Most of us should be familiar with the format of Reality TV talent competitions such as Idols, Got Talent or Masterchef – hopeful amateur contenders audition for a shot at stardom, in front of a panel of experts (to varying degrees), before competing against their peers in a series of competitive rounds. Eventually, after the less talented (or popular) competitors have been voted off (VOTE NOW FOR JUST R2 AN SMS!), the winner is afforded an opportunity to follow their dreams.
Such shows are entertaining for a variety of reasons. It’s heart warming to see someone who has struggled through life finally succeed – and you can hedge your bets that contestants will have their struggles well-researched for the benefit of the audience. They provide some hope that difficult things are possible. On occasion, they even entertain with some decent singing. Or dancing. Or, uhm, a dog which can do tricks, which is mildly amusing in small doses.
Some of them also feature those contestants who are spectacularly awful. Such contestants are amusing – also in small doses – because they allow us to laugh at others and simultaneously be less depressed about how average we are. But these unfortunate souls whose inadequacies have been bared for all the world to see are interesting for another reason. Because inevitably, when they are confronted with their butchering of Maria Carey in six different keys, they display complete bafflement. They argue. They leave the audition venue angry at the injustice, and determined to prove their persecutors wrong.
Though one should not overlook the effect of post-production editing, it is no coincidence that the most terrible performers are the most likely to disagree with the professional assessment.
Stages of Competency
In psychology there exists a concept known as the Four Stages of Competence. This model describes the way people’s brains change in relation to mastering a new skill.
The Unconscious Incompetent – he of the Idols Wooden Mic variety – knows nothing. He is Jon Snow. He knows so little, that he doesn’t even have the context to understand that he knows nothing. This state of awareness has been described in terms of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and has covered more humorously by John Cleese, “The Problem with Stupid People“, in response to Youtube comments. (To be fair, any serious study of stupidity will cover Youtube comments.)
If my social media stream is anything to go by, everyone I know is very familiar with unconscious incompetents and is inundated with them daily. I am not even being ironic.
After a fair bit of effort – practice and study – the unconscious incompetent might graduate to become a Conscious Incompetent. Such a person still sucks…but at least knows it. We see such people in reality talent auditions too. They lack the brazen confidence of the utterly unskilled, and are not surprised when they are turned down – they were hopeful, but not expectant. Conscious incompetents are humble – aware of their shortcomings, they are slow to offer their opinion on the topic.
But developing even this level of (in)experience is no simple task – being able to play chopsticks on the keyboard does not make you an incompetent pianist, any more than being able to burp the alphabet backwards makes you an incompetent writer. No, one should probably expect to invest up to a hundred hours and risk occasional injuries just to understand that you suck.
Then, one should spend quite a few hundred more hours to become a Conscious Competent. These are people who are good – most of the time – but only when they are concentrating. Most of the competitors in the later rounds of talent shows are in this category…sometimes they perform magnificently, and sometimes not so much. But even on a poor day, they are pretty good – let down by inexperience and a lack of appreciation of the nuances of the music choice, but better than almost everyone watching.
They say it takes ten thousand hours to master a skill. People who have been willing to devote ten thousand hours to their craft are good – really good – but more importantly, their skill looks and feels effortless. Occasionally, we see two or three such people in an entire series of a talent competition. Often there are none. And few of us ever really become masters of any skill beyond that which our careers enforce on us (and sometimes not even then, eh, Facebook timeline?).
Like riding a bicycle
Maybe you disagree with this assessment. You haven’t spent much time developing your ability to sing , but you can spot a bad singer when you hear one. Can you really? When you watch Idols – assuming you aren’t a singer – are you really able to tell the difference between a good singer and an average singer, or are you simply able to identify that which makes your ears happy, and that which doesn’t? Can you identify breathing techniques and placement of pitch and tonal manipulations (I know nothing about singing – I may not even be using properly singy words) which separate a good singer from an average one, when perhaps the good singer sounds worse on account of a few unlucky bad notes, despite performing a much harder piece?
Now consider a relatively simple task that most of us have learned, and which follows the same progression as more complex skills – driving a car. Before you ever sat in the drivers seat, driving probably looked easy. You turn a thingy, press your foot down on a different thingy and bang, you’re at your destination. Or maybe it looked hard. Easy, hard – both an incorrect assessment. You were unconsciously incompetent. But it didn’t take long to become consciously incompetent in a car – about thirty seconds to stall, grind the gears, and perhaps drive into a ditch.
Perhaps ten or twenty hours later, you were consciously competent – you were driving, but with the radio turned off and with a tendency to steer in the direction of your observations. After fifty hours or more, you were putting on make-up on the N1 and maybe phoning for directions while driving with your knees (even though you really shouldn’t have). And, even then, you were only competent to drive an average car on an average road
Cast your mind back through the process – remember how each step felt. Try to remember, especially, what it felt like when it was difficult, and what it felt like before you ever tried.
The master and the incompetent in all of us
There are two morals to my story – one for those of us who are masters, and one for those of us who are unconscious incompetents. But first, we must accept that we are all both. Can you sing? Yes? How well? Play the guitar? Piano? Ukelele? Understand racism? Juggle chainsaws? Speak Latin? Breed Pitbulls? Do calculus? Understand economics? Understand rugby? Genetic modification of foodstuff? Climate change? Child psychology? You get my point…even if you are a genius, the list of things you don’t know anything about is bigger than the list of things you know even a bit about. The universe is big.
If you are ignorant on a topic, at least understand intellectually that you are ignorant. How should you know whether you are unconsciously incompetent if, by definition, it is a state of not knowing? Well, have you spent a number of hours studying the topic seriously and with effort? No? Then you are probably not competent to discuss it.
Reading a few articles that agree with your point of view doesn’t count for much. Nor does listening to the news – skimming information is not the same as practice and effort. You don’t become a chef by reading cookbooks (but STUDYING cookbooks is part of the process).
Of course, there are always safe places for being incompetent. Amongst friends and family and people who know you, will forgive you, or who know as little as you do. But otherwise, perhaps, you should refrain from sharing things on Facebook that you haven’t taken the time to understand properly (unless you are willing to be criticised for it, of course), and be humble and willing to learn when you are challenged. In other words, be nothing like people in the comments sections.
And if you are a master? Be patient with those who know nothing. Which is not to say that you owe the incompetent an education, or even an explanation. But take the time to be conscious of your competence, and remember how much time it took to develop that level of skill. Realise that any lessons you provide falls on ground mostly barren of the context needed to appreciate the information fully. If education is your goal, you will only upset yourself by expecting others to make huge strides where you once toddled. You will only create opposition to your wisdom if you try to ram it home with force (naughty Hobbitses, they hurtses me!).
There are times when ignorance causes harm – when those who know no better have the ability to force their primitive views on others. If only those who knew no better would close their mouths and open their ears, maybe life would be simpler. Is wilful ignorance a thing, where the ignorant is aware of the truth but rejects it knowingly, or are the ignorant simply victims – in a way – of psychology and the illusion of their own competence? I wish I had advice to offer in his regard. Perhaps one day, I will be competent in bringing competence to the incompetent…and then I will let you know.