I’m not smart enough to know how stupid I am …

I think that the computing field is one of the only fields where the statement “I’m not smart enough to know how stupid I am” is a genuine statement about how my job works. When I say that, I don’t mean it in the, say, Dunning-Krueger Effect where you’re too confident in your abilities because you don’t know enough to realize that there are things you’re missing. No, I mean it in a literal sense of actually not knowing enough to identify the stupidity that you’re really sure you’re engaging in.

Take my current situation. I’m working on a different product that I don’t know much about. I’m learning as I go. So in my usual method I’ve cobbled together some code from various areas that do mostly what I want to do and stuck them together to try to make part of it work. I understand enough of it — ie I’m smart enough — to have a vague idea of how things work and to conclude that this really should work. But it doesn’t. I’ve fixed the obviously stupid mistakes, and it still doesnt work. I’ve tried desperate combinations of things just in case I’m wrong, and it still hasn’t work. As far as I can see, it should work … but it doesn’t.

Now, I know — know mind you — that I’m just doing something stupid. I’m not passing information in right. I’m missing something. I have the wrong order of operations. At this point, it’s not a major algorithmic problem but almost certainly something minor and trivial. And I know that if I knew how this thing worked, I’d check over what I was doing and find that little issue quickly. But I don’t. I’m not smart enough to know how stupid I’m being here. Even though I’m really quite sure that I am, so it’s not a confidence issue. In the end, I’ve done something stupid but don’t know enough to figure out what that stupidity is.

I can’t think of too many other fields where that happens, mostly because in any other field where you could get into this state, you only find out that things aren’t working too late to spend hours figuring it out and retesting it. Like, say, building bridges. Although I’m open to the possibility of others.

Frustrating, but when you finally get smart enough to figure out how stupid you are it’s really quite satisfying. It takes a special kind of person — to paraphrase an Irregular Webcomic comic — to be so happy over discovering how much of an idiot you’ve been for the past week.


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