Perfectly off key

Horrendous melodies fill every void, detonating my cackling laughter. I wipe a little tear from my eye. One of the judges is pulling a face, trying not to laugh, while the other one buries his face in a handkerchief.

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(Credit: Getty Images)

We all have our guilty pleasures. For some, it’s the secret chocolate stash hidden in a jar above the fridge or the occasional blow-your-budget shopping spree. For others, it’s watching 10 back-to-back episodes of a good TV show while devouring cheese pizza. But for me? Well . . . my guilty pleasure is binge-watching X Factor fail videos.

I’m sure you know the ones—booming music plays and the garish logo flashes across the screen, showering everything in flames and electric sparks. An impossibly deep voice thunders empty promises about the segment’s entertainment quality, before cutting to a quick succession of close-ups of the contestant. Each shot zooms in quickly from a different angle, making them look as peculiar as possible. It’s absolutely moreish.

A brief back-story then typically ensues, garnished with interviews from equally peculiar family members who are utterly convinced that their beloved prince or princess has the “X-Factor”. Their unconditional support is as heart-warming as it is concerning.

After this cookie-cutter intro, the scene mellows. The contestant enters the audition room. Their microphone rustles and they stand there awkwardly, feigning confidence in front of a wall of celebrity talent. Sometimes, the contestant makes polite small talk; other times, they overcompensate with an obnoxious personality; and on a really good day, they declare that “the judges will be sorry” for underestimating their obvious X-Factor qualities. That’s my personal favourite.

Once feathers have been sufficiently ruffled, it’s show time. As the backing-track begins to play, a mixture of exhilaration and dread floods through me. Laughter is trapped in my chest. I hold my breath in anxious anticipation.

A note escapes. It’s perfectly off key.

My hairs stand on end.

Horrendous melodies fill every void, detonating my cackling laughter. I wipe a little tear from my eye. One of the judges is pulling a face, trying not to laugh, while the other one buries his face in a handkerchief. Suddenly, another snorts, sending the rest into a fit of laughter; the kind of laughter that begs to be felt.

As I’m laughing, part of me feels guilty for making fun of this hopeless contestant. I quickly put the thought aside, persuading myself that I’m not a bad person—after all, it’s their own fault; they signed up to be laughed at.

But that’s the thing: they signed up for it! Across the world every year, thousands of overly-confident contestants have their musical dreams dashed by reality show judges. And what’s more, their well-intending friends and family members—perhaps also tone-deaf or simply blinded by love—egg them on. So they sign up, only to be humiliated. It’s a phenomenon I’ve always struggled to understand, until I recently read about something psychologists call the “Dunning-Kruger effect”.

The term originated in 1995, when 45-year-old McArthur Wheeler decided to rob a bank in Pennsylvania. With no attempt to conceal his identity, he casually walked inside, threatened bank-tellers at gunpoint, and then calmly walked home with his cash. When the police arrived at his door, he was flabbergasted. He couldn’t believe they’d found him.

“But I wore the juice,” he exclaimed, “I wore the lemon juice!” Wheeler believed that because lemon juice could be used to create invisible ink, painting lemon juice all over his face would turn it invisible, too. To the average reader the plan seems moronic, but to Wheeler, it was foolproof.

Entranced by this preposterous scenario, social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger felt compelled to investigate. Upon interviewing Wheeler, they discovered that he lacked the self-awareness and metacognition to objectively evaluate his incompetence. Wheeler thought he was brilliant; that his cleverness was substantially greater than it actually was—just like the hundreds of hopeless-but-hopeful X Factor candidates that audition every single year.

"As a comfortable Christian, I'm prone to thinking that my skills, wisdom and righteousness are much greater than they actually are. . . . I fail to objectively evaluate my own incompetence and my desperate need for Christ."

Just like me, too.

Sometimes, I think I’m very clever. I stand before the Judge, wearing my Sabbath best, chin high, feigning confidence, and He asks me, “Do you have the X-Factor?”. I nod emphatically, listing off a plethora of good deeds and righteous thoughts.

“I’ve been a Christian my entire life, I’m basically the poster-girl for Adventism,” I exclaim. “I have prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and done many mighty works in your name!” (Matthew 7:22).

Feeling rather smug, I look up at the Judge. A frown settles across my brow. Rather than laughing or clapping or pressing that golden buzzer, He shakes his head solemnly. A tear runs down His cheek. Once again, I have totally overestimated my competence.

The Bible warns us: “Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight,” (1 Corinthians 3:18,19).

As a comfortable Christian, I’m prone to thinking that my skills, wisdom and righteousness are much greater than they actually are. Because I can only “see in a mirror dimly now” (1 Corinthians 13:12), I’m often totally unable to see my flaws; my sin. I forget that my “righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). I fail to objectively evaluate my own incompetence and my desperate need for Christ.

What really hit me about the Dunning-Kruger effect is that the more training and experience an individual has in a task, the more accurately and objectively they are able to evaluate their own skill level. If I were among the world’s best musicians, I would understand the difficulty involved—the thousands of hours invested, the technical skill, the calibre of my peers—much more than if I was a humble X-Factor hopeful, with no-one but the shower screen to give me musical feedback.

In the same way, the more time I spend with Christ, the more I begin to understand the gravity of my sin. The closer I am to Him, the easier it is to see that treating my Christian walk as a competition is completely futile. There’s no chance of making it past the audition rounds. I desperately need Christ to take my place.

They say that, “True wisdom is knowing that you know nothing.”

God, grant me wisdom.