By now you’ve probably heard about the “you’re not special” speech, when English teacher David McCullough told graduating seniors at Wellesley High School: “Do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.” Mothers and fathers present at the ceremony — and a whole lot of other parents across the Internet — took issue with McCullough’s ego-puncturing words. But lost in the uproar was something we really should be taking to heart: our young people actually have no idea whether they’re particularly talented or accomplished or not. In our eagerness to elevate their self-esteem, we forgot to teach them how to realistically assess their own abilities, a crucial requirement for getting better at anything from math to music to sports. In fact, accurate self-evaluation is a skill the rest of us could stand to acquire, too. It’s not just privileged high-school students: we all tend to view ourselves as above average.
Such inflated self-judgments have been found in study after study, and it’s often exactly when we’re least competent at a given task that we rate our performance most generously. In a 2006 study published in the journal Medical Education, for example, medical students who scored the lowest on an essay test were the most charitable in their self-evaluations, while high-scoring students judged themselves much more stringently. Poor students, the authors note, “lack insight” into their own inadequacy. Why should this be? Another study, led by Cornell University psychologist David Dunning, offers an enlightening explanation. People who are incompetent, he writes with coauthor Justin Kruger, suffer from a “dual burden”: they’re not good at what they do, and their very ineptness prevents them from recognizing how bad they are.
In Dunning and Kruger’s study, subjects scoring at the bottom of the heap on tests of logic, grammar and humor “grossly overestimated” their talents. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they guessed they were in the 62nd. What these individuals lacked (in addition to clear logic, proper grammar and a sense of humor) was “metacognitive skill”: the capacity to monitor how well they’re performing. In the absence of that capacity, the subjects arrived at an overly rosy view of their own abilities. There’s a paradox here, the authors note: “The skills that engender competence in a particular domain are often the very same skills necessary to evaluate competence in that domain.” In other words, to get better at judging how well we’re doing at an activity, we have to get better at the activity itself.
(MORE: Why Floundering Is Good)
There are a couple of ways out of this double bind. First, we can learn to make honest comparisons with others. Train yourself to recognize excellence, even when you don’t yourself possess it, and compare what you can do against what truly excellent individuals are able to accomplish. Second, seek out feedback that is frequent, accurate and specific. Find a critic who will tell you not only how poorly you’re doing, but just what it is you’re doing wrong. As Dunning and Kruger note, success indicates to us that everything went right, but failure is more ambiguous: any number of things could have gone wrong. Use this external feedback to figure out exactly where and when you screwed up.
If we adopt these strategies — and most importantly, teach them to our children — they won’t need parents, or a commencement speaker, to tell them that they’re special. They’ll already know that they are, or have a plan to get that way.