Thursday, September 17, 2015

Mind the Halo

Engineers are famous for only wanting to work for engineers. They are not the only ones, we tend to recognise the competence of people who have gone down similar paths to us and done well. Warren Buffett talks about a 'Circle of Competence'. He tries to understand the specific area where a person has dug deep and he trusts their understanding of an issue more than he trusts his own. If you don't do this, there is always the risk of the 'Halo Effect'. Because you, or someone else, is really awesome at something, you assume that awesomeness is inherent to their essence. 'Wow, she is smart. I should trust her opinion on everything.'
Some things take a hell of a long time for the penny to drop. You have to deep soak. You have to really gain familiarity with base concepts before you get to connect them together. Like learning a language, each word initially exists in isolation but contains layers and layers of meaning. Eventually the words come together in an infinite number of combinations that release additional layers of meaning. It takes time. The idea that a smart person can apply their mind to any problem and solve it quickly is rubbish. Given time, effort, support and resources I do think we can chip away at areas of our ignorance. But that starts with recognising our ignorance.

Even when someone is particularly competent in a given thing, they may not be particularly good at understanding their competence. To achieve any given goal, we do lots of things. The fact that something works doesn't tell us why it works. Someone can be incredibly successful and not understand the reason for their success. They can credit things they did that didn't contribute to their success. Often you only figure out the reason when something changes that makes you unsuccessful. Even then, you may only realise the thing you stopped doing later. Or you may never realise it. We are good at learning from instant feedback. If there is a delay, we will have done lots of things since the problem.

Being able to identify problems is a skill in itself. Being able to communicate clearly is another skill. The world is complicated. We have to learn to rely on other people. We have to learn to trust. But we need to tread carefully, and with humility. Not only about our own competence or understanding of our competence, but also not overtrusting the competence of our heroes.
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