Pride, we are told, goeth before a fall. Speaking personally, pride is most dangerous when it takes the form of a feeling of complete competence. I am speaking of a very special form of competence. That wonderful, delusory feeling that the job I am contemplating, while outside of any area of my expertise, is something I can do.
I am undecided about how the tombstone should read. I am debating between, “Hey, how hard could it be?” and “What the heck, It’s not exactly brain surgery.”
What makes it more humiliating is that some of my most egregious errors have been based on careful, precisely reasoned steps, each logically unimpeachable, based on complete ignorance.
When Isaac Newton, crowned with honors and near adulation, was given the largely honorary job of running the Royal Mint, he took it seriously – and took up alchemy. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the British patron saint of empirical evidence and common sense retired, he took up another field – spiritualism. He actually lent his name to the authenticity of some pretty obviously faked pictures of fairies.
But it is not just the old and famous that blithely pass beyond the limit of what they know without noticing it. All of us seem to do it.
It can begin pretty early. For instance, most every little boy of my generation had the experience of trying to take apart a watch. After all, you told yourself, you could take apart a bicycle, so why not this? The true nature of your folly became clear only when, having unscrewed a cover plate, some spring-loaded part magically disappeared from before your eyes, only to tinkle gently against a wall across the room. If you were really persistent (guess who) you might get to the challenge of trying to re-assemble the balance wheel with the hair spring intact.
One would think that with any sane species, this would be the sort of mistake that might occur once, or in rare cases maybe twice before the point is driven home.
For the human animal, this does not seem to be the case.
Like one late night (actually about 3 AM), as a fairly seasoned stage carpenter, I cast around for a way to quickly trim down a small piece of wood. My eyes lit upon a jointer, a machine tool I had never used. “What the heck,” I told myself, “I’ve been using equipment for years. How hard can it be?” I carefully thought through each step, adjusted the blade and…
It was nearly 6 AM before I got out of the infirmary. To this day I have parallel blade marks on my left thumb to remind me of how near I came to being thumbless.
Another time, on the same job, I ended up deliberately firing a power staple into the palm of my hand. The logic that led up to that one seems, in retrospect, to be far too stupid to explain. As someone once said, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Point is, this peculiar human quirk seems surprisingly resistant to negative feedback These experiences failed to cure me. Nor have any number of others that followed. Over the years I have managed, by careful planning and a misplaced feeling of competence, to: fall from a very considerable height, set fire to a house, and ruin (usually with pungent smoke wafting across the room) a surprising number of appliances, all with impeccable logic.
It is not that I am entirely immune from learning from experience. At my advanced age I can occasionally recognize how I have perched my mental pile of blocks upon a flawed base before I actually unbalance the bloody thing and end up falling on my butt.
Far more often, though, I find myself contemplating life, supine, with a familiar pain in my tuchis. Lying there, wrapped in the realization that I have done it yet again, I have considered this whole idea of competence and how it relates to the human animal’s self-image.
Why, having achieved some level of competence in some specific field, are we then driven to carry the confidence right over into some area where we are clearly not competent?
I suspect the answer may lie in turning the question around. Are our egos really so fragile that to admit that we do not know seems such a tragedy? Is succeeding in some new area such a triumph?
Well, speaking personally…
I used to help out occasionally with the California Folk Heritage Concerts. Usually it was general flunky kind of work: Set up chairs, rig lights, speakers, etc. Not exactly what you would expect to tax ones competence.
Then there came the day they asked me to come down and help with a concert. The artist was John McCutcheon and they expected a big crowd. I had no idea who John McCutcheon might be and naively asked who he was. I was informed in rather frigid tones that he was probably the best hammered dulcimer player in the world.
Oh… On the other hand, even the simplest tasks can contain their ration of humiliation..
In a more chastened mood than usual, I helped set up, took tickets, etc. At the break the manager asked me if I would mind going up on stage to keep people away from McCutcheon’s really beautiful dulcimer. The more beautiful the instrument, the more temptation to handle.
No problem. Just stand there and shoo away the curious.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t anticipated that, seeing me in close proximity to the dulcimer, people naturally assumed I knew some about a) John McCutcheon and b) hammered dulcimers in general.
I was peppered with bright, expert, questions on subjects of which I knew nothing. All I could do was stand there, feeling like an idiot, and answer, “I don’t know” to every single question.
Finally, someone came up and pointed to the dulcimer. “I noticed,” he said, “that McCutcheon’s hammers seemed to have an unusual sound. I can see that they have some kind of special contact material. Could you tell me what it is?”
With a feeling of inevitable futility, I dutifully peered down at the hammers. And lo and behold! I knew.
I can still recall the rush of complete competence I felt as I turned to the other and said triumphantly, “Why, yes. It’s duct tape!”