Why Your Strengths (and weaknesses) May Surprise You


We all have the same question in our minds as we watch a seemingly tone deaf reality TV show contestant sing and embarrass themselves on a national stage. We wonder the same thing while watching an online video involving someone attempting a trampoline trick or hopping on a treadmill running at full speed.

“What made them think they could do that?”

What we may not realize is what makes amateurs try something obviously beyond their skill level may be the same thing causing us to not attempt something easily within our ability. This effect may be handicapping your strengths while exploiting your weaknesses. A better understanding of the rationale may help you focus your efforts better around your core competencies.

This tendency to misjudge of our abilities is called the Dunning Kruger Effect, named after the pair whose research proved the what Charles Darwin lamented long before them, “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” In their paper  “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”, the researchers shared the result of giving tests to students and comparing the results to the students’ self-predicted scores.


image via Gagne.HomeDNS.org

You can see that the bottom quartile grossly overestimated their scores, while the top quartile actually underestimated their own scores. The bottom quartile explains the tone deaf singers and trampoliners on FailBlog. The top quarter probably explains why so many successful entrepreneurs say they probably wouldn’t have started their company if they knew then what they know now. The knowledge of what it actually takes to succeed can cause us to underestimate our own abilities.

This may be why Steve Jobs encouraged college graduates to “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” knowing these fresh Stanford grads were educated on the challenges they faced and may, surprisingly, sell themselves short.

So, how do we apply this in our lives?

  1. Complement Confidence with Competence
    Recognize that confidence is not enough. Sometimes it can be an indicator that we lack some vital information. Be willing to put in the effort to research an area. Meet with an expert and ask specific questions. Learn from others’ mistakes. Retain your optimism, but face the reality of what you are undertaking.
  2. But Don’t Saddle Strength with Cynicism
    Don’t let knowledge undercut your ability. Self-awareness is key here. Acknowledge the know-how and experience you have under your belt. Also realize your competitors are not perfect either. Their press releases and shiny brochures won’t be highlighting their struggles or blind spots. You may discover you have some unique set of strengths which will set you apart and give you significant leverage.

Do you underestimate your own strengths and weaknesses? What are you doing to guard against thinking more highly of yourself than you ought, but still be reasonable when considering yourself?

Dustin Staiger is a business and marketing coach in Houston, TX. He addresses team and individual effectiveness, marketing, communications and creativity for smaller, entrepreneurial organizations as well as large enterprises.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “Why Your Strengths (and weaknesses) May Surprise You

  1. Great article! I often let perfectionism and fear of success keep me from going to the next level with my customers and my brand. One of the things Michael Hyatt said recently that resonated with me, is that we have to own our right to be a business owner. This research highlights that truth.

  2. Thanks Steve. Yes, that’s a good point Michael makes. I think a lot of us struggle with self-doubt. Sometimes it may be because we actually know how much we don’t know. But there are lots of folks who “don’t know what they don’t know.” The irony is their ignorance may be what gives them the courage to go for it. And sometimes it actually works.