"Do, or do not. There is no try." - Yoda, Jedi master and wishful thinker

Yoda was wrong. There is definitely ‘try’ – unfortunately. We’ve looked at the dangers posed by the ‘perception-gap handicap’ between actual and perceived competence; thinking that one can do something one can’t, or thinking one knows something one doesn’t, can lead otherwise intelligent people into the jaws of grizzly bears. Living up to one’s full potential (or even just continuing to live) is not a simple task, but fortunately it’s a pretty simple equation. Getting things done, and having them be the right things, is all about Operational Competence (OPCOM):   

OPCOM = Actual Competence (AC) – Perception-Gap Handicap   

If this incredibly unscientific equation is to have any value, however, it needs to have some values. First and foremost, let’s establish a mechanism for assessing Actual Competence (AC). For our purposes, competence can be represented as a percentage – a competence of 100% is the unattainable ideal of perfection in the relevant area, somebody who reliably performs as well as is conceivably possible. Conversely, a score of 0% indicates an absolute lack of capacity to perform in a given area. In real-world terms, a healthy adult might possess a 95% competence at tying their shoes, and a 0% competence at elephant-juggling.  Between these two extremes, ability might be distributed accordingly:  

  Examples: Area / Scope
AC Level of Competence Knowledge of Physics / Human Knowledge Basketball / Human Ability Personal Hygiene / Human Practice
10% No Clue, No Chance Average adult human John McCain (old, slow) Divine in ‘Pink Flamingos’
20% Rank Amateur Average undergrad physics major Average adult human Brad Pitt in ‘Snatch’
30% Hack Average graduate physics major Barack Obama (solid fundamentals) Jeff Bridges in ‘The Big Lebowski’
40%-60% Zone of Professionalism Average professional physicist Matt Bonner (journeyman pro) Average adult human
70% Expert Artem Ponomarev, Physicist at NASA Johnson Space Center Shane Battier (aging All-Star) Christian Bale in ‘American Psycho’
80% Legend Willard S. Boyle, Nobel Laureate Kobe Bryant (lousy husband, good baller) Jack Nicholson in ‘As Good as it Gets’
90% All-Time Great Albert Einstein Michael Jordan Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Bubble Boy’


Note the importance of indicating the relevant scope of competence. For these examples, 50% competence represents a ‘generic professionalism’– a reasonable expectation for an average person with meaningful competence in this area. Thus, the average auto mechanic has a competence of 50% at fixing cars, while the average layman’s competence in the same field would be closer to 10%. So, what would happen if that layman decided to do an oil change? Disaster.   

Trust me.   

Let’s define the Perception-Gap Handicap that ended up costing me hundreds of dollars and my dignity. This handicap is clearly a function of the distance between AC and PEC; additionally, its magnitude will be influenced by just how lofty that PEC is (I was wrong to think I couldchange my oil, but at least I didn’t think I could fix the transmission). So, since we’re working with percentages, let’s assess the Perception-Gap Handicap as:   

|[(AC – PEC) * PEC]| / 100   

Which gives us an OPCOM formula of:   

OPCOM = AC – {|[(AC – PEC) * PEC]| / 100}   

Translation: The outcome of my efforts won’t just reflect my actual ability; it will suffer from any failure on my part to understand my own limitations. How much will it suffer? That depends. For example: say I enjoy playing basketball, and spend a lot of time playing pick-up at the YMCA (scope is amateur pick-up players). I’m quite the hotshot (AC=60), but I’m not quite as good as I think I am (PEC=70). Let’s do the math:   

OPCOM = AC – {|[(AC – PEC) * PEC]| / 100}   

= 60 – {|[(60 – 70) * 70]| / 100}   

= 60 – |(-10 * 70)| / 100   

= 60 – (700/100)   

= 60 – 7   

= 53   

So, my OPCOM is 53 – not bad, but I’d be better if I didn’t let an overinflated regard for my mad skillz lead me to jack up bad three-pointers and try to dunk in traffic. Still, I’m still an asset to my team. But what if the numbers were different? Let’s go back to my failed oil change. My youthful arrogance and instructions from the internet gave me a false sense of competence; I thought it would be easy. I thought that, within the scope of changing the oil on an old Chrysler Concorde, I (AC=10) could fully expect to do a successful, workmanlike job (PEC=50). Let’s see what happened:   

OPCOM = AC – {|[(AC – PEC) * PEC]| / 100}   

= 10 – {|[(10 – 50) * 50]| / 100}   

= 10 – |(-40 * 50)| / 100   

= 10 – (2000/100)   

= 10 – 20   

= -10   

That ‘-10’ – that negative OPCOM – is exactly what it sounds like. Costly failure, damage done without the goal being obtained. I thought I knew something I didn’t. That toxic confidence made me a toxicon, someone whose contribution to a process could only make things worse. I’ll say it again, to myself and to everybody: if you can’t do, don’t try. If you haven’t gone to med school and completed the relevant rotations, don’t go performing surgery on people. If you’ve spent the last six years on the couch, don’t try to run a marathon. The results will not be what you’re hoping for.   

NEXT: We examine what happens when millions of non-economists develop strong opinions about America’s fiscal policy, then vote.