Am I just like you?


Photo by Lanuiop

A few days ago, Bob Sutton wrote a post called “I am just like you“. In it, he describes some of his thoughts after reading David Dunning’s book: Self-Insight. While I haven’t read the book (Yet! Just added it to my ever-growing Amazon wish-list), I am not sure I agree with Sutton’s thoughts. Here is what I perceive to be the gist of his post:

Dunning points out that a host of studies show that one major impediment to self-awareness is that people see themselves as unique — usually as superior to others —  when that actually are  not: as more ethical, emotionally complex, skilled, and so on…

The implication, however, that if we assume “I am just like you” rather than “I am special and different,” or even that “we are all the same,” we might make better decisions and learn at others’ expense rather than our own strikes me as a lesson that could be quite valuable.  For example, I’ve been rather obsessed about the virtues and drawback of learning from others mistakes rather than your own (see this post on Randy Komisar and Eleanor Roosevelt), as this question has huge implications about how to teach people new skills and the best way to develop competent and caring human-beings.

While I agree with the basic assumption that we should get to know ourselves better and that we should develop a better understanding of our abilities and strengths, I am not sure the solution could be found in “I am just like you” thinking. Actually, I don’t see the difference between that kind of thinking and “we are all the same” thinking. I wrote something similar in my e-book:

Equality is an important concept in many aspects of life, especially in the legal field, as I know so well. But in real life, because equality is intertwined into our thinking DNA it is used in ways that many times hinders excellence. Earlier I mentioned Ken Robinson‘s inspiring speech regarding creativity and education. In it he says that standard and equal education for everyone is not necessarily good because it “misses” people’s strengths. All men are not born equal. Whoever tells you that is lying. All man should deserve an equal opportunity to excel, to be happy and to use their comparative advantage. That is the truth. And there is a big difference between the two. Nobody can be good at everything. People who truly excel do it by recognizing their comparative advantage, maximizing it and letting other people do what they are better at than them.

I do not disagree that people have a tendency to be over optimistic about their abilities. There is ample research to support that. I am just not sure that the way to deal with that problem (if we assume it is a problem) is to reinforce the wrong assumption that we are in fact just like each other. I think this is a dangerous line of thinking for individuals and managers. The real value is found in realizing the actual differences and respecting them. By realizing who we are and embracing it, we could reach much more than by deluding ourselves about our equality or superiority.



2 Responses to “Am I just like you?”

  1. Rishi Says:

    The problem with provding varied education based on the unique talents or abilities of individual students is that it is notoriously difficult to determine those talents early on, and ‘ability’, ‘talent’ etc are always suspiciously abundant in schools in high socioeconomic areas. Those with privelage will no doubt be tempted to invoke some variation of the (discredited) Social Darwinistic theory, but this is generally self serving and delusional in itself.

    Of course we are all different, and we all have varied innate talents, but sadly society and employers tend to value a fairly narrow cross-section of these talents.

  2. sherfelad Says:

    Hey Rishi,
    I am sure I agree that it is not possible to include education based on unique talents. We should trust people to be able to understand themselves, given the right tools and support. Of course, we need to give opportunity for everyone to try everything… but that is not the same as treating everybody the same.
    The point is of course, trying to understand how people are different and how to use that difference in order to improve individual and group performance. I find that sometimes the problems are in our own expectations of what should be, because of the way society is set up and what it communicates to us (what constitutes success, happiness and so forth).
    There is a change starting with Gen-Y and other modern phenomena, but it will take time for it to mature.
    Thanks. Hope to see more of your comments on the blog!

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