Defending Against The “Illusion of Competency”

This may strike a nerve, but it’s a really important thing to understand.

One of the biggest enemies of real-world performance is the belief that people have that they are “good enough” when they only really have a fraction of the skill they think they do.

This is an issue with every skill, but it’s particularly an issue with shooting, driving, and sex because of how intense the experiences are and the fact that they are rewarding on their own, regardless of whether the outcome is mediocre or extraordinary.

So, what IS the illusion of competency?

There are a few ways where it comes into play, but I’ve got a very specific application in mind today.

The illusion of competency has to do with how we perform “cold” vs. “warmed up” and the belief that we are as good cold as we performed on our best day warmed up.

Have you ever been to a live training course and performed skills at a high level at the end of class only to find that your skill dropped off considerably a few days or weeks later when you tried to demonstrate your new skills to friends?

This is INCREDIBLY common.

Here’s what’s happening…

When you learn a skill, it is initially stored in working memory.  Working memory is similar to RAM in a computer that gets wiped out every time you turn off the power, except with working memory, it degrades quickly as we keep adding to it and it a lot of it gets wiped out at night when we sleep–unless…

There’s another type of memory called procedural memory that lasts much, much longer where we want to store our skills.  Procedural memory is long term memory and it’s one of the few types of memory that we have access to under stress.

Unfortunately, very little skill gets transferred from working memory to procedural memory in a 24 hour period.

This creates a unique situation.

At the end of a day of live training…whether on our own or with an instructor…it’s very common to be able to perform WAY better than at the beginning of the day.

This phenomenon also happens when we get a cool new electronic training toys (primarily gamified shooting apps or software programs) binge on training for a few days and see great results, and then move on to the next shiny thing.

It’s normal for humans to “baseline” thoughts, emotions, and expectations, and it’s common to believe that we are as good as our end-of-day performance on our best day of training.

This is great, but we have to understand that when we’re training, once we’re warmed up, we’re using working memory.  Some of that skill will transfer to procedural memory over night, but most will disappear.

This belief–this natural belief–that we will be able to perform cold and on-demand as if we’d been warming up and training for the last few hours is the illusion of competency.

And when people fall for it hard, it’s jokingly known as being at the peak of Mt. Stupidity 🙂


A younger, dumber, less experienced me would have been insulted by that, but you know as well as I do that sometimes age comes with wisdom and now I accept my time on top of Mt. Stupidity as a point in the journey of learning a new skill and not the final destination.

That doesn’t mean that your performance at the end of a practice time or the end of a class is meaningless…it should be inspirational!

It shows you what level of performance you could have–cold and on-demand–if you put in a few short practice sessions over the coming days & weeks.

This may have brought a famous quote to your mind, namely, “In a life and death situation, you won’t rise to the occasion, you’ll default to the level of your training.”

Some unknowingly pay homage to the illusion of competency by saying you’ll default to half the level of your training.

A more accurate way to say it is that you’ll default to how you performed–cold–at the beginning of your last training.

An even more accurate way to say it is that you’ll default to how you performed cold the last time your training fed you a true surprise stressful situation where you had to make shoot-don’t-shoot decisions based on complex, fluid visual stimulus that are a true surprise and not expected or anticipated…but that is incredibly difficult for most people to make happen…so we settle for continually measuring and trying to improve our cold performance and work on making it as good today as our warmed up performance was a week or two ago.  (We’ve got a tool in the works to accomplish this…true surprise shoot/don’t shoot stimulus that can be used at home and in classroom training, but it’s currently 6-18 months out)

How can you make this work for you?  How can you defend against the illusion of competency and increase your combat effectiveness–your survivability–in a self-defense situation?

First, recognize that Mt. Stupidity is real.

Second, accept that your real skill level is how you perform cold rather than how you perform warmed up.

Third, the shorter and more frequent your training sessions, the less of a performance gap you’ll have between your “cold” performance and “warmed up” performance…this means that, regardless of how many classes you attend or how much live fire training you do, you should also do a few minutes of dry fire, a few times a week.

Fourth, when you’ve got your fundamental skills down solid, consider adding in some stressors BEFORE you measure your “cold” performance with dry fire.  It could be dipping your hands into ice water for a few minutes; exhaling, holding your breath, and doing pushups until you feel a little panic; intense interval exercise, or other activities that trigger your fight-or-flight response a bit.  This combination of stress and not being warmed up will give you a much better glimpse of the aspects of your technique that are most likely to fail in a real-world situation.

Questions?  Comments?  Fire away by commenting below


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