The Sunshine Superman Syndrome

A while back, Keith Lee wrote about the Imposter Syndrome, and took the path to happiness:

The problem many people who suffer from imposter syndrome are unable to engage in authentic, detached self-assessment. Some people are unable to look at themselves and their performance in an objective manner. Far easier to look at other people and find yourself lacking by measure. Instead you have to step back and try and look at how you are really performing. 

At the outset, Keith properly criticizes the inability to engage in “authentic, detached self-assessment.”  A worthy point. But then he veers hard left when he writes, “find yourself lacking by measure.”

Why is this a problem?  Chances are pretty darned good that you are lacking. Me too.  Mark Bennett responded to Keith’s happy dance with a smack:

This should be no great surprise; Dunning and Kruger would predict this result. And there are certainly exceptions, but the exceptions are those that Dunning and Kruger might predict: unskilled people who overestimate their own level of skill, rather than the more skilled who underestimate their own.

Self-assessment is notoriously unreliable, whether because we over- or under-estimate our competence.  The Imposter Syndrome, like fear, saves us from being the fool, and doing harm to others in the process, by compelling us not to shut our eyes as tightly as possible and pretend that we’re the little engine that could. Except we can’t.  Or more to the point, we shouldn’t, because we’re not up to the job, our petty little egos notwithstanding.  We may be up to the job with experience, or we may never be up to the job.

Here’s the harsh detail that puts a dark cloud over the unwarranted exuberance: not everybody has the chops to be Superman.  Indeed, most of us don’t, and even though who come close look back at their own battle with Lex Luthor and realize they could have, and should have, done something different, something better.  We acknowledge, at least to ourselves, our limitations.

And then there is the moment when vapid metacognition hits the wall, when two (or more) people talk to each other and tell each other lies about how they’re really good enough and don’t appreciate their wonderfulness.  Never wanting to be mean or hurtful, they agree with each other that they are, indeed, Supermen.  And in the warm glow of validation, they bask in each other’s lies.

Maybe you are good enough.  Maybe you’re as good as you’re going to get.  Maybe you’re up to the job.  And maybe you’re not, and you tell yourself lies to deal with your inadequacies, and excuses to absolve yourself of responsibilities for your failures.

Just as the Imposter Syndrome leads some to fail to appreciate their strengths, the Sunshine Superman Syndrome leads some to fail to appreciate their weaknesses, and to overestimate their competence.  These paths tend to look the same at the outset, and the stroll down one is as easy as the stroll down the other.

As a young lawyer, my partner (who was 20 years my senior) often smacked me around when I got too big for my breeches.*  When I hung around with the grown-up lawyers, and tried to stick in my story as they regaled one another with theirs, I was invariably told to shut up and listen, as my baby lawyer stories brought nothing to the table that everyone else in the room hadn’t experienced many times over.

I had two choices. Either I could do as I was told and learn at the knee of people who lived many times over the things that, for me, existed only in the arrogance of my imagination, or assert myself and get my pathetic little arrogant butt tossed out of the room.

Today, these experienced, accomplished lawyers would be called condescending, as the arrogance of youth is no longer considered a limitation, a challenge to be overcome by experience and effort.  What’s the difference? Too few young lawyers get the smack they so sorely need because experienced lawyers don’t find it worthwhile to argue the point to an unwilling and uncomprehending audience.

But the greater problem is that too many are bolstered by others who tell them they aren’t imposters when, in fact, they most assuredly are.  Ah, they have mad skillz. They are smart, and fabulous, and need to extol their brilliance so the rest of the world can see just how wonderful they are.

Thinking back to the room where the experienced, accomplished lawyers let me listen at their knee provided I kept my trap shut, I learned stuff.  Over the many years since, these stories formed my choices and decisions, and more often than not, guided me to doing better than I would have done left to my own devices.  That’s part of what experience brings, and part of what learning from experience does.  Sure, I was taken by my own genius as a baby lawyer, thinking that I knew it all, or at the very least, could figure it all out.

But as I experienced more, saw success happen through the combination of kismet and effort, and saw failure happen the same way, I realized how fragile our grasp of success and failure could be.  The old guys knew they were imposters, in the sense that they no more had “answers” than they had a firm working knowledge of all they had done wrong in their lives.

The young guys had the necessary insecurity of their inexperience, which served them well in preventing them from rushing blindly off ledges and dropping a thousand feet to their doom.  Today, if someone tells you that you can fly, if all your Twitter followers say so, or you share a podblast with someone who would never tell you that you’re fairly clueless and would do better to stop broadcasting your naiveté and childish perspective, will you shut your eyes and take that leap?

And if you do, will all the other young lawyers, of no greater knowledge, experience or competence than you, applaud your lovely dive and tell you how great you are?

If there is that voice in the back of your head telling you, “no, you really aren’t Superman,” maybe it’s telling you the truth and you shouldn’t leap off that ledge.  And when others like you blow sunshine up your butt, it doesn’t mean you can fly.  No, this isn’t being condescending, but pragmatic.  You see, us old guys were young once, but you baby lawyers have yet to be old.

* Within minutes of posting, Turk emailed to correct this to “britches.” Having been through this debate in the past, and having been lambasted for using britches rather than breeches, I refuse to get into this argument again. If you prefer britches, tough nuggies. I don’t care anymore.

12 thoughts on “The Sunshine Superman Syndrome

  1. William Doriss

    Imposter Syndrome? Never heard of it! I must be living in the Dark Ages;
    it’s a jungle out there. Too soon olda; too late-a schmarta! Good essay,
    Scott, back in the saddle.

  2. Jim Tyre

    During my swearing at (um, in) ceremony in 1978, some old geezer appellate judge bloviated for what seemed like an eternity. One of the things he said was that even if you are Really Good(TM), you can’t really be Really Good(TM) except in relation to your peers until you’ve practiced for at least a decade.

    Being young and possessed of all wisdom, I thought he was full of something. More years later than I have fingers and toes to count (can I borrow some of yours?), I’ve come to realize that, just maybe, he was right.

    1. SHG Post author

      I get a lot of Young Lawyers(TM) telling me I’m a condescending old curmudgeon. Because, you know, I care deeply for their approval. The funny thing is, it only seems condescending when you see if from that baby lawyer side of the table. It reminds me of law students complaining that their prawfs were condescending, because how dare they act as if they were the teachers and the law students were the students. Oh, wait.

  3. John S.

    The tragedy of aging is realizing what an obnoxious little shit you were and knowing you’ll be just as unable to convince all of today’s obnoxious little shits in time to save them from the same.

  4. Keith Lee

    That’s fair enough.

    And if I was constantly espousing nothing but empty platitudes, then people should doubly pay me no heed. But on the same day the podblast came out I wrote a post called “I Feel Like A Shit Lawyer,” in which I describe how all lawyers fail and lose – that no one is Superman. And a few weeks before that, I wrote a post entitled, “Why New Lawyers Should Seek Out Criticism,” describing the value in having experienced lawyers give new lawyers advice. So while in this instance I might not have sufficiently disclaimed Imposter Syndrome, I’m not constantly crowing about how infallible new lawyers.

    I consistently point out that we (new lawyers) all have our training wheels on. But that doesn’t mean I can’t also be encouraging at times, or point out that people can sometime get things right on occasion. Imposter Syndrome does not describe those who feel like frauds while having done nothing – it describes those who continue to feel like frauds while actually having accomplished something. For some who go through the feelings that accompany Imposter Syndrome it can be crippling. It doesn’t enables performance but impairs it. That’s why it’s important for some people to discuss it. And some people need help moving past it.

    That also doesn’t mean that once acknowledging one’s own achievements, a person suddenly casts off Imposter Syndrome forever. As I mentioned on the podcast, if a person is engaged in continual improvement and growth, then Imposter Syndrome is going to come up again & again. As it should. If you’re engaged in a new endeavour, then you should rightfully feel like a beginner. You don’t even have the ability or experience to appear as an imposter. You have to trudge through learning and experience to gain competence.

    You have to get beat down in order to know how to fight back.

    That’s also why I shared my experience of getting a client for the first time. I felt like a fake, a fraud. I could think of no reason why someone would hire me. But, using that feeling as fuel, I worked hard and resolved the issue for the client. They were happy with the work done. They went on to refer other clients to me.

    That feeling, that anxiousness, remains with every client. It continues to provide fuel. But if I felt the same as I did with that first client – unqualified, an imposter – then it would be unhelpful and disingenuous. It would mean that I had not learned anything and gained no experience. Now I have other things to consider when dealing with a new client. New anxieties that come with exposure and a measure of maturity. To not acknowledge that I have grown and learned in the years since that first client crossed my door would to be engage in its own type of imposter syndrome.

    Yet your point remains, and it is something I will consider. But as you state, people need “a firm working knowledge of all they had done wrong in their lives.” Maybe what I’m doing will be wrong. Maybe it will be right. Who knows. But it’s my choice to go down that road. If it turns out I made a wrong turn, then so be it. I’ll handle that as the time may come. And further down road when such an occasion come up again, I’ll have the knowledge of having done wrong previously and will hopefully make a better decision the next time.

    1. SHG Post author

      I use you as my foil for posts like this because I know you’re tough enough to take it, while others might cry and call me mean names. That said, I listened to a bit of the podblast and cringed. Nobody shits only rainbows, Keith. Nobody.

      I consistently point out that we (new lawyers) all have our training wheels on. But that doesn’t mean I can’t also be encouraging at times, or point out that people can sometime get things right on occasion.

      The options aren’t limited to encouraging or discouraging, but include realistic. And why is this important?

      Maybe what I’m doing will be wrong. Maybe it will be right. Who knows. But it’s my choice to go down that road. If it turns out I made a wrong turn, then so be it.

      Well, no. This would be true if you were a drummer in a rock and roll band, but not for a lawyer, as your unrealistic choices come at other people’s expense. When you’re responsible for other people’s lives, you don’t get to be so laissez faire about failure. Perhaps Jeena, given her exceptionally limited concerns, can afford to be, but you, as a practicing lawyer, have a higher duty than cutting yourself a break for poor choices.

      1. Keith Lee

        RE: Unrealistic choices & my commentary regarding right and wrong it was vis a vis the podcast, not in my role as a lawyer. If I acted that way in regards to clients I would be a complete shitbag.

        1. SHG Post author

          I knew the real Keith Lee was still there, the one who gives me faith in the future of the law. And not the one on that vapid podblast.

      2. Bartleby the Scrivener

        Sorry for the pedantry, but wouldn’t that be “your unrealistic choices”?

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