I Don't Know. Yeah, I Said It.

A great deal - if not the majority - of attention around Dunning-Kruger is paid to the less-informed end of the spectrum. I find this not terribly fair, from the insight-providing comfort of the hammock by the pool on this cool, non-dive morning. For anyone who has been living under a rock for the past 5-years or so, as the theory has gotten a great deal of popular coverage, the shortest form of Dunning-Kruger is: People who know little about a subject tend to over-estimate their knowledge/abilities regarding that subject, while people who know a great deal tend to under-estimate. For much more detail on the theory go to THIS excellent post by Gareth Lock of The Human Diver. It’s sometimes further compressed into “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Of course this statement is both fair and true; one oughtn't be too harsh on someone for not knowing something. But what about the “upper” end of the spectrum? The people who put a ton of time and energy and attention into what they do, but under-estimate themselves because of it? That can be a harsh place, too, although in a very different way. From a community standpoint there’s this constant assumption of, “Well, they know everything,” which certain sorts of people feel pressure to live up to. For some reason the phrase, “I don’t know,” has a stigma attached. Which is dumb. No one knows everything. For a fun example of this, ask a physicist why time moves in only one direction. Odds are they’re going to lead with, “Well… to the best of our understanding…” as they start to sweat. What can be even more difficult (and the point, if one might be excavated from this morning’s rambling) is the pressure people put on themselves and the community as they get more knowledgeable or experienced at a thing. Which is just as unfair as beating up on someone else for not know it. I’m going to make the assumption that most of the folks who bother to read my codswallop are fairly experienced divers or are working towards it (or, in more tragic cases, are non-divers sitting on the bog having accidentally hit “... see more” on my post just before the wifi gave out, leaving them nothing else to read). So let’s talk about when you first started diving versus now. One of those first tropical dive charters, the DM gave you about 30lbs of lead, which you put in your brand-new, weight-integrated BCD. You had to use those weird, non-ditchable weight pockets near the shoulders to fit it all in. You manage to stop your descent before you land on the reef and don’t touch anything through the dive. You manage to stay close to your buddy and the DM. Easily wait through a fifteen-ish foot safety stop holding on to the anchor line. Even get back on the boat with more than 500psi. How was your trim on that dive? Did you really need 30lbs to get you down in a 3mm wetsuit? Were you actually neutral, or did you need to kick yourself sore to maintain depth? You didn’t touch anything with your hands… but can you honestly say you’ve never accidentally kicked a sea-fan? Would you have even noticed? Let’s jump to now. You’re a better diver, aren’t you? No, you’re probably not an expert. Maybe not quite where you want to be. You’re definitely not perfect, no one is. But you work on it; you grow and learn and progress. Even though, frustratingly, as you do so you start to recognise how much more there is to work on. Like every answer presents six new questions. That’s the crux of Dunning-Kruger on the more-informed/experienced end of the scale. You used to not know what you didn’t know - now you have the tools to know what you don’t know. Enough tools, even, to recognise how much there is that you still don't yet know what you don't know. Sometimes like climbing an actual M.C. Escher staircase while drunk. As maddening as all that can be, we should try to let it go. Be kind to yourself about it. When you were that diver who fell into the Caribbean all that time ago you thought you were doing great, didn’t you? But dive by dive, class by class, conversation by conversation, ever so slowly you got better. Nowadays when you feel your fin-tip so much as brush the wall of the cave or wreck or a sea-fan you feel like a piece of shit for the rest of the dive. When you catch something dangling out of your shadow's pocket you get it tidied up before (you hope) anyone else sees it. For some reason you’ve been nagged by the feeling this whole dive that there is definitely some little bit too much gas in your drysuit that just won’t fucking come out!!! You notice things which eluded you before, or which you didn’t even know were things as that diver you were. A bit ago I was enjoying a dive with an excellent teammate… who was very obviously NOT enjoying the dive. Sidemount with a single stage. I had suggested something I’ve been playing with for a while: reconfiguring balanced weighting by about 2lbs just slightly right of centre. This would be enough to offset the annoying tilt to the left one gets wearing a full stage on that side, but be insignificant enough to not notice once that third bottle is removed. Here is this normally balanced, stable, controlled, all-around excellent diver now broadcasting, “I HATE EVERYTHING IN THE GODDAMN WORLD!” through the water. What was supposed to have increased stability looked like the balance equivalent of one of those people who spins plates on sticks being attacked by Leatherface. The stage bottle drop was such an action-packed fight scene that it should have had theme music of its own. The battle ended in victory, with the tank clipped to the line and… All at once the world was quiet again. Everyone was calm, still, and flat as normal, looking at each other all, “What in the hell was that about?” As the team started on I glanced up and saw it. Made sense what had happened in a flash. When looking at the harness, splayed out in front of you on the bench, to move the weight, you'd say, “OK, move this over here to my right…” which is your left when you’re wearing it.


A single 2lbs weight had pissed in our buddy’s guacamole. It was on the same side as the stage. Exacerbating what is normally just a mildly irritating list into a full-on balance issue. A diver who is used to constantly kicking to maintain depth doesn’t know what real neutral buoyancy feels like. A diver who has never focused on staying flat in the water doesn’t know what absolute trim feels like. They don’t know what they don’t know. As such, probably would have never noticed any issue whatsoever. Whereas our buddy above, a highly-educated, trained, and experienced diver, has the wherewithal to notice that something is eddying the normal flow of things. Plagued by a question like, “Why can’t I hold perfectly still like usual?” Which you are only informed enough to ask if you’re capable of holding perfectly still in the first place. Something is wrong… but you don’t know what. You know what you don’t know. And this, I offer, is a strength, not a shortcoming. Why I say be kind to yourself in these circumstances. It means you are getting better, learning more, increasing capability to open your awareness to notice more. It means you’re growing.


Strength, though it may be, it also places us at the feet of the harsh, potentially dangerous, fiend of underestimating one's abilities. In noticing more, we run the risk of noticing less.

If you are so distractedly beating yourself up over how your knee brushed something 10 minutes ago, or how your SPG got hung up on the line, or can't figure out why your kick feels weird today... how much attention are you currently paying to your buddies? Did you notice that they just swam past a T in the cave without seeing it? And so did you. Perhaps, as we grow, if we stay kinder to ourselves - accepting that we’re gonna have off days, or that someone else might know something better or different, or that there will always be things that we don’t know - we can stay more in the moment. And, consequently, stay safer. I know there's some analogy about forests and trees that should apply here, but I'm a diver, not a hiker. Broader scale: Perhaps if we're kinder to ourselves about our own imperfections we could start to deflate the flawed concept that DMs, or instructors, or whoever are expected to be perfect. We could consult our experts instead of idealising them. Maybe, just maybe, we could pull a little oxygen out of the more ego-driven rooms in our community house. Who actually cares where you fall on the silly Dunning-Kruger graph, anyway? It’s just diving. “Everyone comes back safe” is the only true rule. Otherwise, you really are allowed to say, “I don’t know."


I mean… not when asked a question like, “After you stabbed him with your dive knife, what did you do with your buddy’s body?” In those circumstances I would urge full cooperation, you murderous psychopath. (Sorry, I’ve been watching a lot of Law & Order recently.)


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