The Wrongness Iceberg

As soon as I got out of col­lege I got a job at a restau­rant. At the time I had never had a job at a restau­rant, but my mom had known the own­ers and I felt obli­gated to avoid perform­ing badly. Yet in­evitably I did perform badly, and how this perfor­mance was eval­u­ated would greatly af­fect my way of per­ceiv­ing my mis­takes.

If you’re en­trenched in an or­ga­ni­za­tion, there’s a good chance you have an idea of what it is you’re sup­posed to do and what mis­takes you will or will not be mak­ing. But sup­pose you’re in a po­si­tion like this one: by way of your ig­no­rance you know you’re go­ing to make a lot of mis­takes, and it’s just a ques­tion of when and how much. Fur­ther, you know that if you make too many mis­takes, you make peo­ple you care about look bad. And fi­nally, there are a lot of un­known un­knowns: you don’t know what pos­si­ble mis­takes and acts of ig­no­rance ex­ist to be­gin with, so many mis­takes you’ve made you will be blind to.

The proac­tive thing to do, nat­u­rally, is to try to min­i­mize how many mis­takes you make.

There are two key ways to gauge the depth of be­ing told you have made a mis­take. The first way is to take mis­takes liter­ally, as if no other mis­take ex­ists, and any other mis­take would be pointed out to you. So if you cor­rect this mis­take, ev­ery­thing else should be fine. This is how you’d ex­pect to take mis­takes if you were, say, un­der the su­per­vi­sion of an ed­i­tor.

But the sec­ond kind is where the ti­tle of this writeup comes in. Not ev­ery­one is literal, or crit­i­cal enough to no­tice ev­ery mis­take. Much of the time, you’ll only re­ceive news of a mis­take if many other mis­takes are already afoot, and this mis­take just hap­pens to stand out from the set of mis­takes you’ve already made. And since you don’t know what mis­takes you could be mak­ing, you don’t know if there are many more mis­takes un­der your level of aware­ness that you could be cor­rect­ing for, but aren’t.

In short, you’re tasked with avoid­ing a wrong­ness ice­berg: a mis­take in­dica­tive of a nau­ti­cal mile of mis­takes be­low the sur­face and your level of aware­ness.

This is a de­bil­i­tat­ing po­si­tion to be in, be­cause your men­tal map of your perfor­mance prior to dis­cov­er­ing the ice­berg needs to be com­pletely rewrit­ten; in ad­di­tion to ac­count­ing for all of the new ar­eas you need to work on, you will likely ac­count for the em­bar­rass­ment of re­al­iz­ing that you have opened up a new fron­tier of mis­takes to re­flect on from your pe­riod of un­aware in­com­pe­tence.

While I don’t think it’s im­pos­si­ble that peo­ple ex­ist who have never been in a situ­a­tion like this, I think any­one who dives into a new field or skill is fa­mil­iar, at least, with this feel­ing of brief yet to­tal in­com­pe­tence. And if you’re in a field with enough depth and sub­jec­tive calls to al­low for a wrong­ness ice­berg sce­nario, there might not be much you can do to pre­vent it. The most you can do is provide ad­e­quate re­sis­tance for the in­evitable.

That’s why I’ve cre­ated this men­tal model to think about it con­struc­tively. In ev­ery situ­a­tion where I’ve faced a wrong­ness ice­berg, the anx­iety has been catas­trophic. If you can at least deal with it, you can re­al­ize why it is you’re anx­ious and what’s go­ing on with your as­sess­ment of your own mis­takes. From ex­pe­rience, know­ing that I’m wor­ried about mak­ing this kind of ice­berg-re­veal­ing mis­take is helpful for miti­gat­ing my stress. And if you can some­how pre­empt an ice­berg, that’s even bet­ter.

side note: I’ve ex­tended this con­cept to other do­mains, and it works well. A “dishon­esty ice­berg” is when one per­son’s lie re­veals a nau­ti­cal mile of lies be­low the sur­face, and an “at­trac­tion ice­berg” is when one per­son’s ex­pres­sion of at­trac­tion to­ward you are in­dica­tive of a much greater level of in­ter­nal at­trac­tion.