While listening to a Science podcast, I learned about the illusion of mastery.

In short, this is the term psychologists use when people perform a task or activity over and over until eventually, they wrongly believe they have mastered it. In essence, it’s having a false sense of confidence.

Interestingly, I often mention to my students that repetition is the mother of all skill. For example, I tell them to take as many sample tests as possible until they can get all the answers correct.

However, if students know and memorize answers but fail to understand why the answer is correct, they will fall short of mastery of the material. In other words, they will not be prepared for an exam that throws a curve ball at them, and most professional certifications are purposely written confusingly to ensure students truly understand the concepts.

Repetitive Knowledge is Replaceable

Many years ago, I heard a speaker make this point: “If you want to earn more per hour, solve problems that are worth more.”

Now, let’s combine this point with repetitive knowledge. For example, if my work can be mastered by following a checklist: Do Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, and you’re done. It’s obvious that if all I must do is follow a set of steps, my hourly rate is going to be on the low side. The reason is because anyone else can do the work in my place. In fact, they can be taught in a matter of hours to follow the steps and get the same intended results. A good example here is making a hamburger at a fast-food restaurant.

The people in companies making the most money per hour, per day, per week, per month, and per year, are those who perform ambiguous work. These individuals have mental models and other frameworks to consult when thinking about the solution, but there is no clear way to get it done.

Focus on the Why

To master anything, it’s important to know the why. There are far too many people who will follow a process merely because they were told to do it. The majority will fail to ask the value of doing the work. Instead, they are happy learning a set of steps that will yield a result, even if this output brings little value to the customer or company. 

I think most companies have become too checklist or process-oriented. While there is value in having procedures and processes in place, there is even more value in knowing the expected outcomes.

For example, my wife and I were recently traveling to an international destination to celebrate our wedding anniversary, and we each had to complete three custom forms before we could enter the country. In a couple of forms, some of the questions were repeated. Let me also remind you that all of this was hand-written, and my writing is far from legible.

While I’m not 100% certain, I’m pretty sure that no one will ever read most of these forms. However, to meet international government guidelines, including those related to Covid, it was required that these forms be completed before entry into the country.

Stop the Craziness

My recommendation is to only do what must be done. I bet if we took a step back and thought about all the work assigned to employees, we would learn that at least 50% is of little value to meeting the goals and objectives of the organization.

The point here is constant movement might give the impression a person is productive, but nominal research will reveal that the individual has gained a false sense of confidence because the work can easily be completed by anyone else and, most importantly, the results yield little value to the organization.