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The Value of Incompetence

You can be either curious or arrogant, but not both

At work, I meet with a different person for lunch every day. I also usually have one-on-one meetings with one or two other people throughout the day. All of my lunches are scheduled out until mid-July, about four months into the future. Sometimes I send an invitation for one of these far-in-the-future lunches and the person I’m scheduling with seems incredulous: “I have no idea what I’ll be doing in July!” Some people seem to think it’s weird, other people seem to believe that I’m trying to appear self-important (as if I’m saying, “I can only fit you in with four month’s notice”), still others seem to think that I’m ultra-organized. The truth is none of that. I just enjoy meeting with people and there are only about 20 lunchtimes in a month.

I particularly like meeting with intelligent and knowledgable people. I recently met with a very senior engineer and I was able to ask him about a diverse array of topics that I had been wondering about. He was able to explain everything to me so that I could understand. I have long suspected that if someone isn’t able to explain a concept so that it’s understandable to a child, then they haven’t really understood it themselves. We even had a great riffing session about possible future directions for programmable artificial intelligence accelerators. After this particular meeting, I recognized that this is one of the greatest assets I have access to: incredibly smart and accomplished people with great communication skills. In these discussions, I can have a fun conversation while receiving a massive download of knowledge and wisdom.

I had lunch with a young and relatively inexperienced engineer recently. I had met with him before and found the conversation to be tiring after a while. During that conversation, he seemed to be continually trying to demonstrate to me that he knew everything. He would blurt out three-letter acronyms and refer to complex concepts with a throw-away sense that these things are trivial. He had not yet comprehended that I’m fundamentally a growth-mindset person. I’m not interested in being something, such as an expert, but in the engagement with the naturally unfolding process of becoming. The way he behaved caused him to come across as arrogant to me and it made spending time with him very unpleasant. It was all about him proving to me again and again that he was somehow smart enough for me.

At the most-recent lunch with this particular engineer, he started with his usual barrage of random and non-contextualized information. I decided to model what I value: every time he said something that I didn’t understand, I simply stopped him and asked him to explain it to me, “Wait, what is an XYZ?” Very quickly, two things happened: (1) he discovered that I’m totally okay with people not knowing things; after all, I was confidently demonstrating that I knew almost nothing about what he was talking about; and (2) we very quickly hit the bottom of his knowledge, and he had to admit that he didn’t know a lot of things. Throughout this lunch, our relationship shifted significantly, he became more humble, more curious, and he seemed to calm down and reveal a more authentic side of himself that he had previously been shielding from me behind a façade of competence. I came to trust his responses more, I learned some new things from our conversation, and I felt more excited about collaborating with him. We were able to be beginners together; how fun is that?

There is a legendary senior vice president named Jonah Alben at the company where I work. Jonah and I joined the company at about the same time, when all the employees knew each other, and when we each had approximately the same amount of experience. Over a few short years, as the company grew to billions of dollars in revenue, I watched this kid (my friend), rise from being an individual contributor to reporting directly to the CEO. Since then, Jonah has always reported to the CEO, overseeing the development of a long sequence of our massive processor chips. Jonah has a reputation for not only steering an organization of thousands of highly-competent engineers, but also for diving into the most intricate details of chip architecture to weigh-in on critical technical decisions. I’m sure he knows that he has a reputation for being an uber-genius.

I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t think that Jonah is a genius, but, since I paused my career in engineering to get a PhD in clinical psychology, I have a slightly more nuanced understanding of him. I don’t see him through the fixed-mindset lens. I mostly perceive a person who is deeply curious. I have watched him over the years dive into the details of problems with a fierce curiosity; he talks with people and asks questions; he runs experiments; he brainstorms. His super-power is curiosity. He knows about (and understands) so much, only because he’s willing to not know and for that not-knowing to be visible to others. He’s so completely open to being a beginner that for decades he’s been confidently and continually stepping up onto what seems to be a stairway to mastery, a stairway on which each step he takes is like his first. He’s not celebrating how high he has climbed; he doesn’t care about that; he’s always focused only on the next step. Jonah is the archetype of the growth-mindset approach to life.

Jonah doesn’t judge himself or others for making mistakes or for not knowing things. When people seem to make mistakes, his attitude is that they’re doing the best they can, and he always trusts that their behavior is driven by the best intentions. I’ve seen that this attitude often surprises people. Jonah is supportive of experimentation and of learning. He doesn’t see people in black-and-white terms; he doesn’t place them into boxes. Jonah believes that anyone can become anything, and through tiny, incremental steps, he’s the living proof of this.

And Jonah is also a great example of what I’m going to assert now: curiosity and arrogance are mutually exclusive. There is not a trace of arrogance in Jonah. He doesn’t think he’s smarter than anyone else, or that he knows better, and he doesn’t dwell on or promote his accomplishments. He’s simply focused on achieving the very best outcome using the resources available.

Arrogance is an approach to life that is designed to hide the truth. Arrogance is intended to telegraph that I have something that perhaps you don’t, such as knowledge or skill. Arrogance also dialogs with the self: “I must not reveal, even to myself, the truth about what I am.” And what are we? We are beginners. We’re continually finding ourselves in new situations, whether on new projects at work or in new challenges in our personal relationships. The world is continually changing. The knowledge, skill, and possessions that we have acquired in the past don’t necessarily apply. Arrogance actually blocks curiosity, learning, growth, discovery, evolution, and ultimately mastery.

To learn from all the smart and capable people around us, to grow, and to discover, we must reveal our broad-spectrum incompetencies, we mush revel in them like pigs in mud. These are the places where the most growth is possible. All the time we spend barricaded inside our true competencies and/or telegraphing false competency, we are only delaying our eventual mastery.

Not only does arrogance make us extremely unpleasant to be around and to work with, it also prevents us from actually getting better at anything. Paradoxically, great competence develops only from the repeated recognition that we are always beginners, and from coming back again and again to the joyful, fresh aliveness of curiosity.

Written by

An engineer-psychologist focused on machine intelligence. I write from my own experience to support others in living more fulfilling lives |

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