Many years ago, when I was doing a lot more photography work professionally, I went to Penn Camera, my local shop, to pick up supplies for an upcoming shoot. Penn Camera stood apart from consumer shops in that all of its employees and almost all of its patrons were quite serious about their craft as photographers. Any time I was in there, I could overhear conversations about how Canon was superior for their tonal range, or Nikon was the best because of the chromatic aberration management in their camera bodies.
While I was looking for supplies, a young man walked in, quickly made his way to a sales representative, and asked, “What do I need if I want to take studio pictures of a rock band?” Needless to say, he unwittingly had secured the undivided attention of everyone in the store, including me. As the sales representative asked him about what he was trying to accomplish, it quickly became apparent that this aspiring photographer had no idea what he was getting into. Still, we were in a store, and the sales representative had a job to do, so he wound up selling this guy a camera body, a lens, a pair of studio lights, a pair of soft boxes, a roll of background paper, a nine-foot stand, and a number of photography knick-knacks. He left the store confident that he was going to be the next Richard Avedon. I remember thinking, “This project is not going to go well.” Not because the gentleman was poorly equipped, but because he was well equipped and poorly informed.
The above encounter was the first time I saw the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action. A famous illustration of this effect is a man who tried to rob a couple of banks and was arrested shortly thereafter. Apparently he had opted to squeeze lemon juice on his face, believing that it somehow would render him invisible. The takeaway being that if you are incompetent, you are less likely to know that you are, and therefore, more likely to fail in your endeavor. I can only imagine that our budding photographer must have had a catastrophic photo shoot later that week. While this is a funny phenomenon, it certainly helps explain a lot, from people getting injured in obviously dangerous activities on YouTube videos, to the story of Florence Foster Jenkins whose singing was so bad that people would come out in mass to see her perform on stage.
Interestingly enough, the Dunning-Kruger Effect also highlights a similar and related phenomenon: as people become more competent, they are more likely to underestimate their abilities and be anxious about the outcome of their endeavors. Being aware of people who are more competent than you, as well as knowing all about everything that could go wrong, is a great recipe to make you undervalue yourself. This has real consequences in our lives every day. I have witnessed it firsthand when I work with a student who is committed to preparing to be a competitive candidate only to see them use defeatist language such as “I’ll take anything at this point” or “I’m underqualified” when they clearly are ready to get working. As uncomfortable as this reality may be, to feel not ready and to question your ability when you have been working hard to prepare for something are generally great indicators that you are in fact ready to get started.
Don’t wait until you have such mastery that you become cocky. By then it will be too late. Instead, when you have put in the time, and you are anxious about not being ready, know that it is time to dive in head-first. Courage is not about acting without fear; it is being almost overwhelmed with fear and self-doubt, and pushing forward anyway. You will see that your perceived incompetence was both an indicator that you were ready, and a thin veil keeping you from realizing your full potential. So be skeptical of your ability, know that you might fail, experience fear, and go do what you were meant to.