October 12, 2018

Three thoughts on competence.


When someone is less skilled than you are, it’s pretty easy to estimate just how much better you are. But when someone’s better than you, it’s very difficult to estimate how much better they are. If they beat you in every chess game you play, are they twice as good? Ten times? One hundred? Those might look the same to you.

Most skills can’t even be compared so easily. How much better is another computer programmer, manager, interior designer, or scientist? And this also applies to knowledge and talent. Most people underestimate how much better someone else is than they are, if only to protect their ego.

I think this is one of the most fundamental problems, because it causes the opinions, recommendations, teachings, and wisdom of more-competent people to be underappreciated. One common manifestation is non-scientists ignoring the recommendations of scientists.


You’re a software manager with two reports. One frequently runs into problems, sometimes delivers software late, and their code is sometimes buggy. The second quietly delivers working software on time. There are two explanations for the difference:

You don’t know enough about the problems or the employees to tell the difference. Which explanation do you pick? In my experience, managers usually pick the second, whereas the real explanation is more often the first. This is partly because problem #1 above leads managers to underestimate engineering skill variance, but mostly because it’s unpleasant to realize that you have an incompetent report.

In the worst case I’ve seen, an engineer who was significantly less competent than their peers got a bonus of several hundred thousand dollars because management interpreted their struggles as an indication of the difficulty of their task (and thus their contribution to the company).


When an artistically talented (but unskilled) person first makes art, they think it sucks. They have great artistic sense but no skill to make great art. Their skill eventually catches up to their sense, but before that happens they may quit, believing that they are inherently incapable of creating great art.

This is less of a problem for artistically untalented people, who don’t have the sense to know that they (initially) have no artistic skill. So they’re less likely to drop out.

You’d therefore expect there to be a disproportionate number of artists who have poor artistic sense.

And if you’re a new artist and think you suck and are tempted to quit, maybe you just have great artistic sense and you should stick it out.