Ba(n)d Driving and My Illusory Inferiority Complex


I willingly admit (and my wife will attest to the fact) that I am a bad driver. It’s not that I lack the requisite skills, it’s that I lack the necessary attention span. So much to see and look at as I cruise down the road…. RED LIGHT! 

Apparently, my willingness to acknowledge this shortcoming puts me among the small minority of Americans.

In a famous study conducted in the 1980’s, researchers asked American motorists to rate their driving skills. An astonishing 90% of people responded that they were "above average drivers", which as you know is a mathematical impossibility. With the mean average being 50%, this meant that 40% of respondents were either blissfully unaware of their lack of skill or just outright lying.

This act of self-deception is not limited to specific skills and abilities, as similar self-congratulatory results have been found in many other arenas and professions, including education. In a recent study, and at a prominent state college, when professors were asked about their classroom performance more than ninety percent of faculty respondents considered themselves "above-average" in the classroom.

Wait, if asked the same question, how would I have answered? How would you? I think we both know the answer to those questions.


What is the reason/rationale behind the cognitive disconnect? Arrogance? Pride? Ignorance? How did we get to a point where we have become hyper-critical of others while being blind to our own inadequacies?

So what brings our illusive superiority/inferiority? Researchers determined that there were four reasons why someone’s perception of their skills might not match their actual skill in both good and bad ways. They are:

1. Your personality. People tend to be overconfident of skills that reflect one’s underlying personality or character. For instance, if you are naturally outgoing and gregarious, you might have an inflated sense of your ability to tell a joke or make a friend.

2. Your gender. People tend to have a misguided perception of their skill sets when it comes to tasks typically associated with gender, i.e., women tended to over inflate their ability to cook a fine meal, while most men saw themselves as being better able than others to fend off a Zombie apocalypse (both of these are real examples from the study)

3. Your measurement rubric. If the evaluation of the skill set was more subjective (such as being a good friend), they rated themselves higher than if the evaluation was objective (calling or writing your friends regularly).

4. Your experience. The greater the level of experience someone has, the more likely they were to be over-confident.

It turns out that the confluence of persona, gender, measurement, and experience determines how we feel about not just the task, but how we feel about ourselves as well. Scientists believe that as an act of self-preservation most people will seek areas in which we are comfortable in our persona, role, assessment, and experience.

I know this to be true of myself.

As I teacher I believed in myself and what I was doing but was I truly pushing myself. My school(s), were low SES (socioeconomic status), but that was my personality. I was an authoritarian teacher, but that is my personality. My accolades were aplenty, but to be clear, I knew how to choose literature that would be received and rewarded well. This is what I learned from my experiences.

To any and all who surveyed the landscape, it appeared I was the captain of my ship, but secretly wondering how I had managed not to hit an iceberg after all of this time.

Whether out of vanity or embarrassment, I kept my weaknesses hidden and my blindspots covered. I worried about being found out for the “hack” of a conductor I secretly believed I was. I may have been the captain, but I wasn’t charting a course in untamed waters, but rather in waters I knew where the dangers might lie. Social scientists would suggest that I am not alone in these behaviors.

But as music teachers we cannot completely escape the exposure that comes with our weaknesses. Our professional world cannot be completely filled with things that match our natural personals. We must deal with the certain and uncertain. And our work is measured by both objective (ratings/scores) and subjective (artistic) ways of making art. And while each day has its rituals and routines, it is often accompanied by the unpleasant and unexpected.

So there we are, bouncing in-between the bi-polar status of illusory superiority and inferiority, and just trying to balance it all in some manageable and meaningful way.

No matter how hard I put on the “front” of being the man & musician in-charge, I was often secretly just hoping that nobody would notice, that in some situations, the man was nothing more than a scared little boy.

It is part of our human nature and our profession to be self congratulatory and self loathing from time to time. Just remember, it’s okay not to be as confident as you appear, because I promise that you are not as inferior as you sometimes think you are.

We are all perfectly perfect just as we are. We are also all perfectly imperfect just as we are. It just depends on the circumstances.

And remember to wear your seatbelt when I’m driving.

Have a great week.