Let’s get a little philosophical about success, opportunities and risk.

I had some friends in school that I was perpetually mystified by. They’d go confidently into tests they hadn’t studied for, convinced they would ace it. They asked out girls who had made it clear they couldn’t stand them. They advertised expertise on topics they knew next to nothing about, assuming they could bluff their way through it.

Over and over, they bombed the test, the girls shot them down, and they made fools of themselves in front of the real experts. They failed, fell and embarrassed themselves while the rest of us shook our heads at them and rolled our eyes while they charged ahead into certain failure each time only to be defeated and crushed the next. Why didn’t they seem to learn from their mistakes? Why did they have such a warped perception of their own abilities and skills?

At the time, I just assumed we knew a bunch of absolute goofballs, not that it was indicative of some kind of wider pattern. Now I’m familiar with the The Dunning–Kruger effect and I’ll let Wikipedia take it from here:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.

Is it a gender thing? The knuckle-heads I knew were guys but who knows. There have been studies that found that men are more likely than women to overestimate their attractiveness.  Does that translate to other abilities? If impostor syndrome is more common in women, doesn’t that mean the opposite is true?

I have no idea. Not my field, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a factor.

But this was all food for thought, especially considered in light of the old adage that successful people start before they are ready. Was what I was witnessing, this sort of mindless cycle of overreaching and failing, what they meant by starting before you’re ready? If it was, what could possibly be the advantage of making a fool of yourself again and again? Wouldn’t it ruin your reputation and undermine what you were really good at? Isn’t it endlessly discouraging? I just didn’t see the advantage.

Until, at last, something struck me. Off the top of my head, I could think of at least one time one of my knuckleheads had succeeded against the odds. When they’d somehow dove in over their heads just as the waters receded, leaving our whole gang, the subject included, laughing at the pure dumb luck that had saved them from certain doom.

Sure, this was less than 1% of the time. But what if it’s that 1% that makes all the difference? Is the secret to aim past what you’re capable of every time in the hopes that, at least 1% of the time, you’ll hit the mark, even if it is by dumb luck? Is the secret of successful people that they’re a little deluded about their abilities or just that they take more risks overall, not just calculated ones, and that the law of averages does the rest? Is it really just about putting yourself out there, even if you’re not really qualified, just to give yourself the chance for opportunity to find you? Is the time you’re wasting by going for things you shouldn’t really have a chance at worth the small chance of greater success?

As you can tell from the sea of question marks above, I don’t know the answers. I’m still pondering it. But I have been experimenting this year with a little philosophy I like to think of as What Would Those Doofuses Do? When I find myself looking at an opportunity or career related situation that’s rather beyond where I am now, I try to picture what those goofs I knew in school would do. If I conclude that they would charge in, drunk buffalo style, then I’ve been doing that. Well, I charge ahead more like the Mythbusters version of a bull in a china shop but the idea is the same. I haven’t been letting things like facts and qualifications get in the way of whether I go for something and I’ve generally been thinking less before diving in.

So far, it hasn’t made a difference that I can tell, though I suspect the results will show more in the long game. The only thing I do know is that it doesn’t feel natural at all and I am making a fool of myself a lot more often than I’m used to. It’s still completely counter-intuitive to me to intentionally go for, shall we say, poor or uncalculated risks but the longer I do it and the more I observe others, the more I’m starting to think it’s what others are doing with good results.

What do you think?

Photo by Walter Benson