Do you have any idea what you're doing?

Date February 16, 2010

Me neither, usually.

As it turns out, someone else noticed, too. I found a very insightful column written by Steve Schwartz, called No One Knows What the F%#* They're Doing. I feel like I should warn you...the language in that article is a bit strong...consistently strong. "Shit" is used 24 times, as far as my word search can tell, but that's not counting the many graphics. I wouldn't normally link to gratuitous language, especially when it's completely useless, but the actual content of the entry is insightful.

The premise is that, when it comes to knowledge, there are three categories. There are things you know. There are things you know that you don't know. And then there are things that you don't know that you don't know. The third type is by far the biggest category, and it's by far the most dangerous.

Steve reasons that while structured education's stated goal is to increase our direct knowledge, i.e. things we know, the real goal is to eliminate things from the third category.

Near the end of the entry, he makes reference to one of favorite (and least favorite, at the same time) cognitive biases, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which stated simply says that people who are incompetent don't know it. Read the wiki entry for that, and then mull over in your mind the logical paradox you enter into.

I flip flop back and forth between knowing that I'm incompetent and thinking that I'm awesome. I'm aware of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. What does that say about me?

Someone asked me, not too long ago, how my knowledge in Linux Administration rated. I said 'expert'. Then I punched myself, because I'm an idiot. Not because I can't administer a linux machine, but because 'expert'? Really? Why would I even say that, when I know that's not the truth? I'm not a liar, but for a split second, I was an incompetent idiot. Then I immediately gained competency (or at least clarity). That's a very brief window in which a lot of damage could have been done.

Larry Wall says that hubris is one of the virtues of a programmer. I've sometimes thought about the role of hubris in system administration, too. Generally, I think it's a pretty common side effect of playing God with the infrastructure. I suspect it's more common in smaller companies than larger companies, but then I've got some cognitive bias of my own going on there.

  • http://rambleon.org/ Jason Young

    I think in a way I'm very glad to be in this business. It's certainly not the stress - or the enforced bipolarization of one's own abilities - but the fact that as you learn more - it's that you realize more how little you really know. Oddly comforting that enforced humility of solving some of the most difficult technical challenges in one moment to then suddenly realizing you just typed \rm -rf in the wrong directory. Then realizing that, why yes, my restores are working properly - and vaguely feeling comforted again.

    Just don't ever call yourself a "guru" I have an ongoing believe that People that call themselves gurus, aren't.

  • Alvin S

    Yes, I agree, the more experience I gain in IT, the more I realize how limited my knowledge and skills are.

    I think it was Joel Spolsky that defined an expert as someone who doesnt necessarily know the right answers, but rather, someone who knows the right questions.

  • http://thenonapeptide.blogspot.com/ Wesley “Nonapeptide”

    I vacillate between knowing I suck at being a SysAdmin to thinking I really, really suck at being a SysAdmin. So I guess I'm okay? Oh wait, because I just said that I'm really not.

  • http://saintaardvarkthecarpeted.com/blog Saint Aardvark the Carpeted

    Heh. That's, like, my LIFE, man.

  • Anthony

    There is in fact a 4th category - "Things you think you know that you actually don't"

  • http://thenonapeptide.blogspot.com/ Wesley “Nonapeptide”

    @Anthony, I think that would be a subcategory of "Things you don't know you don't know"

  • Anthony

    @Wesley - I suppose you could categorize it that way. However something that you think you know about that you in fact are wrong about is much more dangerous than something you don't know about at all.

  • http://thenonapeptide.blogspot.com/ Wesley “Nonapeptide”

    @Anthony: Wouldn't "something that you think you know about that you in fact are wrong about" be something that you don't know that you don't know? If you don't know that you don't know then by deduction you think you know when you really don't know and thus it's a part of the group of “Things you think you know that you actually don’t” that you mentioned in your first comment. "Who's on first? What!" =)

  • http://thenonapeptide.blogspot.com/ Wesley “Nonapeptide”

    Apparently I don't have enough work to do because I just had a nearly spontaneous excuse for a limerick come to my mind as a result of trying to compose my last comment and make sure it was somewhere within the bounds of coherency:

    There once was a man who knew not
    That he didn't know what was not known
    Students would show him
    All that was unknow-en
    To which he'd shout out "I know!"

    Send all flames and proofs that this is not a real limerick to /dev/null =)

  • Anthony

    @Wesley - Lol this is fun.

    However in all seriousness, the distinction I'm thinking about is this: Something that you don't know that you don't know, could be something that you don't even know exists - in which case you're not likely to try to do anything with it. However something that you think you know that you in fact don't know, is something you ARE going to mess with thinking you know what you're doing, and are likely to F*!? up.

    p.s What was on 2nd.

  • John M

    @Wesley: Awesome Limerick! Can I quote you? :-)

    @Anthony: Story of our lives, isn't it?

    p.p.s. : I don't know is on third.

  • http://thenonapeptide.blogspot.com/ Wesley “Nonapeptide”

    @Anthony: I getcha now.

    @John M: Yes you may quote me. I hereby GPLv2 my limerick. Why? Because! No wait, those are outfielders. =)

  • rpetre

    That's why I dread showing up at an interview with people that don't know me already: Given any product or technology named X, I can't honestly say anymore that I know X, since I know there's so much about X I don't know.

    Just found a resume from 8 years ago. Man, how smart I was back then :)

  • Jared Brothers

    Considered as a truth tables, this should be simple, but the interpretation gets into critical theory.

    Known knowns.
    Known unknowns.
    Unknown unknowns.
    *Unknown knowns*.

    Things that you don't even know that you know are your unwritten rules, ideologies, superstitions, brand loyalties, and other worst-practices.

    Here is an old article on this with respect to foreign policy by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek: http://www.lacan.com/zizekempty.htm