dunning-kruger, your friends, and you

Reader C. B. writes:

pour some sugar on me

This is how I feel many people write. Image: Pixomar / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

My best friend thinks he’s a good writer. He’s not. Regardless of the spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors, his writing is unclear, unfounded, and boring. He writes political essays and posts them online, and then asks us all to read them and comment on them, and when any of us gets over our fear of offending him and offers constructive criticism, he brushes it off and says we don’t know what we’re talking about. He’s trying to get these articles published in magazines like The Economist, and he’s trying to get jobs as a writer at local newspapers. How can we break the news to him that he’s just not good enough?

Dear C.B.:

Unfortunately, my answer to this question is: “You can’t.”

However, I can give you insight into a lovely human psychological phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect. You have probably already noticed beyond just your friend’s inflated ego that many people who are actually not very smart tend to think that they are. It’s actually a psychological problem that nearly all of us face. The more incompetent you are at something, the less likely you are to realize you are incompetent, and furthermore, you’re not going to be capable of seeing actual competence in others.

This is why people who really can’t sing show up at the auditions for American Idol. They think they can sing, and maybe even compared to their small group of friends they can, but they don’t realize how grossly untrained they actually are, and the reason they don’t realize this is because they are, in fact, untrained.

The Dunning-Kruger effect makes me question my every move. “Am I good at this? Or do I just think I’m good at this?” But you know what’s magical? The fact that I question myself and my abilities in these areas means that I’m more competent than incompetent, and that’s a good sign. As you progress in learning your craft, you come to discover just how incompetent you really are. Magical!

Your friend probably needs to be schooled in writing. I mean, he needs to go to the university and get a few degrees in it, not just sign up for a continuing ed writing class, although that would probably help, too. The fact is, unless he is totally schooled in the matter, he’s just never going to see the truth.

You will probably not be able to convince him he’s crap at writing, especially since he’s too incompetent to realize what good writing is.

However, you might be able to help some by getting him to actually read the articles in the political magazines he’s interested in writing for, and going over what’s good about them as articles (if you’re competent enough to do that yourself). Maybe recommend he send his work to an editor who can give him tips on how to improve his writing for publication. That way, you don’t have to insinuate that he’s a bad writer; it’s the publications that are the problem, which is probably what he thinks anyway.

And actually, you don’t have to tell your friend that he’s crap at writing, because if that’s really the case, he’ll just be rejected continually.

Why not be a supportive friend and try to help him improve or hold his hand a little when he’s turned down by yet another institution? Eventually he’ll either decide he needs to learn more and that he should solicit criticism from real experts, or he’ll move on to some other hobby or life calling. Like singing. Imagine how fun that’ll be.

There’s a great article in the New York Times about Dunning-Kruger here. It’s long, so make sure you make time to read the whole thing.


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