Having been a therapist for nearly 20 years, I have gotten familiar with the ebb and flow of self-confidence that comes with each new challenge. I sometimes like to say, “When imposter syndrome wears off, be on the lookout for the Dunning-Kruger effect.” These two cognitive biases are on opposite ends of a spectrum of expertise: Imposter syndrome tells us we might know less than we know, while the Dunning-Kruger effect makes us think we know more than we really do.
Adulthood comes to our lives armed with a tidal wave of possible knowledge for us to seek out. Through various choices and experiences, we hone in on the knowledge that is most interesting to us or most applicable to our lives. However, once we have learned the knowledge, we must cross a bridge into putting that knowledge to use, at which point we become vulnerable both to being seen and being accountable.
Recently, I appeared on my first podcast episode as a guest to discuss the application of something I know - human behavior - to something I know less well (cryptocurrency and NFTs). I am familiar with human behavior because I observe and interact with people and the way their minds work, but just as with the encounter between any human being and a technology they don’t fully understand, I felt myself stretching. On the taped version as I later viewed it, I saw how much more often I went searching for a way to verbalize my thoughts when a question was more technical. I heard myself stumbling for words, felt myself fumbling for solid ground. This was a very uncomfortable place to sit.
This discomfort is familiar to most of us; we do something new but we aren’t sure how it will work out. We seek any certainty we can find and we try to build on that. We fear criticism, or we fear failure, or we fear confirmation of the things we doubt about ourselves. Whenever we step outside our zone of comfort, these kinds of feelings can arise. We might use a projection of false confidence to step our way through our doubts, but the facade can never fully stand in the shoes of our reality. False confidence might convince other people, but our own mind knows how we see ourselves.
Another way of looking at self-confidence is to think in terms of optimism, pessimism, and pragmatism. The optimist can look at the self and say, “You’re doing great and you’ll keep doing great.” The pessimist will say, “No, this is horrible and it’s going to fail.” The pragmatist will say, “What do I know for sure? Well, I have learned a great deal about this, but I might have some blind spots to watch out for.” It’s not that any of these are giving you wrong thoughts, but those thoughts aren’t always helpful. What is immensely helpful is to have the mindset that is the best fit for the scenario.
Being your own cheerleader is great for a situation where you need a boost of confidence, like right before you step out on stage in public, but it can mask knowing there are very real problems going on. Being a doomsayer can lead to paralyzing anxiety or it can bring you down from false confidence and start opening your eyes to find your blind spots. Being a pragmatist can help you problem-solve and create, but it can also cause an experience to be emotionless.
Because each of these mindsets can have a place in your thinking, either of benefit or at a cost - or both - it can be crucial to have a strategy for using them productively. You can choose to surround yourself with people who are strong where you are weak: if you tend to be overly optimistic, you might have an advisor who is more pragmatic, and perhaps one that tends toward pessimism. You can build the three mindsets into a thinking structure when you are stepping outside your comfort zone by asking three questions: a) What will go right? b) What will go wrong? c) What do I need for this to work best?
Finally, when imposter syndrome or the Dunning-Kruger effect show up, they rely on a loss of perspective. By gaining a broader perspective, you can combat both of these cognitive biases. Even if you do not have the benefit of gaining greater knowledge in the moment, you can ground yourself in the reality of time: we must accept the past, we may prepare for the future, we can only act in the present. If in the past we did not know something that we now in the present have learned, we cannot hold ourselves responsible for acting on what we in the past did not know; but now that we know it, we are now responsible for acting with respect to that knowledge. This kind of perspective-gaining allows a person to maintain both humility and confidence: humility to know that mistakes are inevitable, and confidence to know that we become greater for them.