The wisdom behind being an imposter

Trev de Vroome
4 min readJan 31, 2020

One of my favourite coaching tools for individuals is the Dunning-Kruger Effect¹ which is an exploration of the cognitive bias people have on assessing their own ability.

What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

The bias states that as we obtain a small amount of wisdom, our confidence grows out of proportion until we hit what’s dubbed as “Mt Stupid” — where our confidence peaks, but our overall wisdom on a topic is still very low.

David Dunning & Justin Kruger’s “Dunning-Kruger” Effect of cognitive bias

As we continue to develop and learn — slowly moving from being a novice to an advanced beginner² — we quickly identify our confidence was misplaced, and learn that in fact, we know very little.

This brings us to the “Valley of Despair” where we begin to understand just how deep and rich the knowledge behind a topic is, and how little of that we have a deep grasp on.

From that point forward, we start the life-long march up the “Slope of Enlightenment” learning more, expanding our wisdom, but never quite hitting those early confidence levels we had on the top of “Mt Stupid”

The emotional rollercoaster of wisdom

It’s an intense rollercoaster of emotion as we move through the Dunning-Kruger effect as we develop wisdom in a topic.

We see emotions quickly shift from elation, to fear, to despair, and finally onto gloom as we come to terms with our knowledge.

You feel like an imposter — never quite having enough wisdom on a topic to represent it properly. A term coined as Imposter Syndrome³

The emotional rollercoaster of gaining wisdom on a topic

You’re an imposter — but that is ok

But don’t be alarmed — being an imposter is actually wonderful. As we move from the “Valley of Despair” through to the end of time — we’ll be traversing what I like to call the “Imposter Syndrome Zone”.

The ‘Imposter Syndrome Zone’ we must all journey through

This zone is where our confidence remains below certainty, where no matter our growing wisdom we still have lingering doubts eating away at the back of our mind — and the more we gain in wisdom, the more we realize just how deep the topic can be.

Socrates was famously quoted as saying:

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.

And this applies to all knowledge acquisition as we progress in life. The Dunning-Kruger Effect and associated Imposter Syndrome exist in every facet of life as the more we develop expertise on a topic, the more we become aware that the same depth of knowledge exists in every facet of the world.

Embracing your incompetencies

But don’t despair — because it actually requires a growing set of wisdom to even identify your incompetencies. As Dunning said in a later paper:

If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent … The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.⁴

The reality is that dealing with imposter syndrome demonstrates you’re no longer a novice, you have the wisdom to understand just how deep a topic is, where you have reliable wisdom, and where you need help.

We’ll never be as confident as an idiot

The sad reality becomes — we will never obtain the same level of confidence as we had when we were naive and inexperienced — sitting happily atop of “Mt Stupid”.

Our peak confidence will never reach the heights it did on top of “Mt Stupid”

But the reality in life is — you will never fully understand all there is to know on any topic. The question is — can you accept this, and use it is as a motivator to drive your continuous learning and get as close to all-knowing as any human has been on the topic — or will you be detracted and demotivated, happy to remain on “Mt Stupid” forevermore?

As Richard Feynman — who won a nobel prize in the field of quantum mechanics — put it:

If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.

If the worlds leading expert on a topic can acknowledge his inadequacies and gaps in knowledge, you can too. Just make sure it drives your motivation for continuous improvement.

Be better than you were yesterday, and stop worrying about being the best.

References

  1. Kruger. J, Dunning. D (1999), “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
  2. Dreyfus. S, Dreyfus. H (1980), “A Five-Stage Model of the Mental Activities Involved in Directed Skill Acquisition”, University of Berkley
  3. Matthews, G; Clance, P.R (1985), “Treatment of the impostor phenomenon in psychotherapy clients”, Psychotherapy in Private Practice
  4. Dunning. D(2005), Self-insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself. New York: Psychology Press

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Trev de Vroome

Information technology program and agile transformation leader, change catalyst, and educator.