It doesn't take much experience of the world of work to figure out that it's not always the most competent people who rise to the top. Nor is the fact that someone has a strong opinion on a subject a reliable indicator that they know anything much about it.

In short, blowhards often manage to sell themselves as skilled, and overconfidence is frequently rewarded. (If you doubt the evidence of your own eyes on this point, there's plenty of scientific evidence to back it up.)

So how can you avoid being taken in by the loud and self-assured, especially when you're not an expert in a field yourself? What are the best ways to quickly and accurately sort the genuinely competent from the merely confident?

Writing on Quora recently, Shane Parrish, the entrepreneur and thinker behind the Farnam Street blog, offered a list of helpful suggestions he has compiled over the years. With these tricks, he claims, you can learn "how to separate the copycats and mimics from the real deal." Here they are:

  1. Elon Musk on How to Tell if People Are Lying: "When I interview someone ... [I] ask them to tell me about the problems they worked on and how they solved them. And if someone was really the person that solved it, they will be able to answer at multiple levels--they will be able to go down to the brass tacks. And if they weren't, they'll get stuck. And then you can say, 'oh this person was not really the person who solved it because anyone who struggles hard with a problem never forgets it.'"
  2. Consider the time scales they operate under. The shorter the axis they work on, the more likely they are a mimic.
  3. They're able to delay gratification (drugs, sex, etc.).
  4. They can simplify and deep dive.
  5. They have the ability to walk you through things step by step, without requiring great leaps.
  6. They spend a lot of time reading.
  7. Intelligent people normally get excited when you ask them why or how, whereas mimics normally get frustrated.
  8. Look at whom they hang around with.
  9. They can argue the other side of an idea better than the people who disagree with them.
  10. They know how to focus and typically create large chunks of time.
  11. They don't waste a lot of time.
  12. They've failed.

What are your own tricks and tells to sort the genuinely smart from the merely overconfident?

Published on: Jan 26, 2017
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