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Headmaster's Address

Mount Stupid

One of my favourite TV programmes ever was The Office – the UK version – co-written and starring Ricky Gervais as the odious David Brent, and I found out recently that it was Ricky Gervais who is credited with one of my favourite aphorisms, which goes as follows:

“When you are dead, you do not know you are dead. It’s only painful and difficult for others. And the same applies when you are stupid.”

So I want to talk to you today about MOUNT STUPID, and how to get off it, because it is an awful place to be, and I don’t want any of you, ever, to be stranded there – and also because, as Ricky Gervais points out, if you do ever find yourself residing there, you may not realise you’re there, and in the meantime it’s pretty awful for the people around you, too.

Before I go any further, I need to make reference to this wonderful book – Think Again – by the American author and professor, Adam Grant; much of what I am saying today is based on this book and I want to acknowledge that, and to recommend the book wholeheartedly.

Who’s heard of an armchair quarterback, or Armchair Quarterback Syndrome? Also known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, Armchair Quarterback Syndrome occurs when a person’s lack of knowledge and skills in a certain area cause them to overestimate their own competence.

Armchair quarterbacks act as though they are highly skilled or expert in some area, because they lack the self-awareness to realise that they’re not experts at all. Of course, quarterbacks are an American football thing, but the same thing applies in our football, or rugby, or anything, really – and you’ll know an Armchair Quarterback when you meet one. In real life, they’ll bend your ear (often unbidden) about how Pep Guardiola or Juergen Klopp was clearly wrong to start with this or that player, or this or that formation. The online world, needless to say, is full of them, opining with great certainty on anything subject you can think of. Basically, if your confidence exceeds your competence by a large margin in anything, you could be described as an armchair quarterback – and there’s a name for the opposite, also: for those whose competence way exceeds their confidence, we describe such people as suffering from impostor syndrome.

Being an armchair quarterback is the surest way to get stuck on Mount Stupid, because armchair quarterback syndrome tends to kill curiosity, humility, openness to the views of others, and willingness to learn. In short, it stands in the way of rethinking. If we’re certain that we know all there is to know about something, we have no reason to look for gaps and flaws in our knowledge—let alone fill or correct them.

In one study, the people who scored the lowest on an emotional intelligence test weren’t just the most likely to overestimate their skills. They were also the most likely to dismiss their own low scores as inaccurate or irrelevant—and the least likely to invest in coaching or self-improvement. Some of this comes down to our fragile egos. We’re driven to deny our weaknesses when we want to see ourselves in a positive light or paint a glowing picture of ourselves to others. But as well as ego, there’s a less obvious force that clouds our vision of our abilities: a deficit in metacognitive skill, the ability to think about our thinking. Lacking competence can leave us blind to our own incompetence. If you’re a tech entrepreneur and you’re uninformed about education systems, you can feel certain that your master plan will fix them.

If you’re socially awkward and you’re missing some insight on social graces, you can strut around believing you’re James Bond.

When we lack the knowledge and skills to achieve excellence, we sometimes lack the knowledge and skills to judge excellence. This insight should immediately put your favourite confident ignoramuses in their place. But before we poke fun at them, it’s worth remembering that we all have moments when we are that person. We’re all novices at many things, but we’re not always aware of that fact. Many of us tend to overestimate ourselves on desirable skills, like the ability to carry on a riveting conversation. We’re also prone to overconfidence in situations where it’s easy to confuse experience for expertise.

Interestingly, absolute beginners rarely fall into the Dunning-Kruger trap. If you don’t know a thing about football, you probably don’t walk around believing you know more than the coach. It’s when we progress from novice to amateur that we become overconfident. A bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. That’s where Mount Stupid comes in.  In too many domains of our lives, we never gain enough expertise to question our opinions or discover just how much we have yet to learn. We have just enough information to feel self-assured about making pronouncements and passing judgment, failing to realize that we’ve climbed to the top of Mount Stupid without making it over to the other side. Advancing from novice to amateur can break the rethinking cycle. As we gain just a little experience, we lose some of our humility. We take pride in making rapid progress, which promotes a false sense of mastery. That jump-starts an overconfidence cycle, preventing us from doubting what we know and being curious about what we don’t. We get trapped in a beginner’s bubble of flawed assumptions, where we’re ignorant of our own ignorance. It’s a form of arrogance, an absolute conviction that we know what we’re talking about, and it’s likely that those stuck on Mount Stupid lack one crucial nutrient for the mind: humility.  Because it turns out that the antidote to getting stuck on Mount Stupid is taking a regular dose of humility. “Arrogance is ignorance plus conviction,” according to blogger, Tim Urban. Whilst humility is a permeable filter that absorbs life experience and converts it into knowledge and wisdom, arrogance is a rubber shield that life experience simply bounces off of.

I’ll pick this up next week but I will finish on this thought: that humility in this sense isn’t about low self-regard – it’s more about recognising how much more there is still out here to learn, and then committing yourself to that process of self-improvement. If nothing else in your approach to learning next week, think about this: even those – like Isaac Newton – whose expertise and insights have help to shape our understanding of the world – demonstrate humility, recognising how much they have drawn on the insights of those who came before them. A little humility in your approach to learning can be a very good thing.