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Big Ideas

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.

More Posts by 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)
  • Kimberly Walker

    I really liked this article. Oliver really brought to life the things many people think about but never say. Great work.

  • xaigo

    “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”
    Charles Bukowski

    • RogerP77

      So true!! This is why we follow the stupid ones to our detriment.

  • Ian Peters

    Great article thanks for sharing.

  • Hassan Alajmi

    Great article, maybe because all of us want to believe that no body really knows anything 🙂

  • RogerP77

    MONEY!! I have never heard someone put it so well. I wish I had written this myself. Thank you for putting my unspoken words into an article. This totally squares with my experiences. In the Movie U-571 there was a great quote about being in command that expressed this well: “You have to know what you are doing even when you don’t know what you are doing.” (Harvey Keitel to Matthew Matthew McConaughey)

  • Chisato Takahashi

    Wonderful article.

    I was thinking everybody else was doing well, of course they know what they are doing. And I don’t. But yeah ‘if you’re worried you don’t measure up, that could well be a sign that you do.’ lighten my heavy heart, thanks!

  • Nicholas Blackmore

    Good article. Not only are other people doing their best but… Today I missed an appointment at a dentists. On the way there was a ‘road blocked’ sign and diversion signs to help you round it. So twenty minutes later there I was back at he same place again, stuck. Called the dentist, rescheduled. So, whoever put the diversion signs up did not check that they would work at all.
    Therefore IMHO it is worth bearing in mind that the perfection we strive for that we think others are achieving is often a myth anyway. If when making a speech you say the wrong word, you can correct it and move on with no worries. And if you fail to notice it then maybe someone will point it out, or maybe you will have made an error. In each case you will probably still be alive.

  • Greg Gauthier

    Firstly, “certainty” is nonsense term. Saying “you can’t be certain” is about as informative as saying “you can’t lift the planet”. All anyone has ever had, is varying degrees of confidence in a given belief. Whether the particular degree of confidence in any particular belief is warranted or not, depends upon what you’re talking about.

    Telling people they ought to be confident, in spite of their own inner-critic, may be a very pleasing lie, for some.

    But if you really want to help, tell them the truth: That everything you do is likely to look like shit to you, to varying degrees. And it is likely to look better in varying degrees to other people. And none of that matters.

    The only thing that matters, is whether what you’re doing is sufficiently feeding, clothing, and housing you. If not, do something different.

  • Chippy

    I know I’m stupid and if I write some-thing in the way of a book. People wil
    Find out what a phony I’m. May be I will try it any way.
    Wish me luck.RZ

  • ranndino

    Very true. I can cite all kinds of examples, but one that sticks out in my mind is the fact that Messi, arguably the best soccer player of all time, almost always pukes before a match due to the amount of pressure he feels to consistently perform at the level unfathomable to an average pro player.

    A couple of other relevant things. One of my favorite quotes is by Bertrand Russell, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt”.

    Finally, this.

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