Imposter syndrome vs Dunning Kroeger

I was catching up with a good friend and former colleague yesterday who has just joined a new team, working with some technologies that are new to him. He said that while he was enjoying learning new things, he didn’t like the feeling of wondering whether he was up to scratch, and while he self-identified as “mid-level”, his team had deemed him a “senior” engineer, so he was worried about living up to that title – classic imposter syndrome! Imposter syndrome is very common in the software industry, as is its evil twin the Dunning Kroeger effect.

Imposter syndrome comes from a hypersensitivity to your weaknesses, often paired with an undervaluation of your strengths. The result is feeling anxious – to varying degrees – and a feeling of “worrying about being found out”. It’s something that many of the most respected names in software development have talked about, and that’s probably no coincidence. The paradox of imposter syndrome is that if you are worried about being an imposter, you almost automatically are not one. Equally, if you’re reading blogs, watching videos, and generally seeking out opportunities to learn, you are again almost automatically not an imposter.

The facts of life in the software industry are that it is a fast-paced environment, and one where you will always be surrounded by pretty smart people. There is also a R&D element to the field, where from time to time you will probably try to do things that very few people in the world know. If you feel like there are things you don’t know, you’re right… and that’s very normal, and a good thing. If what we did was easy, or it was possible to learn absolutely everything about everything, it wouldn’t be as enjoyable, and our skills would be less valuable. Combined with a constant stream of new technologies, the only conclusion that can be reached is that there is nobody in the world who knows everything they will ever need to know and can afford to rest on their laurels; if you want to succeed in software you need to embrace constant learning!

What defines you in situations where your current skills and knowledge will need to grow is how you respond. By definition, an imposter in this situation will instinctively tend towards deception – they may deceive themselves that they don’t need to learn, or try to deceive others. If you face up to these learning opportunities honestly – both with yourselves and with others – you are by definition not an imposter.

To try to help my friend appreciate his situation, I asked him how he would respond if I asked him, right now, to do something he wasn’t sure how to do. He said it was funny I asked, because that exact situation had come up earlier in the day – his response was to tell his team openly and honestly that he wasn’t sure, to ask whether anyone else had the skills or knowledge to help him, and set the expectation straight away that he wanted to learn but it could take a little longer than first estimated. That’s pretty much a perfect answer in my book – he’s not showing weakness, but great strength by setting this example to his peers. Hopefully his honesty and professionalism will empower others in his team to also not feel like they have to be a hero and do everything alone. Teams thrive on opportunities like this to learn together and to help one another.

One of the reasons imposter syndrome can have such a strong effect on people is the fear of what will happen if they are “found out”. The irony – as this example showed – is that if you are open about your weaknesses, people will greatly respect that. If someone is volunteering their weaknesses, I can be pretty sure they aren’t hiding things from me, so they have earned my trust. By contrast if all I hear is 100% good news and confidence, I have to wonder if that’s a facade.

By contrast, the Dunning Kroeger effect describes the opposite end of the spectrum. To be clear, there is no implication in these cases of intentional dishonesty, more of a lack of self-awareness. The Dunning Kroeger effect is where when a group of people are asked to rate their own abilities, those with the highest level of ability consistently under-rate themselves, while those with the lowest ability tend to over-rate themselves by the most. A classic example of this is that American students rate their academic abilities in mathematics as being top in the world, while international league tables paint a vastly different picture. One explanation of this effect is that those with the lowest ability tend to have the least interest in the field, and are simply unaware of how much more there is that they are unaware of, while those with the most ability have got to that position through interest and curiosity, and are always looking for new things – which makes them aware that for everything they learn, they find more things that they want to learn next.

Hopefully you’ve chosen to be in the field of software engineering because you enjoy learning about and applying the vastly diverse tools and technologies available to help people solve problems. If that’s the case there’s good news – you’re going to get plenty of opportunities to keep learning, and while that sometimes means you may feel out of your depth at times, if you apply that willingness to learn, you’ll be just fine.