Of Hobbits, jesters and skilled people

The human mind is amazing. Here are four things to do when it tries to trick us.

As a UXer, I find human behaviour very interesting and recently I had the opportunity to explore what is known to many as impostor syndrome. So when it was my turn, I chose to talk about this topic.

My show and tell about the Impostor Syndrome

Who is familiar with Tolkien’s tales will know that most hobbits are not curious at all. They are not explorers, they are creatures of habits, anyone different is queer and not worth much respect. All Hobbits like is eating cakes, drinking tea and chit-chatting with other respectable Hobbits.

Now, what does this have to do with the impostor syndrome?

“There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself.” Gandalf about Bilbo in The Hobbit.

This quote synthesizes what the impostor syndrome is all about: a gap between what we think we know about ourselves and what we think others know about ourselves.

The Impostor Syndrome is not an actual syndrome, it is not pathological, it’s more like a state of mind and it is typical of skilled people. Putting it simply, it is the fear of being found out as incompetent, as a fraud that doesn’t deserve that job position or the respect of peers. Consistent and evident success doesn’t wash away this fear, quite the opposite, it feeds it.

No one is immune, engineers, writers, artists and doctors, men and women, all can suffer because of it and today is more common than in the seventies, when Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes defined it for the first time.

At its roots impostor syndrome is a combination of critical and self-critical thinking mixed with strong work ethics and a hint of introspection. In short, this particular state of mind affects skilled people that fail to see the gap between their self-perception, how they think others perceive them and how others actually see them.

We tend to project our own thoughts onto others and we strongly believe that we understand what others are thinking. This comes from our natural ability to read minds and understand other people’s intentions. Such skill is vital for our social lives. Our bias on other people’s thoughts greatly contributes to our fear of missing expectations. At each step, we feel on the brink to make the next mistake and be finally found out.

Sometimes we might even try to escape this fear by — secretly? — admitting to ourselves that we are simply not good enough: someone else, more skilled and more competent, will take care of everything. This way, we don’t take responsibility of a situation and we avoid the risk to show the world our supposed inaptitude. Our mind can be quite sneaky ;)

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” ― William Shakespeare, As You Like It

On the other side of the spectrum, there is the Dunning and Kruger effect: someone who is truly not competent in a particular field, actually thinks to be the best in that domain. This happens because of the inability of evaluating other people’s competence due to the lack of domain knowledge itself.

In my opinion, this effect can be even worse than the impostor syndrome. It is very difficult to approach someone who is under this effect: for them to see their gap would require some of the knowledge they miss in the first place. I also believe that this effect goes hand in hand with confirmation bias, possibly the hardest cognitive bias to curb.

So, now what?

We now know that our mind can trick us, by making us think that we are not good enough — and somebody will soon find this out. So, what do we do?

In my research, I stumbled on a few interesting sources that helped me overcome this fear, and perhaps they can help others too.

1 Fake it until you make it

This comes from a TED Talk by Amy Cuddy.

Her story is really inspiring: a tremendous car crash impacted her cognitive abilities and as a result she was told she could never have finished college. Instead of giving up, she worked even harder and managed to get into college. She was determined to quit the night before her first-year talk, so to avoid the shame of being finally “found out”. Now she is a PhD and a well acknowledged social scientist.

In one of her studies, she observed that our body language — nonverbal communication — really affects the way we feel about ourselves. The study says that if you act confidently, your body will chemically boost your confidence for real. Be like an actor on a stage and show your audience that your ideas are true and worth considering. If you show competence, people will see it and you will feel it. Besides, an actor needs to work really hard in order to get the character right, so, even if you fake it, you are kind of making it for real as well.

Just be careful to not abuse this technique, be honest and mindful of your biases.

2 Fight your biases

The Cognitive Bias Codex — 180+ biases, designed by John Manoogian

I mentioned cognitive biases earlier. Biases are actually useful tools to the advantage of our cognitive economy. We constantly need to make the right decisions among many options and we don’t always have time to do SWOT analysis or call for outside help. Hence, we often rely on what our experience has taught us in the past. Sometimes this process is so automatic that we don’t even realise that we are applying our own biases. Being mindful of this mechanism helps us reconsider some of our beliefs and leave space to curiosity, especially when interpreting what others are telling us.

The next time you feel hurt by a comment or you are not sure about the real meaning of a feedback, do not assume the truth, just go and ask. You might be surprised!

3 Stay hungry, stay foolish

Steve Jobs at Stanford University

“Stay hungry, stay foolish” is so overused that it has almost lost its meaning. If you feel the same way about it you might want to refresh your memory by watching Steve Job’s speech at Stanford University. Perhaps it will help you grasp the power of this quote once again.

Being hungry to learn and to experiment is the only way to test what we really know and what we don’t know. Also, it requires to be willing to forgive ourself when we make mistakes. Making a mistake, sometimes, is the most effective way to learn. Get it wrong once, understand your error, don’t lose your determination and keep daring to do. Transform your mistakes in positive learning experiences.

Though, but hey, nobody said it was going to be easy.

4 Be glad

Lastly, I believe it’s important to recognise when other people appreciate our work. If you receive a compliment or a critique, be glad that they shared their thoughts with you. Go deeper, investigate the reasons behind that feedback and in doing so, try to understand the real intentions and goals of all the parties involved — yours included.

So, remember

“There is a lot more in you than they guess, and a deal more than you have any idea of yourself.”

Bonus tip

Just be honest. First be honest with yourself: have a chat in front of the mirror and make sure to highlight what you do well, what you love doing and what you need to improve. Make a list of the things that you are not happy with and start to work on the first one. When you feel disheartened, take a look at all the good things and improvements that you achieved so far. Remind yourself the lessons you learned from your mistakes or from the help of other people.

Have a happy life! :)