the learning cycle

Several months ago, I had a conversation about the way people learn when I was introduced to a concept called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

In a nutshell, the Dunning-Kruger effect found that low-ability individuals often over-estimate their ability relative to others. Conversely, high-ability individuals often under-estimate their relative competence. From Wikipedia:

Dunning and Kruger have postulated that the effect is the result of internal illusion in those of low ability, and external misperception in those of high ability: “The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”

I found this super interesting. I began thinking about my own personal experience with learning, and found the process to be cyclical and related to the Dunning-Kruger effect.

When I begin learning about a subject, there is no pretense. I know that I know nothing about this subject. As I start to learn and understand more about it, I start to gain a lot of confidence.

Oh, I totally get this. How complicated could this be?

Then I get hit with a cold dose of reality.

Holy shit there is so much to know about this and I don’t know a damn thing.

After a period of humility, I continue to improve my understanding and pick up confidence once again, perhaps a little slower.

OK, OK, I’m getting this.

Then I meet someone who actually knows their shit and realize I’ve barely hit the tip of the iceberg. Blind, ignorant, blissful confidence followed by cold reality.

I’ve never reached the end of one of these cycles. For every subject I’ve ever cared enough to learn about, I am somewhere in this progression. I feel pretty good about a lot of things right now – but soon enough I’ll realize that there is so much more to learn. But I can’t imagine a better hamster wheel.


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