Negative Reinforcing Cycles

A reader sent me a link to a thread at JD Underground, which was both disturbing and refreshing at the same time.  The original poster wrote:

I feel like I just bullshit my way through life and somehow convince people I’m
competent when in reality I am a total shithead.

A harsh self-assessment, and likely untrue. Anyone who can engage in such metacognitive recognition isn’t, by definition, a total shithead.  But such self-awareness doesn’t mean they aren’t feigning competence rather than gaining it.

A responding comment, meant to make the OP feel better, said:

Remember, life isn’t measured against some arbitrary scale, but against others.

You have an arbitrary meter in your head of what a good/smart person is. You don’t meet your own criteria, however, when measured up against the rest of America, the fact that you have the realization that you’re not that great already puts you in the top half.

I feel what you feel, but at least I tell myself this: “I know I still suck. I know how not smart I am, I know how lazy I am, I know how often I fuck up… but look at the proles of my city.. well, maybe I am at least better than them (in some respects).”

This is a variation on the old “running away from a bear” joke, where you don’t have to run faster than the bear, just the other guy. Except there are many scales, the ones we use to measure ourselves (are we the best we can be), the ones we use when we compare ourselves to the best of us and the ones we use when we compare ourselves to the worst.

It may be comforting to know that there is someone worse than you out there, but that’s rarely enough to satisfy most thoughtful people. We may not be able to be better than the very best, but we can try.  At the least, we can be the best we are capable of being.

Another commenter wrote:

I used to be painfully aware of how little I knew. Then I realized that others (not all, but a huge chunk of the population) were BS’ing their way through life. Now I just try to act confident about as many things I can as often as I can.

That’s giving up.  That’s how one rationalizes failure.  Better than the worst, and that’s good enough.

Finally, a comment offered:

A huge part of this game is instilling in clients a sense of (1) confidence and (2) trustworthiness. The first is a careful game of deploying your own knowledge and maneuvering around what you don’t know on the fly. Mistakes are going to be made and people are going to doubt you, but you CANNOT succumb to believing that you are incapable. That would be like a pilot deciding he had to succumb to gravity. You must keep the hands on the rudder, even during a flat spin. At the same time, you CANNOT lie. Ever. That is the all-critical component (2), and if you become untrustworthy your career is thoroughly and irrevocably over.

This advice, to push through, to not give up, to appreciate the knowledge one possesses and to improve on it rather quit, is what the OP needed to hear.  Most importantly, this advice challenged the cynical arguments of others that everyone is engaged in a scam to some extent, that we all BS, that lying is how the game of life is played.  It’s not.

Sure, there are plenty who do, but not everyone. The goal is to be the real deal.

My pal, Mark Bennett, somehow came upon an old Avvo Answers post during his search of lawyers gone wild that included an answer that was absolutely backward.  He wrote about it [Ed. Note: For top secret reasons known only to Bennett, he "disappeared" his post, so I have removed the link.], an opportunity to make the point about harming people by making them stupider in the quest for cheap business and at the expense of integrity.

The person who left the wrong answer was a young lawyer in whom the BS is strong.  I doubt she’s venal, and so I don’t name her nor shame her. As will become clear, she’s done herself more harm than I could ever do if that was my purpose. It’s not.

She engaged in a comment war with Bennett at his blog, not the least of which was caused by her initial response to Bennett’s comment that her Avvo Answer was “ignorant twaddle.” It was. Like many lawyers embarrassed by their BS having been called, she lashed out.  She called Bennett a “retard.” It’s a textbook example of what is, and what is not, an ad hominem. Most people get this wrong.

There are some obvious lessons to be learned from the ensuing trainwreck.  Not to keep digging when one finds oneself in a hole. Not to go to war on someone else’s home turf is another. Not to assume, not to project, not to deceive are some more.  These are lessons for the reader to learn, as the exemplar appeared to learn nothing.

But what was unavoidably clear was that the she thought she could BS her way through this holy mess she created for herself.  She doubled down, then redoubled. In her heat of battle, she couldn’t see the way out. It devolved into a negative reinforcing cycle, spiraling downward out of control. Without breaking the cycle, nothing will change.

It’s not a good thing to offer erroneous advice to someone, especially when it’s done for the purpose of gaining Avvo points. A shame all around. But it’s also not the end of the world. So you screwed up? Admit your mistake and learn from it. Someone called your advice “ignorant twaddle” and it hurt your feelings to be revealed as wrong?

The comment at JD Underground came to mind, that you have the choice to be humiliated by a mistake or to use it as an opportunity to grow. Had she just responded, “Wow, I got it completely wrong. Thanks for correcting the error,” she not only would have avoided the humiliation, but would have been applauded for her growth.

But as the comment at JD Underground also noted, “if you become untrustworthy your career is thoroughly and irrevocably over.”  You only become a “total shithead” if that’s what you make of yourself.

The OP at JD Underground is well on the way to becoming what he hopes to be.  There is still hope for Bennett’s antagonist, despite the depth of her hole. We can all benefit from remembering that the only thing we can’t recover from is the loss of our integrity.

15 comments on “Negative Reinforcing Cycles

  1. Mark Bennett

    P.S. My new formulation for the “choice to be humiliated by a mistake or to use it as an opportunity to grow” is “be the student, or be the lesson.”

    It is obvious once it’s said, but as far as I know I coined it.

  2. Andrew

    “she not only would have avoided the humiliation, but would have been applauded for her growth.”

    Hell, she might have gained a friend or even a mentor. I know I have from swallowing my pride and embracing criticism. I don’t know how anybody survives in a deluded little bubble of pride and ego. You truly miss a lot of opportunities to grow, as hokey as that sounds. To be pitied, really.

  3. Fubar

    I’m late to this conversation, but I think this may be substantive enough to excuse tardiness.

    I do appreciate and endorse Mark Bennett’s solution, “Be the student or be the lesson.”

    But, for some, possibly the original JD Underground poster, that may be difficult to apply. The self-perception that one is an impostor can be overwhelming. There is a recorded psychological phenomenon, though not yet in the DSM, called “impostor syndrome”. There’s a decent description of it in wikipedia under that title.

    Some successful professionals do have such overwhelming and frightening self-perceptions at some time in their lives. It is not caused by actual incompetence, or even by making professional errors.

    1. SHG Post author

      Nobody said it was easy to do the right thing. It helps to have others to turn to who will offer sound advice to counteract the doubt.

  4. Pingback: Imposter Syndrome: Are You Faking It & Will they Find Out? | Associate's Mind

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