The Day I Thought I Understood Everything

Roel M. Hogervorst


Categories: blog Tags: 100DaysToOffload circle_of_competence mental_models

I’m reading The great mental models, because I like to improve my mental clarity and reasoning skills. There is a mental model called ‘Circle of competence’ , which I understand as being very clear about where your boundaries are. Be careful in speaking about things you are not very knowledgeable about.

This is super difficult for me. I have a shallow understanding of a great many subjects, and not a lot of depth in most. I love to think and talk. In conversation I start super excited and it takes me a few minutes before I realize that my conversation partner doesn’t realize that I only read a few books on the subject.

I try to do better by prefacing conversations with: “I don’t know much more about it than: …”. But I find it very difficult in practice. I just get so excited!

I remember in secondary school I bicycled home [1] and I looked around. I noticed grass, trees, sheep, little insects buzzing. The wind in my face. And suddenly it clicked, I could explain everything I saw. It was a moment that filled me with fire!

I could explain how grass was eaten, and how the digestive system of sheep worked. I could explain how grass looked green by the interaction of light and pigments. I could explain how we got wind and rain. It was an amazing feeling. I didn’t understand how photons worked, or the specifics of enzymes in the belly of a sheep. So in a way I had a very shallow knowledge of the world. These were all small, useful but ultimately wrong or imprecise mental models. But I wouldn’t have been able to explain how wrong I was. I didn’t even know how much I didn’t know.

I think that explains a lot about the Dunning-Kruger effect: the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability. The mental models work so well, everything clicks and it feels amazing. You don’t know that it doesn’t work untill you try to explain or predict something with it. Only through action can you find the limits of your knowledge. And maybe we should be very wary when we are absolutely sure of something: there is probably a hidden difficulty somewhere.

Or as the book of mental models says:

So, the simple takeaway here is clear. If you want to improve your odds of success in life and business, then define the perimeter of your circle of competence, and operate inside. Over time, work to expand that circle but never fool yourself about where it stands today, and never be afraid to say “I don’t know.”

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