”The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people are so full of doubts.”  Bertrand Russell

The son of a friend explained to me how he was doing at the ‘Guitar Hero‘ games: ”I’m brilliant at it now!” he enthused ”I play it on easy…medium is too hard.”

This failure to assess one’s own ability is of course excusable in an eight year old; the sad truth is that most adults aren’t much better. TV talent shows force us weekly to watch naïve dipsticks, convinced they can sing, being disabused by people who know very much better what being able to sing is.

Your ability to assess your performance of a skill relates to your ability to do that skill, and your experience of using and observing it.

David Dunning and Justin Kruger  tested students on grammar and asked them how well they thought they had done . Students who had performed poorly over estimated their scores,  while the students who excelled tended to underestimate their results; students with poor understanding of grammar were confident in their wrong answers, while the grammar nerds doubted theirs .

People who are good at grammar are good at grammar because they use grammar often.

Serious students and writers read and write constantly, expanding and refining their understanding of the  use of written language.  Confidence in technique is not an issue.  These people do not sit and practice writing single letters and punctuation marks; they use them in earnest, in words,  sentences and  paragraphs, comparing them against other’s work.

The uncertainty they  feel is a result of  experience. When I  learnt to cook, I knew one way of cooking chips; slice  spuds,  hot oil, sizzle-sizzle, done. I was certain that this recipe was perfect because I knew no other, until I made the mistake of  learning stuff.  Now I know at least three ways of cooking chips, which all produce light fluffy insides and crisp golden outsides, and I can never decide which is  best.

Self-examination and criticism, questioning and evaluation, is part of the price paid to become truly ‘brilliant’ at anything.

This is all very well  if your skill is like writing or cooking, and you can practice ‘in anger’ every day; what if you are practising your response to an emergency far outside the normal daily experience?

I  learnt to do cardiopulmonary resuscitation  when I was eight. Working in the NHS, I  put theory into practice. The first time was an extremely strange experience; I knew exactly what I had to do, and yet each action seemed to need a massive physical effort. The urge to wait and watch, in the hope that  he’ll breath and everything will be back to normal, was huge. I pushed my arm towards the alarm button like the air was gelatine.

The strident alarm noise, and the arrival of people who had dealt with this before broke the spell and I stood in a corner and watched. I knew the techniques of adult life support well; what I lacked was familiarity with the situation. The second time, I managed to help the professionals in simple ways. The third and subsequent times, I was one of them.

I felt my CPR experience had come full circle the first time I steered a student nurse into the corner of the room where she watched with eyes like saucers while we performed on a real person the techniques she had practised on a dummy.

This is normalcy bias, the human tendency to respond with numb inactivity to extreme events; the strange subconscious hope that acting like everything is normal will make it so.

In films, a single shot fired in a crowded mall provokes a screaming stampede for the exits; in reality, some people probably yelp or shriek in surprise, then there is some murmuring and craning of necks, then everyone goes back the their latte.

Normalcy bias burns people to death in their seats on crashed airliners when all they have to do is get up and get off; it forms crowds of rubber-neckers at police cordons around suspect packages; it sends dumbos out on to the pier to watch the hurricane, or on the roof to see the lightning.

Know your enemy and yourself,  Sun Tzu said, and in hundred battles you will never be defeated. Courage – finding the motivation to do what is right – is only any use  when tempered by an honest appraisal of one’s own abilities. To allow an unrealistic belief in oneself to lead one to an impasse one is not equipped to deal with is impetuous in the extreme!

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