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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)
  • Guest

    It’s nice to get some confirmation of what I’m constantly feeling. I see I’m not alone.

  • http://www.nyacommunications.com Nicole Y. Adams

    Great article, and even better title! Completely agree with all points made.

  • Guest

    Fine article and a nice reminder to yourself in the headline. It also gave me some thoughts and maybe it’s an other talk but…

    I feel I see a lot of bad products, messy graphics and design and so on out there that makes me think “how did the person get that job” or got customers in his/her company… — Well at least the creators dared to do something and take action and maybe that is as the article says because they are too untalented to tell.

    At the same time taking action is a part of a learning process that eventually will make them a better creative (so called “fake it till you make it”). As I see it, it is kind of a success in itself to take action and accomplish something even it’s a bad product/design/service etc.

    To take an example from the text, — “In fact, if he’s really good, he probably is panicking inside” — so what if that person is panicking and a nerve wrack inside giving his speech/presentation, or doing anything ells at least he did it…

    What if you sometimes feel too worried you don’t measure up that you most times are paralized from taking any action, also because you always think it could be done better¿? Does that make you extremely talented or just someone with a really low self-esteem? Or maybe a combination that will never accomplish anything…

  • Andrés Goldsworthy

    Wich means: enjoy the process / the present.

  • Jon Penryn

    Recently i was helping a 16 year old do a collage project, a CV for a job at the collage, basically i explained, its all bullshit, they know its bullshit, you know its bullshit, we all know its bullshit. Its the dance you do to get a job and then you learn how to do it when your there…or not…and maybe no one will notice.

    • http://www.batman-news.com/ Rick352

      I don’t know that that was the point of this article… A CV should not be full of BS.

    • PamelaHaley

      You meant college? A 16 year old was doing a collage for college CV? Unless she wanted a job at the collage… I don’t think collages are hiring entities. What did you just say?

      • Jon Penryn

        just one of the hoops they make kids jump through in the UK, practice for job interviews etc. Because every unemployed person just needs to do a good interview ah….

  • http://www.youbeingsocial.com/ Jennifer Quinn

    Excellent article. Comparing ourselves, we never win. (Narcissists excluded)

  • Laurie Neverman

    A timely reminder for me. Thank you.

  • certifyD

    You make some wonderful points. That “uncertain” feeling is what keeps us growing, learning and remain motivated. Whenever we become static and think we know it all, that’s when we stagnate and fail. Keep the fear alive!

  • PamelaHaley

    OH, Facebook has done an amazing job of showing me how much better off I am than others. Especially when the highlight of their week is duck lips and a martini… Maybe an expensive dinner. You know, because that pricey plate of a single pea is really impressive. If I could figure out how to make tons of money while being vapid and useless; I’d be on to something.

    • Hazza Jay

      Lol don’t be so bitter. If it makes them happy to do that, good for them. Did you even read the post? We don’t know what’s going on inside people. That woman that takes duck lip selfies might be depressed or might be successful.

  • http://www.ephluxinsights.com Babar Khan

    Made me laugh. Ever since I was named CMO, this thought crosses my mind everyday.

    • César Gómez

      I guess that happens a lot when you enter the world of acronyms.

  • ellenmulholland

    This is a timely article as my daughter completes her college apps. It’s amazing the pressure young people are already putting themselves under just to fit this “mold” of the perfect candidate. And, yes, our reach should exceed our grasp should exceed our grasp; but we must also take pride in the reach itself.

  • Mike Baines

    Fantastic article. Thanks!

  • Babb

    Spot on. I wrote about this recently on my own blog (http://www.babbphoto.com/yet/ ) and my post was inspired by this C J Nicholai quote:

    ““Never compare your journey with someone else’s. It’s a marathon with no finish line. Someone else may start out faster than you, may seem to progress more quickly than you, but every runner has his own pace. Your journey is your journey, not a competition. You will never “arrive”. No one ever does”

  • http://www.switch-to-e-cig.com/ Switchtoecig

    “We’re comparing apples with oranges—or, as the saying goes, comparing our insides with other people’s outsides. ” Couldn’t agree more. Also, the more edgy, nervous phase we have, the more fruitful phase it is. And it’s usually later later that we realize all the progress we made while it was on.

  • Kylie Worthington

    Great post. “Never to take other people’s facades as reliable evidence of what’s going on within.” Very hard to do in this age of social media, but crucial for mental health. http://everblossom.net/2014/08/too-much-information.html

  • http://www.wakingupinwonder.com/ Valerie - Waking Up in Wonder

    Couldn’t agree more. I’m glad the whole “Impostor Syndrome” thing is getting a lot of play right now, because it’s such a universal experience! I see people get tripped up all the time thinking “I’m the only person who feels this way, there’s something wrong with me” — but the fact is, you’re not that unique. MOST people feel this way. There’s comfort in that, and in just DOING whatever you’re called to do anyway. Even if you feel like you’re making it up as you go.

  • Bartjan

    Great great great article.

  • boucains

    This should be posted on the doorposts of tech incubators and design schools around the world. Some of the most incredibly talented people I’ve had the privilege of meeting didn’t think they were all that great.

    • http://www.twentysixcollection.com/ 26Collection

      Yes, people into creativity/arts are usually more humble than the rest. 🙂

      • boucains

        I’d say more insecure, but humble works too. (grin)

  • The4thStooge

    I wholeheartedly agree with boucains–it’s very rare to see an article like this in the world of LinkedIn “experts”, self-styled gurus, and those who seem to make careers by simply repeating what others have said.

    No one knows what they’re doing. The experts don’t know–they only know that they’ve gotten results with some aspects of their advice. The people who followed their advice to the letter and still didn’t get results? Obviously, they’ve done SOMETHING wrong.

    All the famous quotes, inspirational pictures (with quotes), and yet ANOTHER article about how we should be like Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, or Bill Gates mean nothing. People didn’t want their kids imitating the Three Stooges, so why are experts insisting that Jobs, Buffett, and Gates have a quality that can be duplicated by everyone?

    Gah. I’m off to copy someone calm–this subject matter has riled me up. Great article!

  • http://yugenro.tumblr.com yugenro

    Love it! Very liberating (as well as connecting & compassionate) perspective!

  • ggg

    Nope. Never pondered that puzzle. Sounds like a teenage stoner game.

  • Vortex

    stupid article. I stopped reading at 2nd paragraph. Our happiness does not depend on feeling better off than others. That´s not happiness, it´s malicious joy.

    • Brian

      Your credibility kinda goes out the window when you leave a comment attacking the article followed by an admission that you didn’t actually read the article.

      • BenderTheMagnificent

        BOOM! Roasted

      • http://diyapril.com April Hill

        Yeah! The rest of us want to grow and learn. :p

      • http://www.twentysixcollection.com/ 26Collection

        Yeah you pretty much suck Vortex, sorry…go hate somewhere else. We thought it was a great article and personally can say that it made me put things back into perspective. We sometimes forget that we are seeing a polished image of peoples lives through “social” media.

    • Kat

      Lol – Vortex, proving the point that “The genuinely untalented, meanwhile, probably have no idea that they’re no good—because they’re too untalented to realize it.” As a photographer continuing to improve, this was an incredibly helpful article.

    • Johnny

      Vortex: short attention span theater is alive and well in the shallows of your mind.

  • Jon Penryn

    i blame the education system….

    • PamelaHaley

      Knowing the difference between collage and college is just one of those things that plagued me until I got it right. But I should blame the teachers for not correcting me multiple times.

      • Jon Penryn

        I have no idea of the difference. No your right ones got an “a” in it the other an “e”…..but i am self certified as “stupid”.. (and i do tell the receivers of my advice, not to take any notice of me..)

  • Jack

    Some of the commenters seem to misunderstand the difference between the Dunning-Krueger effect and Imposter Syndrome. They’re actually quite the opposite of each other. The DK effect is an overabundance of confidence created from the individual’s ignorance, while IS is the inability of the individual to realize just how competent they truly are.

    • Shelley Jones Beek

      I read an article about the Dunning Krueger effect several months ago and it has had a big impact on my decision making since. I was plagued with self doubt but when I read about DK I realized that that might not be a bad thing. I have been more willing to take risks and when I doubt myself I remind myself that it might be a sign I am more competent than I think. This article reinforces that thought since I feel like an imposter a lot.

      • Ian Peters

        Hi Shelly. Are you able to share the article you read?

      • Shelley Jones Beek

        I don’t have the link but it was an interview with John Cleese (or an article written by him) so hopefully you can find it on Google.

  • http://dan-davies.co.uk Dan Davies

    I wrote about something similar, http://www.dan-davies.co.uk/im-dan-and-im-not-an-expert. Many feel the same way which is reassuring

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