Are you actually good at what you do?

Determining your own level of expertise in a subject is tricky because you are biased. People who under- or over-estimate their competence will each encounter unique problems in their work, so learning to evaluate your level of skill is important.

I want to look at two opposing concepts–the Dunning-Kruger effect and the Imposter syndrome–and explore how you determine your competence in a given subject.

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes the scenario where incompetent people tend to overestimate their own level of skill while failing to recognize actual skill in others, and their incompetence prevents them from seeing this mistake. This results in less competent people rating their own ability higher than more competent people, and probably a lot of frustration over lack of recognition by colleagues.

The Imposter syndrome, in contrast, is where highly competent people are unable to internalize their accomplishments and thus believe they are actually incompetent. Regardless of what level of external evidence of success they may have, they remain convinced they do not deserve what they have achieved and are actually frauds. This is really common among graduate students.

There is an entire continuum between these two extremes, and an expert in one subject may be a beginner in another. But someone struggling with either of these mentalities stands to benefit a lot from gaining a more objective view of their abilities.

Here are some of my personal ideas how to get a handle on your competence:

  • What have you actually done? This evidence will help you realize if your accomplishments are real or just in your head. What have you actually built? What projects have you shipped? Reading a book (or blog) about a programming language is not the same as digging into the hard work of actually building something with it.

  • Look for evidence of independence. Competent people proactively learn and build things even when it’s not required of them. What skills have you picked up completely by your own initiative? What technique or tool have you read about, recognized its utility in your work, and wrestled through learning it on your own?

  • Interact with honest friends who are smarter/better than you. They must know your field or else you may not believe them (which usually rules out family and even your spouse), and they must be people you trust to shoot straight with you. If you don’t interact with anyone who you view as being better than you in a skill, that is not a good sign. This is not limited just to people in your office, obviously.

  • Let recognized experts evaluate your work. A personal example: I purposely chose a difficult doctoral thesis committee made of highly-respected faculty. I didn’t want any sleepers who would tacitly pass me. Instead, I want to graduate knowing that there is no doubt that I made a meaningful contribution. If they approve it, I know it’s real.

  • Study the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. I only learned about this recently from the 5by5 Back to Work podcast, but it’s an interesting rubric for evaluating competence. I think it would be hard to read the level descriptions of the Dreyfus model without gaining some objectivity. You can watch a great interview of Andy Hunt on the topic here.

So, there is my (admittedly) arm-chair/not-a-psychologist analysis and some ideas for steps forward. Now, for all of my highly competent readers out there (which is all of you!): how do you view this issue?

UPDATE: The March 2011 issue of STRUCTURE Magazine features an interesting editorial titled Incompetent and Unaware of It by Jon A. Schmidt which explores the prevalence of the Dunning-Kruger effect in structural engineering and the resulting need for reform in professional licensure. (3/3/2011)

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