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Beyond Confidence: How to Spot Thoughtful Expertise

Have you ever noticed how reassuring and seductive confidence can be? It can persuade us into making the wrong choices on who we hire, promote, and select as vendors, colleagues, and board members.

This is in my 'lessons learned' file. Also known, as Robin's.biggest.mistakes.

Last year I agreed to help someone with a project thinking my contribution would be in a supportive role because they were an expert. And thank goodness for that because the project was in an area I was super interested in but about which I had only tangential (hopefully transferrable) knowledge.

The person I was working with was incredibly confident. Their knowledge and expertise were clearly superior to mine. I was looking forward to learning from them.


I found out the hard way that what they actually knew about the subject could fit inside the world’s tiniest thimble.

𝐂𝐨𝐧𝐟𝐢𝐝𝐞𝐧𝐜𝐞 ≠ 𝐂𝐨𝐦𝐩𝐞𝐭𝐞𝐧𝐜𝐞

To make matters worse, the person didn’t know that they didn’t know.

They weren’t being dishonest in how they portrayed their expertise, not exactly. They believed their abilities were more than sufficient. They knew enough to talk the talk, but this only served to give them a false sense of confidence. They didn’t know enough to be able to accurately assess their own level of expertise.

They were at the 𝗣𝗘𝗔𝗞 𝗢𝗙 𝗜𝗚𝗡𝗢𝗥𝗔𝗡𝗖𝗘. A case in point that a little bit of knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing.

The phenomenon is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect (see photo above).

Dunning and Kruger found that incompetent individuals will dramatically overestimate their ability and performance because they 𝗹𝗮𝗰𝗸 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗸𝗻𝗼𝘄𝗹𝗲𝗱𝗴𝗲 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗽𝗲𝘁𝗲𝗻𝗰𝗲 𝘁𝗼 𝗿𝗲𝗰𝗼𝗴𝗻𝗶𝘇𝗲 𝘁𝗵𝗲𝗶𝗿 𝗹𝗮𝗰𝗸 𝗼𝗳 𝗸𝗻𝗼𝘄𝗹𝗲𝗱𝗴𝗲 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗽𝗲𝘁𝗲𝗻𝗰𝗲.

Only by continuing to learn more about a subject can people begin to assess their abilities more accurately.

To avoid falling into this trap, look for examples of actual talent and expertise. And ensure others:

✅ Are able to admit what they don’t know

✅ Don’t position themselves as an expert

✅ Have a curious mindset

✅ Realize there's still a lot to learn

Look for those with 𝗧𝗛𝗢𝗨𝗚𝗛𝗧𝗙𝗨𝗟 𝗘𝗫𝗣𝗘𝗥𝗧𝗜𝗦𝗘. They have the experience and knowledge you need, but they’re open-minded about what they still hope to learn. The irony is that they may be less confident than those at the ‘peak of ignorance’ because they know enough to realize that no one’s truly an expert.

We’re all still learning.

Want to learn more?


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