Any Dream Won't Do
Unconscious Incompetence and the Checklist Manifesto
“Knowing what you don’t know is more useful than being brilliant.”
One of my mentors is a professor of psychology and therapist; I learn something from her every time we speak. A number of years ago, while I was in rabbinical school and she was a doctoral student, she told me about an incredible research project she did on rabbis and pastoral care.
As a future mental health professional, my friend interviewed rabbis at all stages in their careers to see how much time they spent on pastoral counseling, how much training they received in counseling, and whether or not there was any correlation between the two. What she found was that rabbis who had more training in pastoral counseling, such as a degree in social work or significant hours of clinical pastoral education (CPE), spent less time on intensive counseling than rabbis with less training.
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What accounted for this counter-intuitive finding? Essentially, the rabbis with greater training were more knowledgeable about when they were not capable of appropriately helping someone, leading those rabbis to connect them with professionals with greater expertise (e.g. therapists, clinical social workers, etc.). In contrast, the rabbis with less training overestimated their capabilities, often assuming that they had more understanding than they actually possessed.
I share this not to pass judgment on my rabbinic colleagues; on the contrary, what this research reveals is that while it is important for effective professionals to acquire new kinds of knowledge, it’s also essential to remember that sometimes you can know just enough to potentially do great damage.
Friends, it is time to learn about the Dunning-Kruger Effect!
Why is Joseph a jerk?
In Parashat Vayeshev, we meet young Joseph, who is such a jerk that he inspired his own brothers to sell him into slavery while making Andrew Lloyd Webber millions of dollars in the process.
While the brothers resent that Jacob favors Joseph, Joseph’s dreams inspire even greater ire; in sharing these unflattering predictions with his brothers, Joseph fuels an already toxic family situation. But here’s the paradox: Joseph is always right! What lesson can we learn from someone getting punished for simply sharing predictions about the future that, it turns out, have a 100% chance of coming true?
In the end, Joseph’s knowledge is a double-edged sword. He has a little bit of knowledge, but is immature and overconfident, not realizing that it is God, not Joseph, who is ultimately responsible for what will happen. Until Joseph realizes that he is overestimating his inherent greatness and underestimating God’s providence, Joseph suffers the wrath of family members who hate him. Joseph makes horrific relational mistakes and is blind about how much his mistakes are due to his own ignorance.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is attributed to psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who found that when people are asked to self-evaluate their performance in certain areas, such as their sense of humor or command of grammar, participants consistently overestimated their abilities in a self-assessment as opposed to how they were rated by others.To put it another way, if you’ve ever heard about how most people consider themselves above-average drivers and most teachers consider themselves above-average teachers, you are witnessing the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action.
Given that there are billions of people in the world, if you are asked to guess where you fall in terms of intelligence, humor, or driving ability, the best answer is to say that you are “average.” But most people won’t go there…
Dunning and Kruger argue that people who have “miscalibrated" views about themselves “suffer a double burden”: People make mistakes because of their lack of knowledge, and their “incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.”In contrast, people who are genuine experts are reflective enough to constantly question their craft, and search for gaps in knowledge and seek to fill them.
I am always worried about falling victim to the Dunning-Kruger Effect as a rabbi.
The range of skills that rabbis are expected to know far exceeds what they can learn in any rabbinical school; this is not a criticism of rabbinic education (has ve-halila!), but it simply is not possible for a single person to become fully conversant in Talmud, Bible, Midrash, fundraising, management, pastoral care, philosophy, Zionism, staff supervision, marital counseling, conflict resolution…you get the idea. One reason the congregational rabbinate is particularly difficult is that congregants expect a single person to possess genuine expertise in a range of subjects, any one of which is impossible for one person to master. Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg captured this challenge when interviewed for The New Rabbi, a famous (or infamous?) book on rabbinic searches:
“Congregations all want to hire the same rabbi…They all want…someone who attends every meeting and is at his desk working until midnight, someone who is twenty-eight years old but has preached for thirty years, someone who has a burning desire to work with teenagers but spends all his time with senior citizens, basically someone who does everything well and will stay with the congregation forever.”
Of course, you could say that any professional school has a significant gap between what you learn in school and the things you will be expected to know over the course of your career; the rabbinate is not “unique,” in this sense. That said, since I am a rabbi, I’ve always worried that I have just enough knowledge of a subject to do incredible damage; my ignorance can become a major liability.
The Checklist Manifesto
I try not to get reflexively intimidated by someone’s resume, but I will confess that Dr. Atul Gawande makes that impossible. Currently, Dr. Gawande works in the Biden administration as Assistant Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development. But Gawande is also a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, a staff writer at The New Yorker, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” award winner, and an author of four bestselling books.
My favorite book by Gawande is The Checklist Manifesto, where he argues that we can increase our likelihood of success when we break down large problems into simple, component parts, create a checklist, and use the checklist to ensure that we “get the stupid stuff right.”Citing a paper on healthcare reform by Brenda Zimmerman and Sholom Glouberman, Gawande outlines three types of problems that people and organizations face: simple, complicated, and complex.
A simple problem is “baking a cake from a mix,” where learning a few basic techniques and following a recipe repeatedly leads to a successful result.
A complicated problem is like “sending a rocket to the moon” or developing a new surgical technique, where groups of people with specific expertise can develop a successful method for solving the problem that other teams with similar expertise can replicate.
Finally, a complex problem is like raising a child, where even successfully raising one child “does not guarantee success with the next child,” no matter how talented the parent (49).
As medicine gets more complicated, Gawande argues that there is an increasing need to recognize the potential for gaps in knowledge and limit the possibility of egregious mistakes by breakdown down critical procedures into component parts.
What does this have to do with the Dunning-Kruger effect? If an exceptionally well-trained doctor like Atul Gawande advocates for reducing errors by recognizing gaps in his own knowledge, how much more so could many professionals benefit from breaking down less-critical pieces of their own work into similar component parts? Leaders can be exceptionally well-trained and knowledgeable, while still requiring mechanisms to catch potential mistakes. As a bonus, Gawande has the data from Peter Pronovost to prove that checklists work.
In this sense, following a checklist is an act of humility, intentional tzimtzum, a rejection of the curse of thinking we know more than we do.
Meeting Overload is a Fixable Problem: Raise your hand if you think you have too few meetings at your job? Meeting overload is a major issue, but one most leaders do not want to touch.Here is an excellent study on how to fix it.
Conferences Want to Cure the Work-From-Home Blues: As a recovering conference planner, I cannot imagine how hard it would be to plan a major conference in a COVID-19 world; wouldn’t people rather just watch sessions on Zoom in their pajamas? If the trillion-dollar conference industry is learning strategies on how to bring people back together, all of us can learn something, as well.
What Do I Need To Know about Hebrew Israelites?: The recent incident with Kyrie Irving brought the Hebrew Israelites into focus for many American Jews. As unpleasant as it may be, read this thorough summary from the JTA on a dangerous hate group.
Do You Underestimate the Impact of Being Kind?: Our world could be a lot nicer, but living in a nasty world can lead many people to believe that kindness isn’t worth the trouble. Here’s a great study to change your mind.
How to Improve Autocorrect: OK, not every piece in this newsletter needs to be focused on high theory; some can just be practical ways to make yourself more efficient. This piece from Wired is a quick summary of how to make autocorrect on your phone less troublesome.
Much like Will McAvoy from The Newsroom, all of my life philosophies are based on broadway musicals.
David Dunning and Justin Kruger, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 77, Number 6 (2000), 1121-1134.
Stephen Fried, The New Rabbi (New York: Bantam, 2002), 33. A special thank you to Dr. Jack Wertheimer for reminding me of this quote in his article, “The Rabbi Crisis,” published in Commentary in 2003. For present-day colleagues, it’s eerie to read Dr. Wertheimer’s assessment of the job market for rabbis almost twenty years, given the current hiring shortage…
The next paragraph is reprinted, almost word-for-word, from an article I previously wrote on The Checklist Manifesto in eJewishPhilanthropy. I want to make sure that it is clear that I am reusing my own work.
Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009), 51.
Sholom Glouberman and Brenda Zimmerman, “Complicated and Complex Systems: What Would Successful Reform of Medicare Look Like?,” Discussion Paper No. 8 (Commission on the Future of Healthcare in Canada, 2002).
Atul Gawande, “The Checklist,” The New Yorker, 10 December 2007.
By the way, raise your hand if you think you are above average at facilitating meetings. See…it’s the Dunning-Kruger effect in action.