The Dunning-Kruger Effect

“Every morning, upon awakening, I experience the supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dali, and I ask myself, wonder struck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dali.” — Salvador Dali

Dalí was famous for two things: his art and his eccentric and often ostentatious behavior.

In 1955, he delivered a lecture at the Sorbonne, arriving in a Rolls Royce full of cauliflowers.

To promote Robert Descharnes’ 1962 book The World of Salvador Dalí, he appeared in a Manhattan bookstore on a bed, wired up to a machine that traced his brain waves and blood pressure.

Dalí would avoid paying at restaurants by drawing on the checks he wrote, thinking that the restaurants would never want to cash the checks since they were artworks by the Spanish master.

There are plenty of critics that have often considered these antics to have obscured his genius, or to have been nothing more than the marketing gimmicks of a creatively bankrupt artist who had peaked in his 20s and 30s.

I, on the other hand, believe that it was his nonchalant demeanor that allowed him to produce great art.

To Have Extraordinary Results, You Must Think of Yourself As Extraordinary

The sensible advice is to constantly keep your ego in check.

Being humble is often promoted as a virtue. The ego is your enemy, and you stop feeding it by not becoming emotionally attached to what you are doing or the outcome of your actions.

You are a verb, not a noun. You are not a painter, you are just painting. There’s no emotional attachment, no fear of outcome. You are enjoying the process.

This mental hack usually works.

However, there’s this often misunderstood aspect of success: when you want to be extraordinary, you need all the tools that are available to you, so you have to think of yourself as the painter.

The self-image you create is that of someone who’s one of a kind. Not one in a million, but the only one.

This mindset is what often people rush to define as delusional. 

But is it, really?

An equally famous contemporary of Dalí, Pablo Picasso, is credited for saying, 
“When I was a child my mother said to me, ‘If you become a soldier, you’ll be a general. If you become a monk, you’ll be the pope.’ Instead, I became a painter and wound up as Picasso.”

He’s also credited to have said that it had only taken him four years to paint like Raphael. Of course, Picasso toned it down a bit by going on to say that it had taken him a lifetime to learn how to paint like a child.

Regardless, it was this obnoxious sense of self-confidence that allowed two of the greatest artists of the past century to produce high-quality work.

Being Nonchalant About Effort

One of the most overlooked aspects of highly successful people is the fact that, yes, they work hard, and, yes, they work smart, but most of the time, they are nonchalant about their work.

They are careless and free as only someone who genuinely thinks of himself as being supremely talented can be.

When you believe you’re the best, there’s no reason to compare yourself to others in your field, and thus you are free to do what you want.

Both Picasso and Dalí were true innovators and visionaries in the world of art, and I believe it was mostly because they had no reason to compare themselves to others.

Arrogance has its merits. 

If you think of yourself as one of a kind, you are far more inclined to innovate, to look for creative ways of sharing your ideas and message.

How Not to Become a Poster Child for the Dunning–Kruger Effect

Granted, such a grand self-image has its downsides.

One of them is the obvious issue of quality.

If you do not compare yourself with others, how can you determined whether your work is good or not?

Maybe the answer lies precisely in the definition of this cognitive bias:

In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability. Without the self-awareness of metacognition, people cannot objectively evaluate their competence or incompetence.

The better you become at a certain skill, the less confident you are in your abilities.

What if you never lost that initial, often delusional, sense of confidence in your abilities?

Maybe that’s the secret ingredient to becoming extremely successful in any field: the ability to preserve the initial enthusiasm that comes with an overinflated sense of mastery.

The Harsh Truth That Keeps You From Becoming Successful

I remember when I first started writing. The enthusiasm, the arrogance, the belief that writing was easy.

The moment I was faced with the very real limitations of my skills, the art of writing suddenly lost a part of its charm. 

It became work, rather than play.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, American author David Foster Wallace discussed the moment he realized his limitations as a tennis player. He defined it as the moment he had become a realist; when faced with the sheer amount of work he had to do to compete at a professional level, he decided it was not worth paying the price.

But what if he had never become aware of his limitations?

What if, when defeated, he would have trained twice as hard?

This is the differentiating factor:

  1. People who genuinely believe they’re the best are emotionally resilient and will do whatever they can to maintain that self-image.
  2. People who try to fake this level of self-confidence often try to rationalize their limitations (they had a bad day, the others cheat, or similar excuses.)

The realist notices those limitations and his willpower diminishes as a result. Once you become relatively good at a certain skill, you can see just how much work it takes to become better. Not only that, but I believe you become afraid that you might never become that good.

Also, I’d like to point out two important aspects of success that the realists often overlook:

  1. It’s only hubris if you lose.
  2. You can’t lose if you never give up.

Using the Dunning-Kruger Effect to Your Advantage

The more you work during the initial stages of acquiring a skill, the better you become.

The trick is to keep going, to build enough momentum that the self-doubt that often accompanies proficiency is subdued by the sheer amount of work that we do.

It’s no coincidence Picasso is credited as having finished over 50,000 works of art.

Those who are supremely confident in their abilities are also extremely prolific, maybe as a way to overcome the mental discomfort brought on by self-doubt. 

If your desire is to feed your ego, you need to give it the food that it desires: wins.

If you are focused on wins, and you never count your losses, all you have to do is play the game as often as possible.

Believing you can’t fail doesn’t mean you never do, it just means that you play the game over and over again until you win.

The more you play, the more often you win.

It seems that extremely successful people meet with triumph and disaster differently than most people: they count their wins, but they don’t waste time thinking about their losses.

In other words, they keep moving forward, as fast as they can, producing more and more work, in order to keep feeding an insatiable ego that, in turn, allows them to go confidently in the direction of their dreams.


If you never listened to those who tell you that you’re not good at a certain skill, what would happen?

It’s impossible to answer this question, but it might be worth trying to find the answer.


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3 Comments

  1. I remember reading a book by Nassim Taleb where he says that arrogance maybe necessary because it makes you have skin in the game. At some point he concludes that arrogance will do, as in saying arrogance is enough. There is obviously a link between arrogance and thinking you are special. Reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, it’s clear Jobs thought himself as being special, and he could be very arrogant. We all know Steve created special products. Still the idea makes me uncomfortable. Personally, I realize I am more wrong when I am arrogant than right. For me, I will try to be humble as I try to work hard. I think people have different temperaments, but we can all have worth ethic. In the end, it’s our work that will do the talking. It will be difficult to do any creative work when you think you suck. So that’s my big take away from you. Never to forget that I am special. Feel like that even when it doesn’t make sense. Again, work to make it true.

    Liked by 1 person

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