The Dunning-Kruger Effect and the Impostor Syndrome: two faces of the same coin ?

Ever wondered why so many people are so full of themselves when you clearly spot that they are just a ballon full of air? On the other hand, ever wondered why so many people are afraid of taking chances and stepping forward, always fearing they do not have what it takes for the situation ?

Actually I had my share of both moments.

Early in my career my arrogance led me to overestimating my capacities. Those actions led this Project Manager to get fired. Sure, it was his job to prevent the project to slip and to secure he have the right people. Nonetheless it was my miss-judgment that triggered the outcome. I’m not proud of it but thankfully I learned a precious lesson.

Fast forward 10 years or something like it – I do not recall the exact time but I recall the moment – I had one great opportunity in hands and I let it slip between my fingers because I felt I had not the necessary expertise.

In my pursuit of self consciousness I did choose the red pill and got to learn about Dunning-Kruger effect and the Imposter Syndrome. Gladly!

But let’s try to explain the way I see them.

Back in 1999, David Dunning and Justin Kruger wrote a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled – “Unskilled and Unaware of it: How difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” where they stated – “(…) People who have less knowledge of an actual subject think they know more than some of those more informed (…)”.

This situation was called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Dunning and Kruger took it further stating:

  • “Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.”
  • “Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.”
  • “Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.”

There is this story about a dude that tried to rob a bank in broad day light, it was back in 1995. He was arrested because he was caught on tape. He was incredulous about how he was caught because, as he stated – “(…) but I wore the juice” – the reference was lemon juice as in the invisible ink trick.

Dunning and Kruger also stated:

  • If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill.”

Back into my personal sad experience, I did overestimate my skills and I failed to recognize my extreme inadequacy. I was able to recognize skills in others though.

One thing I always had, and still have, hungry for knowledge. This took me to search for people whom I looked to as senior in the crafts I wanted to master. While learning the stuff I wanted to learn, they also teached me, through encouraging debates, how to measure my learning process.

So, I believe the recipe to get away from Dunning-Kruger effect is:

  • Seek for a true senior, a mentor;
  • Do not run away from any existing divergence, embrace debates;
  • Measure your progress, your learning performance.

Ahh… so, you just have to keep studying, learning, practicing and there’s chances for improvement and stay away from this effect.

Here you are, learning, evolving, being a great professional with the knowledge that the path is far from finished, that you still have loads to learn and master. In the meantime you did not keep track of your accomplishments, of your evolution. After all, you can not call yourself a master-crafter yet, you are still learning, still “a fraud” compared with all those masters you worship.

Welcome to the “Impostor Syndrome“.

I did lost a great opportunity because of this syndrome. Well, at least in that time it seemed a great opportunity.

Looking to the chart, it is just a lack of confidence thing. In fact, someone suffering from Impostor Syndrome thinks they know very little compared with what others know.

I recall reading some Alicia Liu‘s tweets about this. She shared some thoughts she had when she suffered from this syndrome as well.

  • “I was not fount of esoteric details of various programming languages.”
  • “I could not expound on the pros and cons of two competing technologies with religious fervor.”
  • “I did not try to implement algorithms in academic papers for fun.”
  • “And surely the nail in the coffin was that I had not watched a single episode of Star Trek.” (I really love this one !!!)

Gladly she overcome her doubts because nowadays she is the Head of Engineering of NavaPBC.

Once again, back to my personal experience. In fact I lost one opportunity in the past but after I learned about this I did some personal development work and I started, again, taking chances. The things I did learn:

  • Acknowledge the rate which technology is changing;
  • Acknowledge programming consists of near constant failure;
  • Accept positive feedback and do not attribute your success to luck;
  • Keep a journal with your successes and failures;
  • Embrace humbleness and accept success as much as failures;
  • Expose yourself totally;
  • Keep seeking mentors.

Nowadays I’m the Head of Engineering of RUPEAL Group, I have two great teams of engineers working in two products, an online invoice SaaS (InvoiceXpress) and an online absences manager SaaS (ClanHR). Now and then, I still have some doubts about my capabilities. In those moments I try to stop, not panic, think about all the evolution I have done in my life, what I did learn with my failures and successes and if the feeling is stronger than this exercise, I seek to my boss or one of my mentors and we chat for a while. They usually throw some powerful questions and they coach me out of that feeling.

Remember, it is really important to have someone to back you up with some powerful questions because you have all the answers in you !

And keep realising that what you know, others do not know. They have their knowledge, their experience, their point of view. You have yours !!!

“Why oh why didn’t I take the blue pill?”

Like the Matrix’s character Cypher, you may be thinking “after all, ignorance is bliss”.

The truth can not be more on the other way.

True, the path of self consciousness, at least the experience I had in the beginning, was rough with it’s share of pains and wounds to heal. But having the awareness of your flaws is key to your improvement.

I strongly believe that we are, here, in this spaceship made of rock for a greater good. Do not be afraid of starting your journey to self consciousness. Embrace all the grit, wounds and pains and keep pushing forward. You will thrive and reach the other side a better version of you.

What are you waiting for to take the red pill ??



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