My grandmother and mother both used figurative language more than the average person and beyond colloquialism. In this way, they were like characters penned by Mark Twain. As a child, this was humorous for me and seemed a fun way to talk. They would say things like “She is getting long in the tooth,” when an acquaintance would advance in years. Or if a period of time was too long it was “a month of Sundays.” But later I realized there was deeper wisdom in their sayings, like the fact that time was non-negotiable and that we are all obedient to it.
I repeatedly remember one long-expression in particular from my mother “I wish I could buy him for what he is worth, and turn around and sell him for what he thinks he is worth.” She might say it in frustration, but it was an important observation that we as humans sometimes overestimate our abilities and accomplishments. Psychiatrists would later place this insight within the Dunning-Kruger effect, our cognitive bias to overestimate our own ability in accomplishing tasks. The quote from my mother focuses on the illusory superiority aspect and it is definitely the most popular and well known of the Dunning-Kruger effect. It calls out the incompetent.
My grandmother had another expression for this bias, “Everybody has two sticks. One they measure themself by, and another to measure everyone else.”
There is a particular self-awareness in the two sticks expression that we all can be unfair in our judgments of ourselves and of others. Not only can we overestimate our own abilities, we can also underestimate the abilities of others. Undervaluing the ability of others is particularly true when we are using the wrong stick altogether, lacking full insights of what makes true competence and at times we protect our own egos and desire to feel superior. The real lesson to take away from this expression is that we all can fall into this cognitive trap and to forgive others when they do.
It has taken me well into adulthood to fully understand these life lessons in the expressions I heard as a child, but I can be as slow as molasses in January and I have been told I could try the patience of Job.
Check out more about the Dunning-Kruger effect. Why Incompetent People Think They are Amazing.