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.