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Incredibly Talented People Think They’re Stupid

by | Feb 14, 2022 | Life


The jerk in a suit thought he was talented.

He kept books on his desk to make him look smart.

“Why those books?” I said to him.

“They make me look smart. And I’m really intelligent and good-looking.”

Months later he turned our humble little startup into a bloodbath. The American owners who had bid to buy the company pulled out. Great leaders left. Entire customer segments evaporated.

The guy was a mad man at the wheel of our, now, pirate ship. Late on Fridays he’d force us to sit in rooms and create customer journey maps.

He didn’t even know what a customer journey map was.

He just read that smart business leaders did them, so, you know, he did them too. Actually, he didn’t create them at all.

He found the weakest person in our office and made them his slave.

The victim was too nice. He liked hosting community radio on the weekend. The new customer journey mapping gig (he didn’t get paid for) took all his free time.

This jerk in a suit is a great example of Dunning-Kruger. It’s where average people have huge confidence in their abilities when it’s not justified.

They’re walking contradictions. They’re delusional psychopaths.

The biggest Dunning-Kruger problem isn’t dumb people who think they’re smart, it’s kinda-smart people who think they are polymath geniuses — Prof. Lemon Gogurt

Where the path to hell is born

All of us are at risk of becoming Dunning-Krugers.

Software engineer Anna McDougall explains the little-known cycle of Dunning-Kruger.

Image Credit: Anna McDougall via Twitter

On the left axis is confidence. On the right axis is experience.

As we learn a new thing we quickly become confident we know a lot. Anna calls this the peak of Mount Stupid.

As our experience lights the path ahead we see there is a lot more to learn. Then we hit the almighty valley of despair. This is where most give up.

If you can keep going, you’ll hit the slope of enlightenment where the road ahead starts to make sense, even though you don’t have all the insights yet.

The last part is the plateau of sustainability. It tells you this is a complex field you’ve entered.

Once you realize you’re in a complex field the accidental path to the gates of hell that lead to Mount Stupid are closed off.

You realize you know nothing and that’s perfectly normal in a complex field. Better yet, you realize you’ll know little for the rest of your life and that excites you.

I was a walking Dunning-Kruger

The critics reading this will note my last name, Denning, is one letter away from being Dunning. They’ll throw stones. Let them.

But in a way they’re right.

I’ve behaved like a Dunning-Kruger for much of my life. My many startup failures show that. Heck, I failed multiple times to start an online academy.

I thought I’d already made it.

50,000 email subscribers, you’re a bloody legend mate!

I thought I could say “I’m Tim Denning B*tch now buy my course.”

It wasn’t that simple. The fake genius inside of me launched a course. Nobody bought it. I tried to launch an academy several times over the last few years.

Failed every time.

Online courses aren’t that simple. You need social proof, legit testimonials, the right tech stack, a plan, a good course, and a free course to build interest.

My Dunning-Kruger syndrome ended when I realized I was stupid.

So instead I got a business partner. He’s an actual genius, although he thinks he’s below average. With him on board, I found out how online courses work in the real world.

Turns out they’re hard. Turns out you need to survive the valley of despair and realize your own stupidity.

Ego amplifies Dunning-Kruger.

Overconfidence turns Dunning-Kruger effect into your worst nightmare.

Dunning-Kruger strikes again. It’s time to stop confusing confidence with competence — Adam Grant

Investing money is full of fake geniuses

Everyone is a genius in a bull market. When markets are ripping and your portfolio seems to grow by the day, many fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger Effect — Mark Cuban

It happens more than you think. Prices of stocks or crypto can go up or down.

You’ve got a 50% chance of being right. That makes the chance of stepping into the Dunning-Kruger trap extremely high.

Reddit investing expert Jack Raines taught me something strange. When you’re right with investing it’s a double-edged sword.

Huge gains in money lead to confidence in your financial intelligence. This makes you a lot more likely to invest extremely hard into what you believe. The level of aggression amplifies losses.

A black swan event or a recession can create more problems.

That’s how Dunning-Kruger can bankrupt investors.

How to avoid Mount Stupid

Incredibly talented people I’ve met over the years have become reverse-Dunning-Krugers. They go in the opposite direction.

Here’s what they do.


1. Fall in love with this phrase

Perhaps the greatest phase in history: “I don’t know.”

Sahil Bloom says we should get comfortable with this feeling. Jump into meetings and say you don’t know.

“I’ll come back to you on that” is a great way to buy time to learn.


2. Challenge your beliefs regularly

A friend of mine used to be Christian.

She got brought up that way. She started looking into Jesus and his back story. She discovered the bible had been reinterpreted several times through the various testaments.

This led her to find multiple inconsistencies and events that changed and didn’t make sense. Her research led her to believe Jesus was a real person, but his superpowers, according to her, are likely exaggerated.

She gave up on religion after that discovery.

Obviously, it doesn’t matter what your religious beliefs are. You do you.

The point is to challenge what you believe. It may be based on someone else’s story. Or a story that has changed over time to become untrue.

Captain stupids refuse to change.


3. Try to be consistently *not* stupid

Legendary investor and partner of Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, says his success isn’t based on intelligence.

He doesn’t optimize to be highly intelligent. He aims to be consistently not stupid. The subtle difference in focus stops his ego and confidence from getting out of control.

“Is this a stupid investment?” he thinks to himself.

Try not to be stupid. But f*ck trying to be highly intelligent. Most of them are walking Dunning-Krugers.


4. Know nothing 100%

It’s what you think you know for sure that’s the most dangerous.

Nothing is absolute. I see it with online writers all the time. They think they know it all. They think they know the algorithms, so they make dumb mistakes and ruin their success.

I was one of those writers.

The smart writers think their writing isn’t great, but they keep showing up to improve. Sean Kernan taught me that.


5. The prayer to rid anyone of stupidity sins

Badass author Austin Kleon came up with a Dunning-Kruger Prayer.

Image Credit: Austin Kleon via Twitter

I read this non-religious prayer regularly.

Remind yourself daily how dumb you are. Remember you know 0.000001% of what there is to know in this world.

When you think you’re dumb it’s a vaccine against common stupidity.

Final Thought

Thinking you’re the smartest person in the room is a disease. We should call a doctor when we see it.

When you lower your confidence, be hyper-aware of your ego, become a learning machine and remind yourself daily that you’re not highly intelligent, you stay clear of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Incredibly talented people aren’t interested in being smart. They’d rather be stupid and focus on learning so their progress does the talking.

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