Let’s Talk About Proficiency and Self-Confidence

There’s this thing called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The basic rundown of this phenomenon is this: less skilled, less proficient people tend to over estimate their abilities and rate themselves higher than they are. While more skilled and more proficient people tend to under estimate their abilities and rate themselves lower. The reason for this is that less skilled people don’t know enough to know what they don’t know. While more skilled people do know how much they don’t know. They also tend to assume that what is easy for themselves is just as easy for other people when it really isn’t.

Think of it like this. You’re walking along and you come upon the base of a mountain. We’ll call it MOUNT KNOWLEDGE™. You look up and see that not very far above, the cloud cover obscures the top of the mountain. That cloud cover doesn’t seem very high so you decide to try to scale the mountain, confident that you will reach the top in no time. And it’s true, you look back and see that you’re making great time, and not long after, you reach the clouds and break through. But once you do, you can see that the mountain has no apparent peak. It just goes on forever and ever. And not only that, there are already dozens of people up there using well-worn footpaths. Suddenly you don’t feel so proud of your accomplishments.

This is the point where self-confidence drops. You’ve seen what some of your peers have done and instead of getting inspired, you get discouraged. Congratulations, you now know enough about your field of study to know how vast it is, how many different paths there are to take, and how many people have a head start. But you’ve lost sight of the fact that you’ve climbed a long way. There might not be a top to MOUNT KNOWLEDGE™, and if there is, who ever gets there before you will only build the peak up higher. (That’s basically what a PhD is. In many fields you have to discover or create something new to earn a Doctorate.) But that doesn’t mean you should give up. Keep climbing. Follow the footpaths that were created by the people that went before you. They know what they’re doing. But if you see something interesting that lies off the well-beaten path, go check it out. As long as you’re moving upwards, you’re heading in the right direction.

I like to define “proficiency” as the point when you know enough about a subject that you know the right questions to ask in order to keep learning. The students who I see achieving the greatest success are the ones who do more than I ask of them in class simply because they love the subject. They are constantly sketching, even if they aren’t good at it. They are constantly trying techniques I haven’t taught them, even if the results aren’t great. And they’re constantly adding to their body of personal work. To graduate from Platt, you have to show a teacher a finished portfolio. The portfolio represents the very best work you did as a student and proves that you’ve learned the skills that we tried to teach you. The first thing you should do when you get that final approval on your portfolio or demo reel is celebrate your achievement. The very next thing you should do is look at that collection of your best and most favorite works, identify the weakest piece, and start working on a new piece to replace it. This should be a constant and never-ending process. You never get to stop climbing. The good news is that if you keep struggling your way up MOUNT KNOWLEDGE™ you will eventually land a job, and you will start getting paid to climb the mountain.

Just remember, when you feel discouraged and insufficient compared to your peers, that might just be a sign that you’re getting better. And trust me, they feel the same way.


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