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Deprecated: Assigning the return value of new by reference is deprecated in /nfs/c03/h02/mnt/52932/domains/ on line 623 » Self-Calibration

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David Shenk has put up an interesting article in the blog for his upcoming book on “talent, giftedness and brilliance”. He puts some articles into the spotlight that discuss the relationship of self-assessment (or “calibration”, as he’s referring to it) and competence. Together with the comments and articles cited, it provides for some interesting reading, especially for me since the observations presented closely resemble my own.

For example, I’ve frequently met people that I’m quite sure (thinking back) overestimated their abilities in certain fields and thusly failed. I see this particularly often during my studies, when learning for exams together with other students. Personally, I group chunks of knowledge into two categories when preparing for an exam (or learning for “personal use” only), things I understand and things I don’t understand. It’s a Boolean distinction. There’s no third category. However, lots of other people seem to accept this third possibility as something that naturally exists, as the notion of understanding something “somewhat”. To my mind, that’s the first step to fail a math exam terribly, as an example. Assessing one’s understanding of a field of knowledge in terms of “somewhat” or “enough to pass the exam” leads to unjustified confidence (or overconfidence) on one hand, and to bogus metrics to assess one’s success on the other hand: I know people who measure their progress by how often they’ve read through the teacher’s presentation slides. If they’ve read it 3 times, it’s enough to pass the test, once they’ve read it 5 times, they feel like they were experts in this field. Conversely, once they’ve written a little program in C, they “know C”.

On the other hand, I’m looking for the often-cited “click” feeling of switching from “hmm, this is difficult” to “ah, now I understand” mode. It’s a subtle and rather intuitive feeling, but at the same time it’s easy to know when you’re there. It’s a bit like, gah, falling in love. It’s all about abstracting from the actual knowledge into a field of relationships and logics, the actual memorizing comes for free once I’ve managed to see a bit beyond the mere text.

So, what does this have to do with overconfidence? In fact, a lot, I think. I do not deny that it is not necessary to understand the material in order to pass an exam. In the same vein, a programmer doesn’t truly need to understand threads in order to write a well-working multi-threaded program. The difference, however, lies in how you assess these accomplishments. Some people believe that they’re actually good at this one field, or just generally smart, if they successfully pass exams or succeed in other forms of evaluation (such as publishing a good piece of software, writing a cool song, whatever). I, on the other hand, tend to believe that I was just lucky to get a great grade on a test if I do not feel I’m truly understanding the material. Similarly, I’m often amazed if I publish software and do not get back a billion of bug reports. Some people call this the Impostor Syndrome. I’ve heard this term for the first time when I was reading through the comments to the above blog entry, but it somehow sounds familiarly.

Thinking back, I may often have been overly humble in the past, especially during job assignments (mind you, most of my job experience stems from smaller, “student” type of jobs, where you are pretty much constrained by the notion of being just the lazy dude with half a tech degree as opposed to the experts with billions of years of work experience). In fact, I’ve often predicted failing projects quite accurately even though the people actually carrying responsibility were quite confident to get them done easily. Overconfidence or just ignorance, I don’t know.

Personally, I think I’ll have to stick with my rather shy and humble assessment of myself, since I’m not sure if I can or want to change my nature. At the same time, I need to (and that’s what I’ve been actively trying over the past few months) develop better self-evaluation methods in order not to let myself stagnate in pursuing my goals. There’s been quite a number of times when I turned down a job offer (or offer for an academic position) because I believed I wasn’t fit for it. What I totally neglected, on the other hand, was that offers don’t come from nowhere, they come from people who’ve already read my resume or even worked together with me for quite some time. They obviously believed I could do it. Thinking back, I believe I could have, too…


Hi, how are you? My name is Georg Kaindl, and I'm a twenty-something from Vienna, Austria. During the day, I'm a CS student at the Vienna University of Technology, but at night, I turn into an independent software developer for the Macintosh platform, social nerd, lazy entrepreneur and intuitive researcher.

I like to write about everything that matters to considerate technology enthusiasts, but humbly retain the right to go off-topic from time to time.

My posts are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.


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