It’s Not All That Clever, Kent

 

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.

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  1. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    sawatdeeka (View Comment):

    I am most vulnerable to overestimating my abilities when I’ve drunk a lot of coffee. Later in the day, I might repent of having hit “Send” or “Publish.”

    Coffee gives you confidence, Sawatdeeka?  Liquor’s quicker, you know. 

    • #31
  2. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):
    Mr. Forrester, speaking as an elder (today’s my 82nd birthday) and paraphrasing our much revered previous president, with regard to your post title;

    Hope you’re having a happy birthday! Is there going to be cake and ice cream?

    • #32
  3. ShaunaHunt Coolidge
    ShaunaHunt
    @ShaunaHunt

    I enjoy reading your posts!

    • #33
  4. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    ShaunaHunt (View Comment):

    I enjoy reading your posts!

    Thanks, Shauna.  I enjoy writing them. It’s a zero sum game. 

    • #34
  5. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):
    (today’s my 82nd birthday)

    Happy birthday, Jim. May you be blessed with good health and clarity through many more.

    • #35
  6. She Member
    She
    @She

    KentForrester: 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.)

    Funniest part of what is a wise and funny post.  I know exactly the sort of place you mean.  And the “harridan wife who is also an English professor” is almost inevitable.  It’s a bit more interesting these days, because the “harridan wife” may be either male or female, and the passive-aggressive “husband” may be of either the same, or a different sex.

    Also, I used this picture a couple of days ago in another post, but it seems pretty apropos here too. (Down, Bob the Dog!!)

    • #36
  7. Roderic Reagan
    Roderic
    @rhfabian

    A related phenomenon is seen when reasonably intelligent people get off on the wrong foot about some line of reasoning leading to all sorts of erroneous conclusions that they will defend to the death.

    An example of this is those who support the Sky Dragon theory.  This is an idea or a body of ideas that supposedly disproves the theory that carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere can cause global warming.  It goes this way:  CO2 can’t be causing the earth’s surface to warm because CO2 in the atmosphere is colder than the surface and heat only flows from what is warmer to what is cooler.  

    No matter how one tries one can’t budge these people from this position.  It’s astounding to see.

    I look at this sort of thing and wonder what key ideas I might be getting wrong myself that I’m so skeptical of global warming.

    • #37
  8. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    The best law professor I had (who taught Conflicts and Equity) was forced to retire when he was 72 because of a mandatory retirement age.

    • #38
  9. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    May I borrow that for my avatar?

    • #39
  10. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    The best law professor I had (who taught Conflicts and Equity) was forced to retire when he was 72 because of a mandatory retirement age.

    Randy, there was no mandatory retirement age at my university. 

    • #40
  11. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    The best law professor I had (who taught Conflicts and Equity) was forced to retire when he was 72 because of a mandatory retirement age.

    Randy, there was no mandatory retirement age at my university.

    You and Bob could still be teaching.

    • #41
  12. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    The best law professor I had (who taught Conflicts and Equity) was forced to retire when he was 72 because of a mandatory retirement age.

    Randy, there was no mandatory retirement age at my university.

    This was 40 something years ago at UT, and the policy may have changed.  Also, it may have been a Tennessee state law.

    • #42
  13. Goldwaterwoman Thatcher
    Goldwaterwoman
    @goldwaterwoman

    Kent, you dear man, I love everything you write as long as there’s a picture of Bob!

    • #43
  14. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Goldwaterwoman (View Comment):

    Kent, you dear man, I love everything you write as long as there’s a picture of Bob!

    You’re sweet, Mrs. Goldwaterwoman. 

    • #44
  15. Suspira Member
    Suspira
    @Suspira

    KentForrester: If other people can be wrong in their estimation of their abilities, that means that I can also be wrong about mine.

    I’m sure we all have blind spots. I have known a couple of people who thought themselves talented singers, while people would cringe and dogs and cats hightail it when they let loose with a song. One of these would worry and cajole our church music director so much that once every couple of years she’d relent and let this lady sing a solo. It was painful, both as to musicality and humiliation-by-proxy.

    How is it possible to be blithely unaware you can’t carry a tune? I don’t know, but it does give me pause. What glaringly obvious deficiency do I see as a positive talent? I shudder to think.

    It’s easy to overestimate oneself, apparently. But I’m more likely to underestimate my abilities. At least, I think that’s what I do. Maybe my perceived lack of self-confidence is simply a lack of self-awareness going the other way.

    • #45
  16. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Suspira (View Comment):
    I have known a couple of people who thought themselves talented singers, while people would cringe and dogs and cats hightail it when they let loose with a song.

    Our minister died about a year ago, and we have been limping along with guest speakers, other ministers in the area who do not have their own churches for one reason or another. One of them thinks he can sing. He always brings his guitar and shares a song. He also sings loudly during the hymns and Lord’s Prayer. He has never met a key he could keep or note he could hit. And he’ll be there again this Sunday. 🙄🤦‍♂️🎧

    • #46
  17. OkieSailor Member
    OkieSailor
    @OkieSailor

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Suspira (View Comment):
    I have known a couple of people who thought themselves talented singers, while people would cringe and dogs and cats hightail it when they let loose with a song.

    Our minister died about a year ago, and we have been limping along with guest speakers, other ministers in the area who do not have their own churches for one reason or another. One of them thinks he can sing. He always brings his guitar and shares a song. He also sings loudly during the hymns and Lord’s Prayer. He has never met a key he could keep or note he could hit. And he’ll be there again this Sunday. 🙄🤦‍♂️🎧

    We’ve had a ‘Fill In’ several times lately who Mrs. OS has dubbed, “Word Salad”. He doesn’t seem to have a point or at least never seems to wander close enough to it that we might be able to guess what it is. Is that worse than bad singing? I’m not sure but it lasts longer. Much, much longer. And he believes himself to be a good speaker, no doubt because people keep telling him how great his sermons are????

    • #47
  18. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    I consider myself to be a pretty substandard example of humanity, and I’m likely even worse than I think.

    • #48
  19. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    I consider myself to be a pretty substandard example of humanity, and I’m likely even worse than I think.

    Yeah, but at least you’re a charter member. You’ve got that going for you.

    • #49
  20. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    I consider myself to be a pretty substandard example of humanity, and I’m likely even worse than I think.

    Don’t sell yourself short, Randy. You’re tremendous slouch.

    • #50
  21. JosePluma Thatcher
    JosePluma
    @JosePluma

    KentForrester: I spelled . . . Chile as “Chili” — a small error no doubt, but ominous

    You also wouldn’t want to mix the two up in New Mexico-People might think you were from Texas.

    • #51
  22. Doug Kimball Thatcher
    Doug Kimball
    @DougKimball

    I love when you write these heartfelt bits of humility, humor and humanity.  Plus Bob.  (Like the alliteration there, prefesser?  BTW, a prefessor is a previous professor.)

    • #52
  23. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Doug Kimball (View Comment):

    I love when you write these heartfelt bits of humility, humor and humanity. Plus Bob. (Like the alliteration there, prefesser? BTW, I prefessor is a previous professor.)

    Thanks, Doug.  BTW, I’ve never heard that “prefessor” before. I think I may use it sometime.   Did you make that up?  

    The fancy word is “emeritus.”  I’ve never used that either.  I prefer “prefessor.”

    • #53
  24. Doug Kimball Thatcher
    Doug Kimball
    @DougKimball

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Doug Kimball (View Comment):

    I love when you write these heartfelt bits of humility, humor and humanity. Plus Bob. (Like the alliteration there, prefesser? BTW, a prefessor is a previous professor.)

    Thanks, Doug. BTW, I’ve never heard that “prefessor” before. I think I may use it sometime. Did you make that up?

    The fancy word is “emeritus.” I’ve never used that either. I prefer “prefessor.”

    Emertus, like Of Counsel, is usually reserved for old farts who can’t seem to stop coming in to the office even though their office has been reassigned.  Prefessor is mine, but I’m giving it to you gratis, that is, free, prefessor.

    • #54
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