dunning, kruger, the expert and the impostor

When an expert underestimates their ability, they are likely experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect. The accumulation of information, knowledge, or skill generates a gnawing understanding of the things yet unknown. The collection of the known unknowns grows larger. The unawareness of the unknown can first manifest as overestimated capability and know-how. But the inevitable overwhelmedness caused by our lack of knowledge exposes us to the impostor syndrome.

I’ve fallen victim to overestimating my knowledge on issues. Some things, they seem so simple at first. Time and again, I’ve come to realise I was only at the beginning of something, and needed to learn more. This has lead to a somewhat paralysing world view, by which I find it difficult to claim anything with certainty. Instead, I aim to only assess things to the best of my ability and current knowledge.

This is not a negative framework of thought, but can be overwhelming in discourse. It sometimes leads to what appears apologising or uncertain output of my ideas. All the while someone with binary opinions and definite conviction, seem more learned, despite their actual knowledge.

There’s a survivorship bias twisting the appearance of a baseline. We have a tendency to compare ourselves to those we are most exposed to. Journalists are unlikely to write about the slob next door, with the given exception he’s a failed high achiever of yesteryear. We get a view of a world filled with intelligent, interesting and confident individuals. The unfair comparison can be a multiplying force with the impostor effect.

It’s best to start with simplicity, but never claim that that’s all there is to it. Often, the Pareto principle is a great tool for estimating knowledge and effect ratio. Meaning, with 20% of knowledge, one can reach 80% of the returns. Little knowledge often goes a long way, it boosts confidence and gives the appearance of grand wisdom.

Squeezing that last 20% of returns, delving into areas beyond the basic knowledge, is often eye-opening. Simple principles branch out to their own fields and sub-fields, to which different specialised experts dedicate entire careers to. At the same time, this is difficult and burdening, and falling back to simplified views is tempting.

After realising this within a few areas of interest, people tend to little by little understand that his is the case with everything. I wonder if the wisdom associated with old age has something to do with that.

Realising the complicatedness of even the simplest of things, is an antidote against dogmatism, absolute truths and oversimplification. Awareness of this is an excellent tool for promoting an open mind and self-improvement. It can also become a poison for self-confidence. The more I know, the less definitive opinions I have. And the more of an impostor I feel.


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