Now Hiring: Crystal Ball Maintenance Tech, No Experience Necessary

All professionals occasionally get to deal with clients who “just knew that was going to happen.” In these scenarios, the client usually feels like they had some intuition that actually played out, and it’s left them questioning the authority of the professional. In turn, the professional experiences some form of self-doubt as the emotions get turned up. Doctors see it with sick patients as their condition worsens, lawyers see it with clients as cases develop negatively, and financial advisors see it when markets suddenly decline. “I knew this was going to happen! How didn’t you see this coming?!” The specifics are nuanced, but the basics are all the same. Let’s dissect.

For the intuiting client, usually, their perception ran counter to whatever the actual odds were for that scenario. “Just knowing” without any basis for “the odds” is a normal distinction between amateurs and experts in most fields. In psychology, this is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and it describes how people with low ability can experience illusory superiority. Imagine a person saying they “just know the next coin flip is going to land on heads.” There’s nothing wrong with having a hunch, but the odds of a coin flip are still going to be 50/50. Once a person writes off luck and inserts skillful intuition, Dunning-Kruger is in play.

For the self-doubting professional who is scared, they might have overestimated their knowledge, Impostor Syndrome may be setting in. In this case, a person with high ability is experiencing illusory inferiority. In non-technical terms, they feel like a fraud or a hack. “Why did the coin land on heads ten times in a row? What if the odds aren’t 50/50 anymore? What did I miss?” The world can be cruel. Experts just need to develop a high(er) tolerance for that cruelty.

So what do we do with this knowledge? Let’s turn to poet W. B. Yeats who said, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Our goal should be to empathetically drive both ourselves and the client back towards Yeats’ reality, with the intuitive client realizing luck played a role in their guess (“the worst are full of passionate intensity”), and the experienced professional recognizing that the odds must be respected with great humility (“the best lack all conviction”). It’s really as simple as that. People can be right but for the wrong reasons, and people can be wrong for the right reasons. Both sides occasionally need a reminder: this stuff is hard.

When clients and professionals can collectively admit that neither have a crystal ball, they can accept that they’re doing the best they can with the information they have. It may also help to remember that most professionals are really trying to minimize the stupid mistakes and not maximize their genius. Sure, we may miss out on the occasional lucky break (keyword: lucky), but if we can just avoid the obvious pitfalls, we’ll usually find ourselves delivering above average results over time. By learning to spot Dunning-Kruger and the Impostor Syndrome in the wild, we may not be able to avoid them, but we can better resolve them in a constructive manner.

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