Mental Health · Personal · Social Contract

Who Isn’t Behind the Curtain? (Dunning-Kruger Effect, Impostor Syndrome, and a World of Uncertainty)

I take IQ tests as an antidote to boredom. A score over 130 is routine – sometimes exceeding 140 or 150 depending on the test.

No, I am not a genius.

The only way I could outperform the general population on an exam by a wider margin is to make the exam about my personal history (and even then the various cognitive biases that inevitably colour my memory will deduct points).

IQ tests merely felt like an appropriate starting point because this sort of feedback was typical to my development through childhood and adolescence. People told me how impressive my writing was, heaped praise upon my work ethic, and could not boast enough about my solid academic performance. I earned As (my secret: I knew how school worked – learning and earning grades are separate objectives).

No, I’m not a genius – but I’m not a fool either. One of the benefits of my personality and anxiety issues is the omnipresence of introspection (I say “benefit” loosely here – taking the perspective that the mental health issues existed and enhanced my tendency to introspect rather than my tendency to introspect leading to the issues). I feel I am a strong judge of my abilities in any particular area.

I possess above average intelligence and an ever-improving ability to write. I do not possess “genius” levels of intellect though. I am strong in basic maths and grasp the conceptual aspects of advanced maths, but I lose the ability to perform the calculations (for example, I can explain what calculus determines but would struggle to solve a calculus problem). The same is true of science – well versed in basic scientific principles but I’m not chemist or physicist. I have a talent for mimicry with speaking voices but cannot sing well at all.

Psychology refers to the phenomenon I experience in most aspects of my life as an aspect of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Whereas an individual lacking the skills in a particular area would likewise lack the precise knowledge necessary to assess those skills (the actual definition of Dunning-Kruger), I possess enough skill to know how poor I am in a particular area.

For example, I know how to sketch and draw. Some people find my work impressive. I know it’s not. That is not false humility – that is the experience of working as an artist. At one point I knew nothing about art and began to work at it. Through working on it I came to understand the principles of palette, light, balance, and the other elements of composition, as well as the techniques required to achieve the desired outcome.

I know enough about art to know how much I do not know about art. It delineates my limitations in the area while also providing a path forward. I know what I need to study or practise to improve.

Contrariwise, consider a contestant on America’s Got Talent or American Idol who is so deficient, so immune to the concepts of musical composition that not only are they poor performers, but also they possess an inexplicable sense of confidence in their ability to perform. Based on what they know about singing (a great deal relative to their consciousness and a great nothing relative to the subject itself), they believe they are experts.

It is easy for an actual musician and even the average layperson to identify that Dunning-Kruger Effect. They walk out on stage with confidence and deliver one of the most horrific musical performances imaginable, leaving everyone to question why on earth they believed they could do it.

Along the way, they likely received positive feedback and encouragement from family, friends, and possibly strangers hoping to help the individual along in their development, aware of the lack of ability but blissfully unaware of how far along the individual already thought themselves.

The effect of all this blind encouragement on me, whether offered directly to me or observed in the cases of others, is a general distrust.

One might liken to Impostor Syndrome. At times I definitely cross over into this area. I do fear failure, I do harbour feelings of fear or even guilt about success where others struggle, and I do feel competitive enough with myself (especially as pertains my perfectionism) that anything less than the superlative can feel like failure.

More often than not, though, it’s merely the opposite side of the Dunning-Kruger coin.

Here’s an example. I do my current job and I do it well. My work involves one computer application in particular, for which the company regards me as a Subject Matter Expert (SME). The designation works for me – I know more about the application than the average bear, and when I do not know something about the application I often know the person who does. Still, to that end, the designation of “expert” feels purely relative as I am aware of the great deal that I do not know about the application.

Not only do I perform my designated job functions, I also take the time to analyse and search for opportunities for improvement. I work to identify deficiencies, redundancies, and inefficiencies in current methods so we can improve.

That is my job. My supervisory staff often regard me as one of the best and brightest.

Do you see the gap between the two statements? If so, you already understand what I am discussing in this piece. If you do not, fret not, for I will explain.

I do my job to the best of my ability. Is it above average? Yes, I think I can safely say so without fear of reproach. But “above average” is a relative concept. As it relates to my job description, rather than the performance of others in the organisation, I am doing my job well. That does not make me “best and brightest” – that makes me a good fit for the position.

On the other side, I have staff from another department with which I work. I provide them reports and analyses so that they might do their job better. Recently, the organisation terminated scores of people in that area and hired contractor staff.

This is not a slight against contractors; I am not implying they are inferior workers. What I am stating explicitly is that the company removed individuals who had experience and replaced them with new individuals who knew nothing of our processes or applications. Further, because of the abruptness of the transition, the new staff did not receive adequate training. They are not fulfilling the requirements of their positions well. I do not blame them, but this is an objective reality of the situation.

However, as we all operate within that reality and this notion of average, these individuals perform “as well as can be expected.”

Now do you see the gap?

It represents a paradigm shift. Because a person in this position performs a particular way on average, anyone who performs that way “meets expectations”. Anyone who exceeds that is one of the “best and brightest”.

It results in a situation where these individuals are asking me about the basics of their job. The organisational response? An expectation that I will determine the answer and support these people.

Now, I am not the sort to regard something as “not my job” (as referenced in prior posts – duties and responsibilities). I do ask the question though, if something unknown comes across my path in the performance of my duties, we are reasoning that it becomes my responsibility to put forth the effort to make it known.

Why then are the individuals asking the question of me in the first place, the people whose duties include the completion of that particular item, not responsible for making it known to themselves?

Understand that the issue is not the increased responsibility on me – if I chose to punt the question back to these people as “not my job, go figure it out,” I would not face any punitive response. The issue is the lack of accountability on the other side of the equation.

Despite bringing these inadequacies to the attention of managers, the paradigm shift paints the inadequacy as some opportunity for enhancement.

“People are not currently able to do this, but perhaps we can revise the training or modify the process accordingly such that they become able to do it.”

Well, no. The thing in question is not some nice opportunity to improve performance, it’s one of the basic requirements of the position. That solutions to this gap do not already exist is an egregious oversight obscured by the sense that the “average worker” is unable to do it. If a worker is unable to do it, they are therefore not held accountable. We simply identify them as a candidate for future improvement.

Meanwhile, someone like myself who is doing their job, gets viewed by management as a sort of ace.

What does that say about standards and expectation? To me, that says “good enough” is quite literally good enough. The difference between “good enough” and “well” might be life and death though.

Consider – would you jump out of a plane with a parachute the instructor described as having been packed, “Good enough”?

“How do the supports and structure of that bridge appear?” Good enough.

I may be driving over that bridge later today. Every GD screw had better be tight and rust-free in a structure that is free of cracks and warping.

Good enough is just enough – the bare minimum, which in the world of this paradigm shift has become the new average. How often do we hear stories about an accident resulting from something that had actually failed inspection, but because it was close enough to “good enough” (or, in terms of the paradigm shift, was just below average) received clearance anyway? Sure, it didn’t meet the standards, but those standards have a cushion right? If the bridge can support 10 tonnes, it surely will not collapse at 10 tonne, 1 ounce. It seems unlikely that the bridge would even collapse a few pounds under 10 tonne. We can survive with the current conditions a bit longer.

This awareness of the human element to things and a general lack of accountability in the world instills a strong sense of distrust and fear.

For years I (half) joked that the reason I refused to ride roller coasters and some of the other more intense rides at the piers was that I attended high school with some of the people who worked for the piers and might be responsible for inspecting those rides for safety. Physics will never fail me – people, on the other hand…maybe their math is wrong. Maybe the math is correct and the corresponding layout is “good enough”. Maybe everything about that was fine 10 years ago but the seaside roller coaster is now in a state of disrepair some inattentive worker cleared for use anyway.

More specifically, it does come back to Impostor Syndrome. It comes back to the idea that if one is praising me to that degree, then that person’s standards are far too low because I am not that impressive.

In a world where I receive compliments and they receive not a word at all, one cannot expect someone like me to live without a degree of suspicion about how well people are meeting their respective responsibilities – especially in areas where I know I am unable to judge ability due to my lack of knowledge in the field.

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