Dunning-Kruger and Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome has kind of been played out in the media a lot over the last couple of years. This, is going to be another article on it. I’ve actually been surprised at the number of professionals that I bring this up to that immediately ask me “What’s that?” So, let me explain:

Imposter Syndrome is a stress related issue, in which the person having it is unable to internalize their successes. Usually it’s seen in highly successful people, and most often it’s seen in women.

I’m neither highly successful (there are people who would dispute this, but I don’t consider myself to be), nor am a I woman. I do however, deal with Imposter-Syndrome.

“Would everyone who thinks they’re doing poorly in class raise their hand?”

From what I’ve been able to ascertain Imposter Syndrome is an exaggerated form of (or complication to) the Dunning-Kruger effect. The Dunning-Kruger effect discovered that people who are less than competent at a task will over-estimate their abilities because they lack the skills necessary to understand their deficiency at a given task, the corollary to this is that competent people will often underestimate their abilities because they’ve come to realize that they don’t know everything.

As an example, in my 11th grade Sociology class my instructor took a poll of the class. The poll was a simple two questions:
“Would everyone that thinks they’re doing well in class raise their hand?” followed by “Would everyone that thinks they’re doing poorly in class raise their hand?” The results were both surprising, and disappointing. Everyone that was above a C grade level in class (the median grade level for schools) raised their hand when asked if they thought they were doing poorly. Everyone at or below C grade level raised their hands when asked if they were doing well.

This was a text-book example of Dunning-Kruger. Right down to the resultant expectation that the competent members of the class knew that they were doing well, but did not actually feel they were doing as well as they actually were (estimating a roughly C-B grade average), where the less competent students also felt that they were performing above their level (again in the C-B range).

So how does this tie into Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome presents itself as a creeping doubt in your head. Even though you know a thing, and you know you know a thing because you worked your ass off to get there; you still feel like at any moment someone is going to show up with a huge ream of papers and tell you “I know you’re faking it, and that you have been your entire life. It’s over you phony!” It’s an under-estimation of your own knowledge and skill, and an over-estimation of everyone else’s.

I had a visit from this particular gremlin today. A particularly difficult piece of software was revealed to need re-writes (again), it’s actually in technical review with a couple of teams to try to get it straightened out, and being observational I noted the number of people wandering around talking about this documentation but not directly addressing it with me.

impostor-syndrome-cartoon-823x1024This set off my bugbear and I spent an hour at my desk trying to get my brain to shut up about how I was going to be fired, I was obviously faking my ability to write technical documents, ‘zomgwtfbbqyouphony! You’re getting fired! They know you’re full of shit!’

Now, I know that I’ve been doing my job for a pretty long time, different companies, sure, but still I know what I’m doing. I still make mistakes, and I fix them as soon as I find them or have them pointed out to me. But that part of my consciousness has been trained for years to think that I’m a phony.

So, I started talking to my boss about it, I let him know what I was going through and that I knew that I wasn’t getting fired (actually they’re trying to get me to write more), but that I’m still freaking out because of how my brain is wired.

My boss, being awesome, shared some insights with me that were pretty surprising, and also confirmed that no, I wasn’t being fired. Heh.

imposter-syndrome-bart-simpson-1-300x216So, what can I do about this? Well, that’s kind of a mixed bag, the ultimate answer is, manage it, like I do with everything else. The simpler tricks are to tell that voice to shut up, remember that I’m not super human (“but, muh webz!!”), remember that everyone else only knows as much as I do and that I’m really part of a much larger system, and finally that not all technical writing foibles are my own making. Some are endemic to the system (I’d been asking for changes to remedy the exact problem we stumbled on, for a while now), and some are endemic to other cells in the organ.

We stumble, we fall, we get back up and do it right-er.



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