A Bunch of Phonies


Right now is a stressful time for Wright and Rede. I'm heading into the holiday season for the first time and I don't really know what to expect. One of the ways I'm coping with this stress is by talking about it. Sometimes I learn the most interesting things by having casual conversations with people I'm close with.

After getting my one of my notebooks mentioned in Cleveland Magazine this month, I jokingly said "Maybe now people will finally start to realize that I don't know what I'm doing." It was a lighthearted comment but there is a lot of truth in that. I tend to joke about things that worry me.

I am an impostor, or at least that is how I feel. I've tricked people into thinking I know what I'm doing. I've mistakenly gotten attention I did not deserve by accident.  I always feel like I'm probably doing things wrong. Maybe it's because I am self taught. Maybe it's because I've never started a business before. I'm just fumbling in the dark here. Sometimes it seems like I live in a house of cards built of misinterpretations and coincidence, on a ground of false hope, and populated by little people made of LIES. Maybe I need to spend less time alone in my basement workshop.

It is true. Most of the time if feel like a fake. When someone buys something from me it fills me with pride, but a tiny part of me want's to say "Wait! Are you sure you want to buy that? It's not ready and I don't know what I'm doing."

I always just figured this was a personal quirk. Maybe it was just part of being self-employed. What I found interesting was what happened a week later.

The person I had been talking with was asked to join the board on a nonprofit they work with. While being very happy they also told me that they were kind of intimidated.

"I'm not old enough to be on the Board. It's kind of weird that they picked me. What do I know?"

There it was again. This feeling that they had somehow accidentally tricked people into thinking that they are qualified for something they are not. What really struck me was when they told me that they had confessed their fears to a coworker who said something similar.

"I sometimes feel like people are going to walk into this office at any moment and tell me that I don't know what I'm doing."

The interesting thing about these two is that they are both very successful. They went to good schools, work for a multimillion dollar company where they have both received accolades and promotions, and have happy families. So maybe this feeling is not unique to me.

I did a little research. Turns out this phenomena is called the "Imposter Syndrome" and it affects about 70% of the population at some point in their lives.  Tina Fey, Mike Meyers, Maya Angelou, and Stephen King have all been quoted as feeling like frauds.

Okay, so it's not really all that uncommon after all. I like to think that there is more to it than that. The same study suggests that more successful people are more likely to experience this phenomena. The Imposter Syndrome can be a driving force.

It is this feeling that makes me try to reach for the limits of my ability. If I always feel like I'm going to let people down then at least I can give them the best that I got. It is this feeling that is always forcing me to try to do better than I did before. It's feeling like a fraud that drives me to learn the skills that will make me a master rather than a fake.

Take a look at it from another angle. While doing my research I found that there is also something called the "Dunning–Kruger effect". This is "a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes."  So that jackass at work that thinks he is Gods-gift-to-the-company, but is really just an incompetent buffoon, is displaying the Dunning–Kruger effect. Are you as happy as I am to know that there is a term for this???

So if you take a look at our Dunning–Kruger effected coworker (lets just call him Jack) you can see how the Impostor Effect can be a good thing. Jack thinks he does perfect work. Jack doesn't need to try hard. Jack doesn't feel the need to improve. Jack will never rise above his failings and Jack will never reach for his full potential. Poor Jack.

Personally I'm comforted knowing that I'm not alone in this. Most people feel like a fraud at some point in their lives. Statistically, it means that you are likely succeeding at something. More importantly it can be a powerful tool if you don't let it hold you back. So I say go forth, do the best you can, feel like a bit of an ass while you are doing it. It's okay to smile while you do it, and when you are alone with someone you trust tell them the truth. You might be surprised what you hear back.