many consecutive points we can score in three-cushion billiards.