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Personal Growth

Nobody Knows What The Hell They Are Doing

Next time you’re feeling apprehensive about your work, because others in your field seem more talented or confident, remember this: they only seem that way because you can’t see what they’re thinking.


There’s an old puzzle that philosophers like to ponder: how could you ever be certain that anyone else has a mind at all? The truth is that you can’t. Ultimately, even our closest relatives—people we’ve known for decades, or who gave birth to us, or vice versa—are closed books: you’ll never get direct access to their thoughts or emotions. It’s the sort of terrifying realization that might trigger an existential meltdown in the sanest of us. Yet when it comes to creativity, it’s actually enormously liberating. 

By nature, human beings are comparers: our happiness depends, at least partly, on feeling better off than others. Studies have shown that many of us would rather earn more than our co-workers, even if that meant earning less money overall. And we judge our creative output similarly: we deem it a success if it’s as good or better than other people’s.

But there’s a huge problem lurking here. We’re comparing apples with oranges—or, as the saying goes, comparing our insides with other people’s outsides. That guy on stage who’s giving a super-smooth presentation, while you wait nervously in the wings until it’s your turn? He might well be a panicking wreck inside. You could never know. 

In fact, if he’s really good, he probably is panicking inside. Research suggests that the so-called “impostor syndrome” may get worse as people get better: the more accomplished you get, the more likely you are to rub shoulders with ever more talented people, leaving you feeling even more inadequate by comparison.

The genuinely untalented, meanwhile, probably have no idea that they’re no good—because they’re too untalented to realize it. (This is the “Dunning-Kruger effect,” inspired by the tale of an incompetent bank robber who thought rubbing lemon juice on his face would make him invisible on security cameras.) In short: if you’re worried you don’t measure up, that could well be a sign that you do.

If you’re worried you don’t measure up, that could well be a sign that you do.

And the truth, deep down, is that we all feel as though we’re just winging it. “I have written 11 books,” said the late Maya Angelou, who was renowned as a novelist, poet, and memoirist, “but each time, I think ‘Uh-oh. They’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.’” Angelou was a remarkable talent, but she was equally remarkable in being willing to admit that she didn’t usually feel that way.

This is something it’s even harder to keep in mind today, when our lives unfold in public on Facebook and Twitter, and via well-designed web presences. We use these, naturally enough, to showcase the best parts of our lives: the joyous weddings and enviable vacations, the finished projects, and testimonials from satisfied clients. But we forget that we’re only seeing everyone else’s highlights, too—not the sleepless nights, the abandoned attempts, the moments of despair and self-doubt. 

None of this is an argument for abandoning self-criticism completely. Holding yourself to exacting standards, within reason, is a vital discipline for improving your product. But it is an invaluable reminder, as we navigate the world of creative work, never to take other people’s facades as reliable evidence of what’s going on within.

The real trick to producing great work isn’t to find ways to eliminate the edgy, nervous feeling that you might be swimming out of your depth. Instead, it’s to remember that everyone else is feeling it, too. We’re all in deep water. Which is fine: it’s by far the most exciting place to be.

Oliver Burkeman

Oliver Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, and writes a column on psychology for The Guardian. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him at @oliverburkeman.

Comments (103)
  • Steven

    Great article and as it’s said, an invaluable advice. My experience is that absolutely everyone you are looking up to is looking up (and feeling weak compared to) someone else, too. I gues this will be a life-long lesson to learn, but having a strong self-esteem is surely helpful!

    • Therese Awad

      You’re right, strongly agree

  • Babaramram

    When you live in the present moment you can’t help but “wing it”.

  • http://theanswers42.blogspot.com Margaret Nelson

    The only times I’ve bothered about who’s earning more than me have been when men were paid more for doing the same job, but I did start work before the Equal Pay Act (I’m 70). We still don’t have equal pay.

    As for “winging it” – I’ve always been conscious of other people pretending they’re not, and I’ve always done it.

  • http://yourauthenticweb.com/services/web-design/ Ashley Pajak

    This has been a struggle for me as well. When I first applied for my current job, I was given a test on skills. Inside my head I was freaking, on the verge of crying because I thought there was no way I could do this. As I listened to another being interviewed, I entertained the idea of just walking out because I could not do this job. Now the thing I was being tested on, I do with ease everyday and there are very few times I have a problem too big for me. It has been the greatest lesson to me growing up that I most likely will be uncomfortable and I will want to cry, but just keep doing it. Fake it till you make it.

    • http://www.yourauthenticweb.com/ Corey Alexander

      I knew you had no idea what you were doing. ;^)

  • myard77

    With smart people, this feeling never truly goes away. The ones who think they’ve got it all figured out, they’re one decision away from disaster. It is how one handles the feeling that makes the difference. I’m still working on that one.

  • Bobby Pringle

    Nice article and resonates. It’s true about progression putting you more in the firing line amongst those deemed to be highly competent. Self doubt and fear can be a breeding ground here. Which is why you should remember the takeaway from this..If you’re worried you don’t measure up, that could well be a sign that you do.

  • Sarah Blinco

    Great piece thank you – it’s come into my space at the right time; nice comments below too.

  • Andrew Hoeveler

    Oh dear. If I can’t become invisible to security cameras by rubbing lemon juice on my face, I have a lot of explaining to do.

    • xaigo

      Sigh, the article completely ruined my holiday plans for robbing that bank down the street… I’m now considering a stocking instead of lemon juice, but I’m not sure what part of the body to put it on, so that I’ll become invisible to the cameras…

  • http://www.chocolateandcaviar.com Julia Melymbrose

    “Only fools never doubt”

  • Eren Alt

    I really enjoyed this article. Like most of the comments below I agree, with Sarah Blinco especially, “it’s come into my space at the right time”

    Personally, I find that with social media and the myriad of blogs, I compare my work to others even if it’s a on a subconscious level. When that happens, I refer to a quote that snaps me back. I’ll share the quote, maybe it’ll help someone else. It’s from Desiderata by Max Erhmann: “If you compare yourself with others,
    you may become vain and bitter;
    for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
    Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.”

    • Therese Awad

      Couldn’t agree more, don’t fake it but do your best and be happy with your achievement you’ll be blessed with self confidence that will take you to the next level

  • Mike Porterfield

    Exactly. or as I prefer it, “Fake it till you become it.” same meaning. 🙂

    • Therese Awad

      Become what? Fake!

      • Mike Porterfield

        Until you become the expert. Just because your learning as you go doesn’t make you a “fake”.

        Thats the general meaning I take from it.

      • Therese Awad

        I think there is a huge difference between learning and the word fake. Yes, I strongly agree with you shouldn’t be ashamed to learn until you make it, fake it is not a nice word to use. With fake trust doesn’t come along .

      • Mike Porterfield

        Sure. I see what your saying. I guess I’m not taking the term fake verbatim in this saying, as I’m very confident in my ability to learn.

        The “fake it … ” saying does have a negative connotation doesn’t it. When compared to someone who will acknowledge that they are learning as they go. Hiding the fact makes it negative, or a “bad thing”. when it isn’t.

      • Therese Awad

        You hit the nail on the head, that is exactly what I mean? Even at my age i still say humbly I’m still learning, I say it with confident because I’m sure of my self and you know why? Because I’ve never faked anything. And yes, fake is a negative attitude. I’m sure you will like positive better than negative . Go get em

      • Slash

        I’d add that I don’t explain or apologize as I go along. In the framework of things, I think we all have some foundational base we’re working off of to be in that position. It’s the “how much do I know” that I keep close to the vest as the one assigned to “train” you always seems ready to express their dissatisfaction with what you “don’t know”. When, if you actually scrutinize the situation, it’s all sorts of little things we never expect any new colleague to know coming in but often the “trainer” is quick to gossip about how little you may know citing not those very firm-based details, rather exaggerating the very few real boo boos you probably did make. If I know the subject matter and it’s only a matter of refreshing myself, I always act like I know what the hell I’m doing and if caught in a boo boo am quick to say I’ll fix it but NEVER go into an apology about “it’s been a while since I’ve done this but don’t worry”. Just started a 3 mth freelance paralegal gig on site and my “trainer” is very sharky – ayup, I’m faking it ’til I make it!

  • http://www.AravindManickam.com Aravind Manickam

    Great Article.

  • http://fiballouta.blogspot.com Samah El Hakim

    Love it

  • http://www.craftyourlife.co.uk/ Jen Gash

    So great to see this being discussed openly. The more people that know how this works and that so many people feel like this, the better. It wrecks confidence and self esteem and leads to so many insecurities and also bullshi**ing…. I made a video about this earlier this year if you are interested https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2K4ck3UO-6c&index=4&list=UUaC6XeFEG81BW8q5HZp3MTg. Thanks for posting

  • Rosalee Laws

    Love this! Especially knowing Maya Angelou felt the same way. I am all too familiar with that “impostor syndrome” lol just wrote about my experiences with it myself a few weeks ago. But if we feel that way, like you said, guess we’re doing ok.

  • MyCrappyHouse

    I always have that imposter feeling! Like everything awesome I’ve ever accomplished has happened by accident and everyone is going to find out I’m a fraud. This article makes me feel better. Misery loves company. Maya Angelou is pretty good company…

  • http://www.RobFrankel.com robfrankel

    Years ago, Esquire magazine had a Father’s Day issue with an article listing 100 things you needed to know about being a father. At the top of the list was the most comforting, relevant tip:

    “Don’t worry. Your father didn’t know what he was doing, either.”

    • Therese Awad

      We don’t have to pretend with our children nowadays, we can encourage them to discuss the issue and together we can solve it, My days as a child I was asked to do and never questioned, these days the “Y” comes straight after the request

  • Sarah

    My old boss taught me that my Persistent feelings of inadequacy, or the thoughts that I wish I had done a better job at something, was a positive sign that I could improve, that I was always giving myself margin to grow. Those with massive egos who always assume they do the best job ever are actually the ones who are most apt not to get anywhere or achieve greatness

    • Sarah

      Sorry for the typos and grammatical errors in here. Won’t let me delete to repost with corrections.

  • Difster

    This is something I’ve always realized. As a person with very high pattern recognition skills, I’ve always recognized most people that seem really confident in some area have a lot of self-doubt. But it’s that doubt that drives them to be better.

    Of course knowing all of this doesn’t remove any of my own self-doubt. I frequently think of myself as a sub-par programmer. Then I see other people’s code and wonder they even manage to make something function. But then I’ll see some elegant framework that I never could have conceived of.

    The moral of the story is, fake til you make it. Act like you know what you’re doing and eventually you will. Recognize your limitations though and work hard to overcome them.

    • Therese Awad

      In my days I’ve seen a lot of those ” fake it until you make it” which develop a lot of anger in people like me that can see through the fake then I have to attend ” Anger Management ” course, and makes people like me looking like lunitic .

  • George Soros

    There more you know, the better you understand that you know very little.

  • http://www.danimagestro.com/ Dani Magestro

    This. This. This. This. I’ve been trying to explain this to my clients, it’s difficult to explain but you did it perfectly. We are all in the same boat.

  • http://goforlaunch.io BrandonUttley

    Thank you for giving me a more impressive phrase to use in conversation, the “Dunning-Kruger Effect,” vs. the overused “Imposter Syndrome.” This will help make me look smarter, temporarily, than the fake expert I am.

  • bingus

    first you say imposter syndrome implies you are talented but feel like a fake, then you say
    “In short: if you’re worried you don’t measure up, that could well be a sign that you do”

    so which is it?

    • ecwalke

      He is saying the same thing in a different way. If you’re worried you don’t measure up (you feel like a fake), that could well be a sign that you do (you are, in fact, talented).

    • Jumbo Jake

      So you don’t measure up to the others reading and understanding the article. You know now where you fit in. Lol

  • Therese Awad

    Apologies, I disagree with faking it again, confidence shows when you say I’ve never done this but happy to try and know I will do it.

  • adel

    tell me about I. I am AAI.

    • adel

      let me unlock my true potential

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