The Wrong Kind of Modesty

Many smart people tend to be modest about their abilities.  The most popular form of this modesty, in my experience is to say or think “I’m really not that smart, but I work hard.” Hard work is something people take pride in, a virtue of the self-made man.  Proclaiming one’s intelligence, on the other hand, can be seen as boastful and arrogant.  So when someone smart is being modest, they usually downplay their intelligence rather than their work ethic.  To think or proclaim the opposite would be to boast about their intelligenceand admit to being lazy — a double negative.

People would like to believe that they work hard even if they don’t — it makes up for any insecurity they might have about their competence.  If you believe you’re working as hard as possible, then the only way to improve is to “get smarter.”  On the other hand, if you believe that you are competent but lazy, it is much easier to improve.  Yet the Dunning-Krueger effect suggests that those who are truly competent underestimate their competence, making the “mediocre + hard worker” belief more likely, and acting as a serious barrier to self-improvement.  People who think they are mediocre hard-workers will try to “get smarter” rather than work harder.  Because we assumed they were smart to begin with, they’ll hit severe diminishing returns with their “get smarter” program while ignoring huge gains to be made with the “work harder” program.

So, next time you are feeling modest, remember to not underestimate your competence.  Think about how you can work harder, better and smarter and you will have a lot to gain.

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