Living with Dunning-Kruger Syndrome
Isensed something was wrong with me when friends, family, colleagues and my therapist kept yelling, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
People close to me lovingly suggested I was delusional, impatient, irritable and I couldn’t seem to hear when they talked as I ignored and talked over them.
I also grew concerned that, in spite of my preternatural intellect and astonishing athletic skills, I hadn’t won a single Nobel Prize, MacArthur “genius” award, Olympic gold medal or community center tennis round-robin tournament against the very aged.
And where was my National Book Award even though I haven’t written a single book?
Panicked, I went to see a renowned doctor at a prestigious hospital. Since my intuitive medical knowledge and diagnostic skills were vastly superior to his, even with his fancy Ivy med school degree I don’t need, I advised him on what tests to run.
The doctor followed my instructions to the letter out of the deference I’ve earned. Also to bill my insurance $500,000 to put his daughter through another year at Sarah Lawrence College to deconstruct phallocratism and get no paying job ever.
My medical tests came back: Positive.
“Excellent!” I exclaimed, “Just as I knew beforehand.”
“No, son,” the doctor said sagaciously, even though he’s half my age and has one percent of my unerring wisdom, “I’m very sorry to inform you that you have a chronic condition.”
“What is it?” I demanded in a haughty way to put him in his inferior place.
“It’s called Dunning-Kruger Syndrome,” he said, bowing to my regal bearing. “You have DKS. You’re a DK.”
(He pronounced it “dick.”)
Dunning-Kruger, he explained (like I didn’t already know), is a condition, an effect really, that gives you more confidence than competence.
You think you’re smart. And your confidence — even overweening self-obsession and unearned pride—compensates for your lack of competence. Which is completely cool beans with awesome sauce, the kind of clever thing DKS say.
But you’re too stupid and self-absorbed to realize or accept how much you don’t know. And you don’t want to learn. Besides, experts are stupid. Knowledge just confuses your unerring gut clarity, the doctor droned in an expert way that lacked common sense.
Dr. Doogie continued: “We don’t know for sure what causes DKS. It might be genetic. It might be lifestyle choices. For instance, if you worked on Wall Street pre-2008 financial meltdown, the pre-Weinstein film industry, or in the current Trump White House. Or perhaps at Facebook, Uber or at tech startups that do amazing things that improve our lives yet make them worse.
“It also could your upbringing,” doctor furthered in squalid supplication. “Did your parents constantly tell you how great you are?”
(No, my powerful brain said to itself. My parents wouldn’t know greatness if it burned down their house to pocket the insurance money and had them committed and drugged to shut them up. Cold case so don’t say anything out loud.)
To be honest with my incredible self, I was stunned into rare silence to be told I’m a DK.
Typically I have something to say right away. It’s always pretty impressive and shuts people up and makes them walk away, speechless, schooled, beaten, and unfriending and hating me for my intelligent confidence. Not this time at first. But I quickly recovered.
“Doctor,” I asked with requisite condescension, “What can I do? Can I still live a normal life? Are people going to start patronizing me instead of vice versa?”
“Yes,” he wrung his hands sheepishly, “But the good news is, you won’t notice. You see ….”
“Huh? Whazzat?” I asked, snapping awake from a boredom nap and speaking in a sneering way the doctor was too clueless to notice.
“Ok, let me break this down so you can understand,” the doctor offered with utmost respect bordering on fealty.
“Let’s say you became the president of the United States,” he said, “because you were good at making billions going bankrupt building tasteless casino resorts with borrowed laundered money from a Russian dictator’s gangster oligarchs, who then, let’s put it this way, had your cabbage rolls in a pot of boiling borscht.
“Still with me? Get the metaphor? Never mind. Let’s say you were also unusually skilled at saying stuff that other DKS believed.
“But then as president, even though you had no national security experience whatsoever, and refused to listen to experts or read anything longer than Hannity’s chyron, you thought you were smarter about protecting America than five-star generals who spent their entire lives, and sent troops into battle, protecting America.
“Then you issued weird warnings about Poland and Moldova that sounded like talking points from the Russian dictator,” the doctor added. “And shut down the government to build a ridiculous wall on the Mexican border saying it was for national security.”
At that point, I completely lost track of what the ignorant Nobel Prize-winning Harvard doctor was saying.
Sounded like a bunch of mouth noise. So I tuned out and cut to the chase.
“Let’s cut to the chase,” I demanded. “Is there any cure for Domino-Krogers? Can I still live my normal astounding life?”
“Perhaps,” he said, figuratively licking my boots. “But you have a choice.”
“I can either write a prescription for medication that will put my daughter through her second year of private college. This time at Oberlin to explore the significance of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rappin’ interpretation of the Vagina Monologues, should he ever provide one, so my daughter definitely can get a job in experimental theater. I have mixed feelings about this.
“Or,” the doctor begged to please, “I can give you some therapeutic advice. But I need to warn you. The side effects can include greater delusion. Chronic irritation of friends, family and colleagues. Extended employment in lucrative management positions that are well beyond your talents or leadership abilities. You might even express what is called ‘bedroom braggadocio’ that your partner will find, how you say, is more hat than cattle.
“But it works. Many DKS with more confidence than competence swear by it and live impressively productive lives.”
“That sounds perfect — what’s it called?” I asked as if I didn’t already know and was just testing his knowledge.
Genuflecting in veneration, he replied, “Fake it ’til you make it.”
On a serious note, please join us for the first Dunning-Kruger 1K fun run this February 29th. Everyone’s a winner!
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer