The Lake Woebegone Effect

You’re too big for your britches!  Have you heard that before (when you didn’t need to lose weight)? Perhaps your mother said it.  Or a friend in school.

(c) Adobe Stock Photo

(c) Adobe Stock Photo

What do people mean when they say that?

  • You have a swelled head
  • You think you’re all that and you’re really not
  • You act like you think you’re better than us
  • Your ego is bigger than your performance

According to Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game, the Lake Woebegone Effect is alive and well…and most of us have it.  Most of us believe we are above average.  Here are some statistics:

  • 85% of students believed their ability to get along with others was above average.
  • 95% of University of Nebraska faculty thought they were above average teachers.
  • Even drivers hospitalized for accidents they had caused thought their driving skills were better than average.

As you know, that is statistically impossible.  Absurdly laughable.  And yet that is exactly how we think.

We judge intent in ourselves and outcomes in others.

We interpret our own behavior more benignly than others.

We don’t mean to.  It’s just how we think.  Our filter is so strong we don’t know it’s there.

Here’s the thing.  We’re trying so hard to prove ourselves above average in so many ways, that we miss what truly makes us unique.

The letter to the Romans says this:  “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.”

Another passage tells us not to judge others differently than we judge ourselves:  “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

Whew.  No Lake Woebegone Effect there.  Plain truth.

The amazing thing is that people who see themselves as they really are don’t seem less happy.  Though some studies seem to indicate that it helps us to live with our Lake Woebegone halo, other evidence shows that the way to true joy leads away from Lake Woebegone.

Why?

Truth brings freedom.  Embracing who we are frees us from having to prove we’re something we’re not.  It’s not that we don’t strive to improve.  It’s just that we stop pretending and start actually doing.  And we don’t have to cover up our weaknesses in the hopes others won’t see them.

So, in the spirit of truth, I’ve run through an exercise to honestly evaluate myself on a few characteristics.  You can do the same in your head as you read this.

  1. Looks – Average
  2. Driving Ability – Average
  3. Marketing Savvy – Below Average
  4. Find a Creative Solution to a Difficult Problem – Way Above Average

Truth brings gratitude.  When I see myself, with my strengths and weaknesses, I appreciate God’s love for me even more.  I appreciate my family and friends’ love too.  There is a lot to love, and a lot NOT to love.  In me and in you.  Sometimes our quirks add to our charm.  And sometimes they are simply annoying.  When we see the truth about ourselves, we remember that we are all in the same boat and can love one another more fully.

Truth brings community.  When we don’t think we’re above average at everything, we see our need for other people.  Those with different skills, personalities, and perspectives.  There’s so much more freedom in that.  We can let others do what they’re good at.  And we can celebrate the combinations of strengths and “average-ness” that makes each of us truly unique.

Don’t outgrow your britches.  You might feel important for a while.  In the end, though, they will feel a wee bit tight around your waist.

What is your greatest strength?  Something where you’re way above average?  And where are you average?  What does knowing that free up for you?  Share your voice in the comments below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Thank you for your frank and honest post Kathleen on a rarely explored subject. Yes we all like to minimise our faults and failings. It is also way to easy to take ourselves too seriously. I am learning to laugh more at myself while at the same time being diligent about my roles and responsibilities. As someone has said, true humility is not thinking less of yourself, but just thinking of yourself less.

    • I love that quote, Sunil. And there IS something about not thinking either too highly or too lowly of ourselves. I like the idea of laughing and playing while still being diligent about what we do.