Conscious Incompetence

I like thinking and talking about stuff, but when try to I do so I often suspect that I don’t know enough to say something genuinely interesting. It’s not impostor syndrome (though I totally suffer from that). It’s a fear that if I talk about a complex subject that I don’t fully understand then I will come across as foolish (and therefore provide no benefit) to someone who knows it better. I’ve experienced this from the other side: seeing people write naïve things that aren’t even wrong about how software development works.

There are a few topics that I’m comfortable discussing because I know my limits in them:

  • Computer science and software development
  • Game design and development
  • Creative writing
  • Social justice, maybe?
  • Cooking

While there are plenty of topics that I’m sure I don’t know much about (beekeeping), there are a few that I consistently hesitate to write about for fear of creating a naïve argument. Some examples are Discordianism (due to my uncertainty with postmodernism and theology), economics, and narrative. I’m not even sure where to start to learn more; I don’t have much time for learning outside my focus fields, and I don’t even know enough to optimize that time. I don’t want to waste time reading a bunch of poorly-written texts before I gain enough understanding to tell what the good sources are.

I’m part of a mailing list that deals with art in games, and I often feel like one of the least-informed members. There are academics with years of theoretical underpinnings talking about complex things and I hesitate to spend an hour crafting what I think is insight only to discover that I’ve wasted the time and attention of an expert who recognizes my thoughts as that of an underinformed beginner.

Short of learning more (which I’m trying to do, despite the time it takes), I’m not sure how to deal with this dilemma. Any advice? How do you know when you’re well-informed enough to discuss something outside of your comfort zone?

2 thoughts on “Conscious Incompetence

  1. You could try posing an argument as a question, and then you mightn’t feel as uncomfortable expressing it because you’re not asserting it as Truth, and you’re inviting discussion.

  2. Well, the more you know, the more you realise how little you know… I agree with the above poster about camouflaging in questions, but would like to note that a naive statement is OK, too. It might give the expert an unexpected “I never knew people could see it that way!” moment (or, less flatteringly for you, an example of “How on Earth could anyone think that?!” – the particulars depend on the expert, an insight for one is a sore point and mother of flamewars for another, one just can’t win them all).

    What to do about action, that’s what I want to know. After all, asking a question, one feels a fool for a minute (vs being a fool forever)… Humiliation is the worst that can happen while asking, usually. Doing something wrong, however, is worse – I feel inadequate, knowing that person N would’ve done the job in half the time and wouldn’t’ve broken it . Or I feel that I can’t do it properly, because I know the ideal way to do the task – and it’s beyond my ability. Sadly, knowing that many people ignore 90% of those ideal’s guidelines and make more money than me doesn’t stop the little voice saying “Don’t stoop so low, make it perfect or don’t touch it at all! Especially if you might break it!”

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