Why people think you’re better than you are

I’ve heard it many times:

“You’re paintings are so good. Why don’t you do it for a living?”

“These are amazing, they should be in a gallery.”

“You could sell that for thousands.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m flattered to hear things like that, but I know that the reason these people think my paintings are so good is that they aren’t painters themselves.

This isn’t just me being modest either. I know I may have a tendency to be over-critical of my own work, as many people do who are trying to master a skill, but I also know my shortcomings, and they are the things that non-painters probably wouldn’t recognise.

It’s related to a cognitive phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This is where unskilled individuals rate their ability consistently higher than it actually is.

I believe that unskilled painters may also rate an amateur painter’s skill as higher than it is in reality, because they don’t have the experience to know that the artist still has so much more to learn. They are seeing things from a different frame of reference.

This may also be the reason that so many untalented people apply for talent shows like X-Factor, only to be humiliated, because their friends and family have always told them what an amazing singer they are.

The converse also applies with the Dunning-Kruger effect – very skilled individuals tend to rate their skill level as lower than it really is, wrongly assuming that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others. This is something I experienced when I spent three years learning Chinese. As I became more fluent, I started to wrongly believe that beginners would be able to understand much more than they actually could.

I think I probably suffer from this in painting too (not that I’m highly skilled), but I’m probably better than I think I am. My advantage is that I’m aware of this phenomenon, so I can account for it when trying to judge my own ability.

I know that I probably underestimate my own skill, and others probably overestimate it. I guess the truth lies somewhere inbetween.

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