About a year back, I floated the idea of things that are “exactly good enough to suck.” Things that fall into this category—writing, music, art, whatever—are just barely of sufficient quality to get judged by the appropriate “serious” standard (professional journalism, a “real” band), by which standard they fail miserably. If they were only slightly worse, they’d be judged by the more forgiving standards applicable to talented amateurs, and come off quite well.
Well, a commenter on a post below mentions the Dunning-Kruger effect, which I suspect may at least in part be related to a kind of corollary idea. The Dunning-Kruger effect, as my commenter summarizes it, refers to the phenomenon the eponymous social scientists discovered whereby
people who were incompetent (falling into the bottom quartile) on humor, grammar and reasoning vastly overestimated their competence (mean assessment of competence level was 62nd percentile), but also did not recognize skill in others and revise their view of their own competence.
Here’s one story about why this might be the case—I’d have to look a little more closely at the distribution of self-assessment to know whether it’s true. Just anecdotally, genuinely smart and competent people tend not to be enormously impressed with their own intelligence or competence, not because they’re intrinsically humble, but because they end up surrounded by other equally (or, at any rate, variously and complementarily) smart, competent people, who provide the relevant yardstick. As Robert Nozick once put it, very few of us think: “Yeah, I’m pretty good for a primate; I can use tools and have mastered a natural language.”
Folks at the high end of mediocrity—the big fish in the shallow pond—look around and conclude they’re incredibly special. Probably the same obtains down the scale. It’s a pretty good rule of thumb that if you think you’re the smartest person you know (and not a Nobel Laureate), you’re probably just not quite sharp enough to have brighter friends. In other words: just short of good-enough-to-suck. Of course, we can tell an equally plausible story that works the other way around: The lower you are in your relevant peer-group ladder, the more uncomfortable an accurate self-assessment is, whereas the second- or third-best along some dimension can be realistic about not being the absolute tops without feeling too bad about it.
In all its incarnations, the good-enough-to-suck effect depends on their being at least moderately sharp boundaries between the relevant domains. Sometimes these exist just as a function of what it means to have a reasonably cohesive professional or social group. Sometimes it’s because certain domains of knowledge or associated standards of quality exert their own sort of gravitational effect once they’ve first “clicked.” (Try not to see these strings of letters as words.) Whatever the reason, it’s hard not regard this phenomenon as sort of perverse—this roller coaster self-image is forced to ride
We can find the same principle at work on the consumption side of “good enough to suck” as well—which may figure into the inability to assess competence in others. Consider, for example, the consumer of music or movies who’s forever harping on how the majority of (top-40 radio hits) / (major studio blockbusters) are garbage. This is not wrong, certainly, but to obsess over it is to declare that your taste is not quite good enough for you to have long ago stopped noticing either category. Sure, TRL plays a lot of pap, but in 2008, given the glut of other options, why is anybody over the age of twelve who cares about music even aware of what’s being played on TRL?
Of course, as you round that corner, you’re hit with the uncomfortable realization that, in fact, you don’t know all that much about really good art/music/movies/whatever after all. Your taste has just become exactly good enough to suck, relative to the new domain. At which point it may occur to you, still more uncomfortably, that for precisely this reason you can’t be sure how many more such corners you’ve yet to round. Certainly I’ve had this experience: I considered myself something of a rock nerd, until I dated a real rock nerd and realized I didn’t have the first idea about 90 percent of the most interesting stuff done in the past couple decades. A slightly disconcerting experience, to be sure, but well worth it in the long run.