Business leaders, politicians, you, me — we all make it up as we go, and that is ok.
I often had the feeling everybody was an expert or knew a lot more than me. That I was an imposter and had no clue about what I was doing. Especially when starting a new job at a big company. Big companies have all the knowledge, and their processes are well thought out, you would think. But whenever I started working at such a company, I would notice that they have the same issues as everyone else. And that’s when it hit me: nobody knows what they are doing. Most companies and people are just very good at hiding their dirty laundry. And that’s fine.
When you start something new, like a new job, you probably don’t know what you need to do precisely. And that makes perfect sense, as you have never done it before. It’s new to you. And you are not alone. Not knowing also goes for the most prominent CEO or president of a country when they first start their job. The first day Barack Obama walked into office, he must have looked around and wondered with some anxiety what to do next. And that’s fine.
Most things we do daily are new. Every situation is different because circumstances change. We seem to have a tendency, however, to think that we are the only ones that experience this. We believe that we might be the wrong person for the job if we have never done it before. That’s probably the best of two possible things you can feel. Better than feeling confident at the job you have never done before. Let me explain using two effects from behavioural psychology that I often think of.
The Dunning-Kruger effect
The effect was almost called the X-factor effect because of the television show. In the show, people who are not very proficient at a skill (like singing) seem convinced that they are experts.
How come, people that are bad at something, usually don’t know? The Dunning-Kruger effect theorises that this is because they have too little knowledge of the subject to understand how little they know. They judge their skill using the incomplete level of expertise they have at their exposal. If you know little of playing guitar and can play your first chords, it seems like an easy road to playing full-fledged Spanish guitar. But only when you master a subject, you can see in beginners what they don’t know.
During the study of the Dunning-Kruger effect, students had to predict their performance on a test. Students that did the worst predicted they did very well. They did not know enough to know how little they knew. Students that did very well on the test thought that their performance was not very good compared to the other students. They used their own experience to judge others and thought that everybody had the same level of knowledge as themselves. And with their relatively high level of expertise, they were more aware of their wrong answers than the students that were not experts in the subject.
And with this piece of knowledge, you are becoming more skilled in this subject and ready for the next part.
It’s the fear that you are an imposter and someone is about to find out. The feeling you might have when starting a new job. If you are this person, there is a good chance you are knowledgable enough that in terms of the Dunning-Kruger effect, you are one of the better students and have a bit of an understanding of the things you don’t know. That you feel like an imposter, probably means that you are not.
If you didn’t feel like an imposter, you would probably not have enough knowledge of what you are doing to understand what you don’t know. My favourite story about the Dunning-Kruger effect is the one where a fellow professor argued with professor Dunning that the Dunning-Kruger effect did not exist. Dunning argued that since they had opposite opinions, one of them was probably wrong and utterly unaware of his lack of knowledge — thereby proving the Dunning-Kruger effect.
The best person for the job probably isn’t you.
Statistically, that’s simply the case. Whether you have just been elected as president or selected for that fantastic job at Google, there is someone out there, better suited for the job. There are so many people in the world that the statistical chance of you being the best person for the job is just slim to none. And that’s fine.
You don’t have to be the best at the job. But you can aspire to be. Know that you know how little you know, you can aim to increase your level of skill and learn. You probably will make loads of mistakes doing this. Making mistakes is a way to learn. The moment you stop making mistakes is perhaps the best time to move on as your learning curve will flatten out. So embrace the mistakes you make when starting something new, and use them as opportunities to keep learning.
And next time when you are to embark on something new, and you feel like an imposter, remember — nobody knows what they are doing. And that’s ok.
Three mistakes you don’t have to make — I made them for you.
Don’t pretend to know what you’re doing. That you have gaps in your knowledge, is ok. And if you own up to that, people usually are very understanding. Pretending to know something and causing errors because of this, is something people are less likely to forgive.
Don’t assume others know what they are doing. Always be a critical thinker and don’t make assumptions. Just because someone is longer at a job, doesn’t necessarily mean that they know more. If you don’t understand why the other has a different opinion, ask! It’s your opportunity to learn or to teach.
Not doing what you love. I was a lawyer for almost a year before I got into tech — eleven of the most excruciating months of my life. Learning and increasing your skill is so much easier if you do something you love. It won’t cost you the same amount of energy to learn about something you are not passionate about.
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