Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Don't Kid Yourself, Or, Above All Else Know Thyself

One of the great things about eskimo rolling is that success and failure are unmistakably clear. You are either upright breathing freely, or back under water holding your breath. You simply cannot pretend that you are competent at this somewhat complex skill. Most of us, however, don't actually need to eskimo roll that frequently if at all, so we do not necessarily get such clear feedback, and then, "Houston, we have a problem." Or, if not a full blown problem certainly an impediment to reaching our goals. 

Leaving Rocky Isles and heading for Direction Island, 
Far North Queensland

It's human nature to believe ourselves better than we actually are. Psychological surveys have repeatedly demonstrated this. Whether it is intelligence, attractiveness, compassion, competence, or any of a dozen other metrics, almost all of us think we are above average. In both ourselves, and more particularly others, we frequently - if not always - conflate confidence with competence which is why you find seemingly intelligent people heading off doing obviously stupid things having been convinced by the confident and charismatic.

 Heading back down to the valley 
after a failed attempt on Mount Cooper, Selkirk Mountains, BC

We might forgive ourselves for being convinced by others but how is it we can so easily convince ourselves of things that are patently just not so? I see this every time I go to my local box gym. Inevitably there are a bunch of people (most frequently men, sorry guys) who are fooling themselves that they can lift weights much heavier than they can actually manage. Yesterday it was the chubby guy "curling" about 40 kg, except, his bicep curl had a range of motion of literally 2 to 5 centimetres! He might want to believe he did 20 curls, actually, he did zero. Or, perhaps the obesity researcher I met on the weekend who was bemoaning the amount of sugar people ate while he chowed down on a chocolate cream filled pastry from the nearby bakery for breakfast. Seriously, as my friend Roland would say, "that's not a healthy choice." If this PhD educated expert could not work out how to get sugar out of his own diet, what hope does he have of convincing others to forgo that sweet, white nectar. 

 Fail, Selkirk Mountains, BC

Some degree of belief in our own competence is absolutely necessary if we are to go out into the world and do what has to be done. I am very aware of this when climbing - another sport where you can fool yourself (going clip to clip on a grade 21 dogging at every move is NOT climbing a grade 21). If I am leading a rock climb, particularly a "trad" climb (gear protected climb for non-climbers) I simply must believe I have a much better than average chance of succeeding. If not, I'll fumble, flail and, most likely, eventually fail. I could, quite literally, kill myself. 

Not a good place for false confidence, 
Monashee Mountains, BC

The line, however, between an appropriate level of confidence and a delicious vision of deluded omnipotence seems hard for many of us to grasp, and, I think we condemn ourselves to unending mediocrity as soon as we lose touch with our real abilities. We've all heard about "working our weaknesses" and, the data on deliberative practice in the role of expert skill acquisition is pretty well established, but, how can we practice deliberately or work our weaknesses if we cannot recognize, let alone embrace them?

 Soon to be failed attempt at a new route on Mount Clutterbuck,
Purcell Mountains, BC

Personally, I've never seen the benefit of the false ego boost that comes from believing we are better at something than we really are. Pretending I can curl 40 kg is really not going to help me if a real world situation arises where I need to curl 40 kg. Similarly, feigning expert navigational skills is not going to help me when I'm lost, it's getting dark, and the rain is beginning. The only thing that matters in these instances is real ability. That bit of fakery that you indulged in at the gym or last time you were out in the woods might have pumped up your ego, but, in the longer term (or even the shorter term) you are simply no better than you were yesterday. And, in the end, isn't that what we all want out of life - to be just that little bit better today than we were the day before?

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