The Mythical Expert

In school I used to think they had everything down to a science. My school had been around for a long time and I just figured they’d worked out the kinks and it ran smoothly and without any issues. Then I got to know one of the school secretaries and learned they had to deal with all sorts of problems every day. That’s been my experience. Every time I think of an organization, big or small, from the outside, I assume they’re running well, but when I start working at a new company or organization I see all sorts of mistakes and bungles.

Every organization or person has their bumps and warts. Even celebrities who we vault into grandiosity regularly screw up their marriages or get involved with drugs. Pro athletes aren’t exempt either. 78% of NFL players are bankrupt within five years after they retire. It’s “only” 60% with NBA players.

I learned that Gene Wilder dealt with self doubt in his career, which was encouraging at first to see that someone as capable and wonderful could feel that way. But then I thought, if Gene Wilder had self doubt, where does that leave me? It’s easy to understand that logically you can’t be perfect, but the inner critic still expects perfection and attacks the slightest failure.

The imposter syndrome as a formal syndrome is derided as pop psychology, but the closest science-backed explanation doesn’t fully address the issue. It’s known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, and is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people think they’re incredible because they don’t know enough to realize they stink. It explains why most drivers consider themselves to be above average drivers. The main issue I have with Dunning-Kruger is it can give you a perverse sense of pleasure at feeling like an imposter, taking it to mean you’re actually a genius.

As for the impostor syndrome, there’s all sorts of advice out there from crushing or overcoming it to calling it healthy if it moves you forward.

The responses to this Quora post suggested that it’s unavoidable. The highest rated response said to the questioner who felt he couldn’t become great at anything.

I urge you to make peace with that feeling, because for most people, it never goes away: and I’m talking about the people who are the best in the field. It never goes away for them. Most of them don’t feel like the best in the field. They feel exactly like you. They are hugely aware of their mistakes and hugely aware of the ways they are lacking. Einstein tried and failed to unify the fields. You can say, “Yeah, but he was Einstein!” But that’s you. What was important—to Einstein—was how he felt.

I wonder if history giants like Einstein, Lincoln, Shakespeare or Mozart really did feel that way. Couldn’t Leonardo da Vinci see that he was so much better at such a large variety of skills? He’s said to the most diversely talented person to have ever lived. I have to believe some people are so good at what they do that they know it and have a healthy confidence in their abilities. But is it possible for everyone to feel that way? Is it innate? I wish I had the answers – at this point I’m just posing the questions.

I do know that as you become more knowledgeable, you realize just how little you know. Two more luminaries from history back me up on that.

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” — Socrates

“The doorstep to the temple of wisdom is a knowledge of our own ignorance.” — Benjamin Franklin

The main conclusion I’ve come to in thinking about this subject is that even if you don’t have it all figured out, it’s better to create something and get feedback on it, even if you think it stinks. Then you can take whatever feedback you get and improve it. There’s no use creating a masterpiece in your head if you never put brush to canvas.

Interesting, even Woody Allen is concerned about making his creations public. He said, “You always set out trying to make Citizen Kane. By the time you get to the editing room, you just try not to be humiliated.” (via Cal Newport)

There’s a story of two pottery classes where the first was told their entire grade would be determined by their best single piece of pottery by the end of the semester. The second class was told their grade would be determined by the total weight of all the pottery they made.

Members of the first class spent more than half the semester researching pottery skills and techniques, reading books from pottery masters and visiting museums of fine art. They studied and focused and learned how to make the best pottery possible. The second class got to work making pottery on the first day and continued until the end of the semester.

How did the quality compare between the two classes? The quality was much higher in the second class. Why? The second class practiced and improved their pottery-making skills all semester, while the first class spent so much time studying they didn’t have the skills necessary to create what they saw in their minds.

Dreaming about creating an incredible product or service is easy. But regular deliberate practice over a long period of time (10,000 hours according to Malcolm Gladwell) breeds success.

The next question is how do you decide what to devote 10,000 hours of your life on? I have no idea ;) But I’ll share my thoughts on it in a later post.

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