“I know everything!” – Charlotte, age 3 1/2

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

She knows her colors, her ABCs and can count to ten – what else is there to know?

This is my grand daughter, but it might be any three year old as they rapidly master almost any topic or skill. Learning is what kids do whether it be walking, adding to their vocabulary or learning to use a fork. Reading, conversing with adults, reacting to animals or making sense of the world around them, to a child of that age, it is all part of the package of life.

School may, or may not facilitate learning, but learning, for most of us, is a continuing process whether we pursue formal learning or learn from life’s experiences directly.

We may smile at the naiveté of a child’s confidence in their presumption of knowledge, but an adult with that same assurance about what they believe they know can be frightening – especially if that person is your boss or in any position of authority.


Television series (like The Office) or cartoon strips (like Dilbert) bank on nitwit bosses who think they are experts on everything.

To clarify, there is a difference between being stupid and being ignorant. To be stupid is to lack reason or intelligence. To be ignorant is to lack experience or information. A child is by definition ignorant, but may be far from stupid.

As Ben Franklin put it “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.

And as you may have noticed, there are many who seem eager to “work hard” to remain stupid.

And yes, there is a term for this concept of false confidence and the refusal to learn from life’s experiences or take responsibility for one’s gaps in knowledge; it is the Dunning–Kruger effect.

This is one of those principles that crosses every boundary and discipline and suits those who are least competent at a task who consistently – and -  incorrectly rate themselves as high-performers because they are too ignorant to know any better.

A few years ago, for example, there was a survey of automobile drivers, some with impeccable driving records, some with extensive moving violations.  (1*)

Almost 90% of those surveyed considered themselves “better than average drivers” – even those with multiple moving violations. In other words, it is those pesky “other drivers” that cause all the accidents.

As with many areas of life, what we think we know may have very little correlation to how others would measure our level of expertise.

For whatever reason, it has taken me many years to learn the somewhat obvious life lesson that certainty may have little to no correlation to actual knowledge or skill.

Have you ever known anyone who “knows all about computers”?

Or how about the (usually young) man who “knows all about women”?

To put it mildly, their confidence is not a reliable indicator of their actual ability – and you would be wise to decline their “help”.

But, for most of them that I have known, no disaster will convince them that they were mistaken.

They, in their own minds at least, are still the experts (because they say so) and any failure is an exception or someone else’s fault.

They don’t learn from their mistakes – they blame them on someone else or deny that they even happened.

You can see very quickly how a boss or leader with this tendency can be a hazard to safety, success or even survival.

In business, military service or politics, these characteristics can lead to disaster.

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”  - Alexander Pope

A current political, one size-fits-all problem solving philosophy has emerged recently.  (2*)  This will fit any situation no matter how serious, how large or how trivial.

1. Deny
2. Deflect
3. Delay
4. Demean

The premise is very simple – deny responsibility and accountability at every level.

Deflect attention to anyone or anything else, stall until either your adversary wears down or someone rescues you or changes the subject. And if all else fails, though it probably won’t, mock everyone – even those on your side. Confusion is a great smokescreen.

No one may trust you or want to do business with you – or even be your neighbor – but for the moment, you get what you want – and you control the situation.

You might leave a trail of destruction and chaos in your wake, but no one forgets your name.

And it is always those pesky “other people” that cause all of your problems.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst 
Are full of passionate intensity. - William Butler Yeats 

There is nothing new about all this. Ancient Greek mythology uses the term “hubris” to describe the greatest crime or character flaw that demands a severe – and inescapable -  divine punishment. Generally, the Greek idea of hubris is that a character in an authoritative position becomes so proud of his exceptional qualities that he forms a delusion that he is equal to gods, and eventually he tries to defy the gods and his fate.

Aristotle believed that people indulge in crimes like sexual misconduct and mistreating or publicly berating others only to fulfill their basic – and unquenchable- desire to make themselves feel superior to others.

Ignorant, vain and oblivious political leaders have plagued human history for centuries if not millennia. And their blight on history can last for generations.

One of the most notable is Kaiser Wilhelm II, who ruled Germany from 1888 to 1918, and had an unrelenting talent for causing outrage. He had a bad temper, was easily distracted and was eager to go to war (World War I) out of pure pride, boredom and personal vengeance.  (3*)

The Bible uses the term arrogance to describe this fulmination of pride, rebellion and self-destructiveness.

I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech.  – Proverbs 8:13

Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. – Proverbs 16:18

Children may be confident – but rarely, if ever arrogant. They know they are learning and they take it as a given that they will continue learning.

It is only when we have decided to stop learning, when we believe that we know it all, that trouble is certain.

“Those people who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.”   - Isaac Asimov


(1*)   Details here – http://moderndriver.org/driving-and-the-dunning-kruger-effect/ or here https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3835346/

(2*)   You can see variations on this theme here – https://medium.com/@rkitchen/deny-deflect-distance-7e98e07dc723.

(3*)    https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/what-happens-when-a-bad-tempered-distractible-doofus-runs-an-empire? He was Queen Victoria’s first grandchild.