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unknown unknowns
February 22, 2010 7:57 AM   Subscribe

Do you feel like a fraud, wondering what sort of voodoo you’ve unwittingly conjured up to make people think you know what you’re doing, when the reality is quite the contrary?
posted by infinitefloatingbrains (97 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
Does this blog post have a list of ten things I can do to improve my self-esteem RIGHT NOW?!?
posted by OmieWise at 8:03 AM on February 22, 2010


This is good.

Although it puzzles me that someone with infinite floating brains would be familiar with this problem :)
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:07 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I conjure up my voodoo wittingly, thank you very much.
posted by diogenes at 8:07 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Donald Rumsfeld's prattlings are a poem now?
posted by blucevalo at 8:07 AM on February 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


I don't think much of the blog post. But this is a very common feeling among high-achievers who are not particularly striving or ambitious, just extremely capable compared to many of their peers.

Impostor Syndrome (Wiki)
posted by Hugobaron at 8:11 AM on February 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


This is the sort of insight that should strike most thoughtful people about age fifteen, no offense intended.

The piece rubbed me the wrong way, from the casual 'Did I mention my girlfriend, the prize of her college's nursing program,' to the 'YOU'LL NEVER GUESS WHO WON THE SURPRISE AWARD! IT WAS ME!!!!!!'

The key words are of course are 'my, me, and I.' I have the poor fortune of meeting this guy all the time- local software meetups, vendor meetings, etc. All are full of mid-20-somethings that self identify as 'entrepreneurs.' The power points, the buzz meetings, the handshakes over sushi are saturated with this: Let me demonstrate how humble and down to earth and insightful I am, as a means of covering up the highly-polished narcissism underneath.

But yeah, if the guy was fifteen and writing about how he just realized that the scope of human knowledge is limited, and did so with fresh, interesting language- yeah, this might have been noteworthy.
posted by mrdaneri at 8:11 AM on February 22, 2010 [26 favorites]


Do you feel like a fraud, wondering what sort of voodoo you’ve unwittingly conjured up to make people think you know what you’re doing, when the reality is quite the contrary?

I dunno. Figured it was some combination of wearing a suit and tie, being a white male, shaving daily and keeping my hair short.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 8:13 AM on February 22, 2010 [28 favorites]


In some sense isn't metafilter all about expanding the shit you know you don't know category?
posted by milestogo at 8:13 AM on February 22, 2010 [7 favorites]


talk about not knowing what the f*** you're doing....

this guy is sort of, like, just blowing smoke out his butt..... but, the graphs make it all true...
posted by HuronBob at 8:14 AM on February 22, 2010


Metafilter: the shit you know you don't know.

(sorry. had to be done.)
posted by jadayne at 8:15 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here’s the secret though. Those other people fall into one of two categories, and neither one of those categories is more knowledgeable or able than you are.

Gotta call bullshit on this section. The logical extension of the primary thesis would be that no matter how much you think you know about any given subject, there's always someone out there who knows more than you know. MetaFilter proves this time and again. So stick with the premise that you always know less than you think you know, and skip the excuse to pat yourself on the back.
posted by Pot at 8:16 AM on February 22, 2010 [6 favorites]


You shave daily? Man, am I ever a slacker. I thought once a week was enough to give the impression that I was semi-responsable.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:17 AM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


This is amusing. I was thinking along the same lines as the author this weekend, because I received praise, a decent raise and a substantial bonus at work when I thought I'd had a pretty sub-par year.

I also read the latest entry on CodingHorror this morning and couldn't get my head around it. I still feel like a no-talent hack who is just starting to get decent at my craft and that apparently puts me above most people in my field? I'd flatly reject this, except that I've been conducting interviews lately, and have repeatedly had the experience of being impressed by a candidate's resumé only to end the interview distinctly unimpressed.
posted by Ickster at 8:17 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm 36 years old, and pretty much every day I wonder when the hell I'm finally going to feel like a Grown-Up Who Has His Shit Together.

I don't have kids, which I'm sure doesn't help.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:18 AM on February 22, 2010 [17 favorites]


So stick with the premise that you always know less than you think you know

Finally, something you can consider yourself the undisputed expert in.

The less you know!
posted by Kettle at 8:18 AM on February 22, 2010


Related: Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.

I found this link in a fpp comment some time ago but I can't remember who to credit this find to, sorry.
posted by charles kaapjes at 8:18 AM on February 22, 2010 [5 favorites]


My experience is that the awareness of not knowing what you're doing puts you way, way ahead of the people who are sure they know what they're doing, but don't.

It's not "faking it". It's knowing where your knowledge lacks, and either filling that out or working around it.
posted by mhoye at 8:21 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't have kids, which I'm sure doesn't help.

Yeah, nothing inheres calm collectedness like offspring.
posted by regicide is good for you at 8:25 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I like this, but I do wonder about the category "Things you don't know you don't know." How is that different from "Things you don't know?," where "know" means "are not aware of?" Is "Things you don't know you don't know" the same as "Things you don't know about"?

I don't know (and I know I don't know).
posted by MarshallPoe at 8:28 AM on February 22, 2010


From the Coding Horror link: The reports keep pouring in via Twitter and email: many candidates who show up for programming job interviews can't program. At all.

I've totally seen this. This was even back in the mid-90s when I was hiring for some programming positions. One person submitted a program as a WordPerfect document. I didn't even have to cut and paste the text into a .c file to see it was wrong on just about every level it could be, from syntax to logic to style.

That said, I don't like the "write a program, live, in front of me" style of interview. Can you give me a problem and I send you the code back? Choose something it won't be easy to find an untraceable version of online already. Backseat drivers, ugh.
posted by DU at 8:29 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


MarshallPoe: "I do wonder about the category "Things you don't know you don't know." How is that different from "Things you don't know?," "

It calls attention to the truly dangerous category: things you think, that are wrong. Thinking you are an expert (while you are actually ignorant) is a much bigger problem than thinking you are ignorant (and being right).
posted by idiopath at 8:33 AM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


Crumbs. I'm surprised at the savagery of the comments of people who didn't enjoy this. I thought it was a nicely executed little article on pop-psychology, and the author doesn't claim that it's anything more. Also, if you go much deeper than this sort of breezy, chipper 'hey, we've all had to work with a guy like this, right?' analysis, you plunge into the murky waters of epistemology and relativism and end up spending 50 pages saying: 'uh, it turns out that nobody can know anything, but we can't be sure we know even that'. This piece seemed to be a good compromise, with practical, humorous advice.
posted by RokkitNite at 8:33 AM on February 22, 2010


Funny but old news. I am pretty sure we even discussed the very subject here on MeFi before, that is how high achievers often feel that they have achieved something beyond what they should have and that any minute their carefully laid charade will come to a close and everyone will know how incompetent they are. It gets reinforced when they make small mistakes, or perhaps even big ones, and the people around them are too clueless to notice. That should tell you something right there.
posted by caddis at 8:33 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


To those who say this is something you learn early on in life, sometimes otherwise intelligent people need to be reminded that being generally positive and competent is praise-worthy to others. Or someone else lacks the skills you took for granted, and you get praised or rewarded accordingly.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:35 AM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


MetaFilter proves this time and again. So stick with the premise that you always know less than you think you know...

I thought Metafilter proved that everyone knows more about this subject than I think you can imagine.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 8:39 AM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


Well you knew this was coming...

(Fabulous scene, but my point is made by 3:00.)
posted by Mike D at 8:40 AM on February 22, 2010


I conjure up voodoo by placing cigars and rum on my shrine to Baron Samedi.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:43 AM on February 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


"I do wonder about the category "Things you don't know you don't know." How is that different from "Things you don't know?," "

It calls attention to the truly dangerous category: things you think, that are wrong.


That's true, but that's now how I interpret it.

Things I know: Variables I know the value of.
Things I know I don't know: Variables I don't know the value of.
Things I don't know I don't know: Variables I don't even know exist, let alone the value of.

Being certain-but-wrong could be interpreted as a kind of variables I didn't even know existed. The "is DU right about $X" variable. Self-doubt makes a lot of these come into existence automatically, raising them to the level of variables I know about but don't have a value for.
posted by DU at 8:43 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


There’s the shit you know, the shit you know you don’t know, and the shit you don’t know you don’t know.

I don't know shit.
posted by jonmc at 8:44 AM on February 22, 2010


This premise of the linked post is that people don't know how to take a compliment (or award, or reward) gracefully and then veers away from there pretty quick.

Personally, I would have found a "graciousness is a lost art" type of essay far more fascinating.
posted by WolfDaddy at 8:45 AM on February 22, 2010


In big companies, acting confident even when you're clueless is the key to getting promoted. Admitting that you don't know what you're doing when you don't know what you're doing is guaranteed to keep you right where you are. In other words, I laughed while reading this. Right through the tears.
posted by tommasz at 8:49 AM on February 22, 2010 [8 favorites]


The inverse of this article I call "cultivated stupidity". It's a trait I always wished I had; last year I took the time to acquire it myself and it's done no end of wonders. Cultivated stupidity is that combination of healthy self-esteem and raving idiocy that lets you do things that, if you were at all self-aware, you'd never do. But you do it anyway, and sometimes you get away with it, and when you don't you usually learn something important.

You see it when you're young and other kids get attention for doing obnoxious stupid things. "I would never do that," you think, and as a result you never do anything. You're acutely aware of how other people shouldn't be doing all the things they're doing. But then sometimes that idiocy leads to something amazing.

A friend and I lied about being press to get into the premiere of Tucker Max's movie, and ended up interviewing Tucker on his tour bus. I mean, it's only Tucker Max, and the movie was shite, but spending an evening having a beer with the star you just saw on the big screen was pretty great. I would never have done that on my own, but having a friend so boneheaded led to a lot of fun.

So I started to try being stupid and obstinate, and it's led to some wonderful things. The best way to learn anything is to start doing it. Which I guess is the moral of this article, but he writes it in such a backwards manner. It's a drag to live with the mindset of "Nobody knows anything so it's okay that I don't either." So fearful and cautious! Better to say: "Everybody knows a lot! Maybe I know more than I think I do. Let's see everything I'm capable of."
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:54 AM on February 22, 2010 [22 favorites]


"Another related idea that has since been pointed out to me is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which describes a bias in people’s consciousness in which they reach erroneous conclusions and lack the ability to realize or recognize it."

So, this guy started just writing out this advice, as if he is the first one to have these thoughts. The irony of someone having to inform him of the Dunning-Kruger effect is perfect.
posted by vacapinta at 8:54 AM on February 22, 2010 [5 favorites]


Personally, I would have found a "graciousness is a lost art" type of essay far more fascinating.

Personally, I would have found a "levitating hooker-bots made of freeze-dried ice cream" essay far more fascinating. We'll have to make do with what we have.
posted by brain_drain at 8:55 AM on February 22, 2010 [12 favorites]


If they had said my name half a second earlier, the person in front of me would have had a mouthful of Coke in their hair.

Apparently the surprise award he received had nothing to do with grammar.
posted by Maisie at 8:55 AM on February 22, 2010


what the fuck am I doing with this many favorites on MetaFilter
posted by Shepherd at 9:05 AM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


unknown unknowns dark side unknown unknown unknowns complete
posted by ChuqD at 9:11 AM on February 22, 2010


I would have found a "levitating hooker-bots made of freeze-dried ice cream" essay far more fascinating.

Levitating hooker-bots made of freeze-dried ice cream is no problem, so long as you keep them frozen, so that the superconducting electromagnet remains stable.
posted by Pot at 9:18 AM on February 22, 2010


An article on the limits of knowns, unknowns, and unknown unknowns is criticized with 'he should have known that we all know this already.' Classic. Not only did the guy not know that you already know, he didn't know that he didn't know that you already know, and yet he still wrote the article! You don't know if he is just stupid and faking it, or that he knows he is stupid and faking it (most likely) - but you think he doesn't know that you know that he really just uses graphs to cover up his stupidity. Your mistake! He obviously knows this, but doesn't know that he doesn't know that he should be concerned with what you think he thinks you know. I'm sorry, but your crushing sense of self-knowledge isn't as self-aware as you think we all think it should be.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 9:22 AM on February 22, 2010 [11 favorites]


An article on the limits of knowns, unknowns, and unknown unknowns is criticized with 'he should have known that we all know this already.' Classic. Not only did the guy not know that you already know, he didn't know that he didn't know that you already know, and yet he still wrote the article! You don't know if he is just stupid and faking it, or that he knows he is stupid and faking it (most likely) - but you think he doesn't know that you know that he really just uses graphs to cover up his stupidity. Your mistake! He obviously knows this, but doesn't know that he doesn't know that he should be concerned with what you think he thinks you know. I'm sorry, but your crushing sense of self-knowledge isn't as self-aware as you think we all think it should be.

i know, rite?
posted by Pot at 9:23 AM on February 22, 2010


I like this, but it leaves out one thing that sometimes comes up in my line of work - The shit you don't know that you know.
posted by routergirl at 9:25 AM on February 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


οὖτος μὲν οἴεταί τι εἰδέναι οὐκ εἰδώς, ἐγὼ δέ, ὥσπερ οὖν οὐκ οἶδα, οὐδὲ οἴμαι
– Socrates
posted by MysteriousMan at 9:26 AM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


How this plays out in the real world.

Me: I don't know the answer to your question, but the fact that I know I don't know actually makes me invaluable. For example, I know that I need to ask one of my colleagues who is skilled in this area.
Client: What? Fuck you. You're fired.
posted by naju at 9:27 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


This reminds me of the IT Admin classes I took at the local community college.
A few years ago, the Business/IT department sat down with a bunch of local business leaders and asked what they wanted graduates of the program to know. As suggestions were made, pieces of paper were put on on the wall. Eventually, when they were done, three walls were completely plastered with requests. Okay, the professors said, this is at least an 8 year degree. Now, how do we get it down to 2?

What came out of that meeting was a focus in classes on problem solving and looking up information. One instructor in particular was adamant that we wouldn't know 90% of the shit we would need on the job and would have to improvise. Whenever anyone had a question, she never answered anything except, "You have Google in front of you."

I came out of that program woefully unprepared in terms of what I knew about network administration. But I sure as hell knew that I knew nothing - what I was given was an overview of the big picture and then the ability to find out all the details as I needed them. I've yet to decide if this was a good thing or not.
posted by cimbrog at 9:28 AM on February 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


Or, condensed into bumper sticker length:

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts." - Bertrand Russell
posted by Adam_S at 9:29 AM on February 22, 2010 [18 favorites]


And, yeah, combining what I said with naju, it makes it incredibly hard to convince anyone to hire you. But once your in, well, I am hailed as a genius and sure as hell don't feel like one.
posted by cimbrog at 9:31 AM on February 22, 2010


infinitefloatingbrains: MetaFilter rips into things posted here. This article was posted here. We're ripping it.

If I submitted an article about how people on the Internet are mean to people who write things online, the response would be the same. It's not like we tailor our responses to obey the whims of the people we read. That's the whole point. Perhaps if this article was smarter and more beautiful, we'd like it more. As it is, my first impulse seeing this was to flag as poor submission.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:31 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Client: What? Fuck you. You're fired.

Really? What profession is this?
posted by effbot at 9:33 AM on February 22, 2010


Well you knew this was coming...
(Fabulous scene, but my point is made by 3:00.)
posted by Mike D at 3:40 PM


It is a great scene. Here's a link to the particularly relevant bit for impatient people like me.
posted by nangua at 9:33 AM on February 22, 2010


Law.
posted by naju at 9:33 AM on February 22, 2010


Or, condensed into bumper sticker length:

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts." - Bertrand Russell


I prefer the Yates:

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."

posted by availablelight at 9:37 AM on February 22, 2010 [6 favorites]


Do I feel like a fraud? Never. I may have some kind of clinical deficit in this regard. However, there is nothing that motivates me to action more strongly than the accusation of being a fraud, and then proving my accuser to be wrong.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:43 AM on February 22, 2010


Donald Rumsfeld's prattlings are a poem now?

This is just to say

I have eaten
the unknowns
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for some unknown purpose

Forgive me
they were delicious
so known
and so unknown
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:54 AM on February 22, 2010 [7 favorites]


It's hard to know shit yet you have to observe shitheads not knowing shit, yet they get paid a shitload.
posted by stormpooper at 9:56 AM on February 22, 2010


TheWhiteSkull made my monday morning, so thanks.

I am assuming of course, that I know that it is Monday.
posted by mrdaneri at 9:59 AM on February 22, 2010


Me: I don't know the answer to your question, but the fact that I know I don't know actually makes me invaluable. For example, I know that I need to ask one of my colleagues who is skilled in this area.
Client: What? Fuck you. You're fired.

Maybe in law, but definitely not in software. Being honest enough to tell a client "I don't know. We will have to look into it and get back to you" is ultimately going to earn you more repeat business than being the guy who says "Absolutely! That should be simple!" and then comes back 20 billable hours later with a hack that only half addresses the problem.
posted by usonian at 10:05 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Rory - I don't take it personally, and my comment should be (I hope) taken in jest. Also, you could just flag it and not tell me, so I wouldn't even know that I don't know that you flagged it ;)

I'm not trying to defend the article's author, but the idea has merit. Every day I'm in situations where I have no idea what I should be doing, that feeling is common to most people. Parenthood is like this, all the time.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 10:06 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I feel like a fraud all the time. I really don't know anything, and I'm still not entirely certain why anyone takes me seriously. This would completely cripple my ability to do anything, except that when I ignore the specifics and look at the broad picture of my life, I can feel a little bit better;

Every job I've ever had where there was enough people to need some kind of leadership, I've been put in that roll whether I want it or not. I don't understand it, I don't see myself as being particularly leader-like, and I certainly wouldn't listen to someone like me, but for whatever reason, people do what I say, and my teams are always held up as examples to aspire to.

Seriously, I don't understand this either. I've heard the stuff that I say, and I wonder if I have some strange speaking impediment, where I say the shit that is coming out of my head, but everyone else hears sage wisdom. It's fucking crazy is what it is.

Though, when asked a question, I often end up saying "I don't have a clue". But as I've gotten older, I'm more comfortable stating that fact, and following it up with "so let's see if we can find out the answer." This seems better than people who make unfounded assertions and expect good results.

In summary; I don't know why people keep listening to me, as all I ever say is "I don't know, but here's a good place to start looking for the answer". And that might be the secret of my success so far.

But for real; complete fraud.
posted by quin at 10:11 AM on February 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


Gods. I don't have time to RTFA (I'll try to tonight) but the title is something I say regularly around here.

See, I work for a publicly traded company that work with so-called fortune 500 companies that, taken in the aggregate, make everything you do, everything you buy, and brand everything you have in your wallet or in your house. I've been doing this for nearly two decades, now.

And, by and large, I am convinced no one I work with has the slightly fucking clue what they are doing. The clusterfucks, cock-ups and general misunderstanding of cause and effect are astounding, but the scarier thing is that the entire basis of human corporate civilization mostly makes educated guesses to solve complex problems we can barely get a handle on the size of, never mind fully comprehend.

But you know what? The most terrifying thing in the world for me is realizing that I might be the smartest guy in the room sometimes. And, honestly, I just don't feel I'm all that smart. I waste just as much of my time on the internet or in front of the TV as anyone else, and I am just as confused and excited as you are when you watch the smart folks do their TED talks.

But sometimes I despair that there isn't a lot of real, honest intelligence around, and what little we have is spread pretty thin these days.
posted by clvrmnky at 10:11 AM on February 22, 2010 [6 favorites]


Also, you could just flag it and not tell me, so I wouldn't even know that I don't know that you flagged it ;)

Oh! Sorry; I hadn't realized you'd also been the poster. I wouldn't have used the phrase "shit post" if I'd gone back and looked. (I didn't end up flagging it, by the way, because I like the conversation that's sprung up.)

I think I'm a teeny bit prejudiced because I saw this post first on Reddit and then on Hacker News, so it's not even like I was reading it with a fresh perspective. I do think the idea has merit, but I don't think it was expressed particularly well here.

I also have a second, even more petty bias: That theme that blog uses? It appeared on Tumblr the exact time a theme of mine was submitted, and for a while mine was pulverizing it in terms of users, and then it got the weekly feature and mine didn't, and now it's considerably more-used than mine is, and I hate that permalinks on that theme are marked by a red arrow that, if you hover over it, takes a good second and a half to fade to green, and I almost emailed that guy to ask him what the fuck he was thinking when he made that choice. I feel passionately about these things.
posted by Rory Marinich at 10:13 AM on February 22, 2010


I've generally operated from the angle that I know roughly 1-six-billionth of all there is to know. Otherwise, what's the purpose of all those weirdos who keep getting in my way on the way to the beach?
posted by philip-random at 10:14 AM on February 22, 2010


Me: I don't know the answer to your question, but the fact that I know I don't know actually makes me invaluable. For example, I know that I need to ask one of my colleagues who is skilled in this area.
Client: What? Fuck you. You're fired.


That's because you didn't phrase it properly. It should go:

Me: Let me get back to you on that.
Client: Okay.

disclaimer: I am a law librarian, but am myself a fraud.
posted by cereselle at 10:16 AM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


The idea that IQ is a linear scale of potential productivity is not true in my estimation. The sweet spot is the 130 to 150 range, much higher than that and they never seem to be able to get their grand visions off the drawing board.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:20 AM on February 22, 2010 [6 favorites]


Me: Let me get back to you on that.

Of course. I'm just saying clients will rarely want to hear the unvarnished truth expressed in ridiculous terms like "I know that I don't know, and that makes all the difference!" Usually you'd have to massage it with stuff like "This should be relatively straightforward, I'll do some research and get back to you in a few days" etc.
posted by naju at 10:23 AM on February 22, 2010


As a diagrammatic representation, see the Johari Window.

Very self-aware people tend to have a lot in that bottom left corner of the box. This results in a larger disparity between self-image and the perception from others. Which leads to the feeling of being a fraud, as described.
posted by darkstar at 10:23 AM on February 22, 2010


And actually this should probably all be rephrased as "Shit I know I don't know, but can look up"
posted by naju at 10:26 AM on February 22, 2010


"Shit I know I don't know, but can look up"

I was recently talking with someone who might be considered the single most informed expert in their field. After a bit he said, "Can we continue this discussion in email? I'm much smarter if I can google."
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:32 AM on February 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


Not everyone feels like this. (anyone have a link to the video?)
posted by shothotbot at 10:33 AM on February 22, 2010


What about the things you don't know you know? This is the obvious fourth quadrant of the matrix; I'd have thought it might prove interesting to explore.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 10:37 AM on February 22, 2010


This is the sort of insight that should strike most thoughtful people about age fifteen, no offense intended.

Yes, and it should strike them again, and again, and again, until it starts to sink in. Unfortunately it should, but it rarely does. Witness "Rumsfeld's prattlings" - the man mostly got criticized for spouting "gobbledygook", for "putting his foot in his mouth", all because he managed to accurately summarize in five sentences a concept that apparently takes your average blogger 150. (and despite a significant handicap for Rumsfeld, who based on his actions didn't actually understand the implications of his stated philosophy...)

At least if Rumsfeld had been talking about some esoteric tensor calculus, the people criticising his words would have known that they didn't understand what was said. Since he managed to phrase an epistemology problem in common English, though, his critics assumed it wouldn't be beyond them, and so they didn't understand why they didn't understand.

Okay, back to work. Writing a talk about verification, coincidentally. Sadly, even some numerical analysis Ph.D.s think that software verification is a binary state, rather than a probability that never gets to 100%. They know it worked in a few tests, you see, and although there is still likely to be a bug they don't know about, they don't know they don't know about it...
posted by roystgnr at 10:38 AM on February 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


Witness "Rumsfeld's prattlings" - the man mostly got criticized for spouting "gobbledygook", for "putting his foot in his mouth", all because he managed to accurately summarize in five sentences a concept that apparently takes your average blogger 150.

Let's not give Rumsfeld too much credit though. He said a wise thing, while simultaneously completely fucking ignoring his own wisdom and getting hundreds of thousands of people killed in the process.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 10:40 AM on February 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


I can relate to this essay. I feel like a fraud all the time. It started when I was in sixth grade and got promoted to high school early. I was like, this isn't right -- I'm just a dumb, gangly kid and my 4.3 GPA is based more on dumb luck than anything else. I had the same attitude even during my high-school valedictory speech at age 15. I was so much younger than everyone else! How could I possibly be surpassing them by such a large margin? It felt like a scam.

It got even worse at Yale. Despite being utterly convinced that I was the stupidest student at the university, I received a never-ending flood of honors and accolades from my professors and peers. I joined the crew team in an effort to be just one of the guys and find a physical outlet for my insecurities. I felt like I couldn't row worth a damn, but somehow I became a coxswain and then president of the club. I have no idea how that happened, but there it was. I graduated summa cum laude, and I was all, summa cum what? When I found out I nearly spit out my mouthful of 25-year-old single malt. I was infinite monkeys typing on infinite typewriters, hitting the mark only by pure chance.

When I graduated and started working for Goldman Sachs, I was sure I would finally be exposed. How could I keep up with so many highly-educated and driven young executives? I was also distracted by a parade of beautiful young women vying for my affections. I spent time with as many of them as I could, since I was certain they would disappear at any moment once they all realized what a loser I am. My current girlfriend Scarlett Johansson thinks I am pure smoking hotness, but I have no idea why. She'll probably dump me. My first seven-figure bonus did little to make me feel more secure; nor did receiving a large equity stake in a hedge fund I joined later. These days, I can't make anyone around me understand that I'm just not qualified to run for president, darn it, at least not until I reach age 35.

In conclusion, I am terrible, although you very likely think (incorrectly, without any basis whatsoever) that I am fucking awesome.
posted by brain_drain at 11:05 AM on February 22, 2010 [14 favorites]


"Imposter Syndrome" is talked about a lot on the PhD student message boards I used to frequent. From what I gather, it's pretty common among new academic staff too, who've suddenly found themselves regarded as experts and part of the intellectual elite but still feel like they're just barely starting to get to grips with it.

quin - I don't see myself as being particularly leader-like, and I certainly wouldn't listen to someone like me, but for whatever reason, people do what I say ... Though, when asked a question, I often end up saying "I don't have a clue". But as I've gotten older, I'm more comfortable stating that fact, and following it up with "so let's see if we can find out the answer.

The world in general needs more of this. Related to the Dunning-Kruger effect (the less competent someone is, the more they overestimate their competence) is the lamentable fact that too many people confuse confidence with competence. Sometimes "I don't know" is unquestionably the best answer, whether it means "I need to look this up" or "no-one knows, we need more data". But people tend to prefer confidence and certainties, so all sorts of authority figures got there and maintain their positions not by being better-informed or more aware, but by hiding or simply not realising how clueless they are.

I think it's a big part of the draw toward "alternative" medicine and the like, whose practicioners are willing to offer (false) certainty and comfort instead of evidence-based medicine's probabilities and unknowns. It's also a huge problem in politics, whether in office meetings or governments; during a debate "I don't know, we'll need to check the data" sounds weak and uninformed, while taking a stab at "This is unquestionably the best solution..." leaves a much more impressive emotional impact.

If anything the world needs more of the imposter syndrome, not less.
posted by metaBugs at 11:05 AM on February 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


Let's not give Rumsfeld too much credit though. He said a wise thing, while simultaneously completely fucking ignoring his own wisdom and getting hundreds of thousands of people killed in the process.

Oh, I give Rumsfeld a great deal of credit. He managed to spend quite a bit of time making people think he was Secretary of Defense versus a Haliburton representative. Any time you can make people think you're an incompetent at one thing while doing another under their noses, you're a master of something.
posted by Pragmatica at 11:14 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I came out of that program woefully unprepared in terms of what I knew about network administration.

The best advice I could ever give a future IT admin: always have a contingency plan. Always. The worst thing you can do when the servers are on fire and the emails aren't getting sent and nobody can use the system and OH MY GOD is to stare blankly at a screen with no idea what to do next.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:14 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I like this, but it leaves out one thing that sometimes comes up in my line of work - The shit you don't know that you know.

I was going to chip in with the same thing. It think that this missing quarter of the knowledge-awareness vs. knowledge-possession Venn diagram is pretty important. Much of the knowledge you gain from experience is stuff that you'd never bother writing down in a notebook at the time, but ends up saving you loads of time when it subsequently feeds into good decision making.
posted by CaseyB at 11:20 AM on February 22, 2010


I've got it figured out. I just stay at Holiday Inn Express.
posted by Doohickie at 11:31 AM on February 22, 2010


Jeez, game warden- did you not read the very next sentence that roystgnr wrote where s/he acknowledged Rumsfeld's wisdom didn't extend to his actions?!
posted by hincandenza at 11:33 AM on February 22, 2010


What came out of that meeting was a focus in classes on problem solving and looking up information.

Welcome to the wonderful world of library science.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:36 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


WTF?
Is this something I have to be a mid to upper level office drone/designer type to understand? Near as I can tell this guy is trying to say that he can't explain his own success and doesn't feel justified in receiving it.
posted by kaiseki at 12:03 PM on February 22, 2010


As an interviewer (something that was a semi-regular part of some of my past jobs,) I would be sure to come up with a question the interviewee didn't know the answer to.

This isn't because I'm a jerk (or so I'll assert), but because I really wanted to know if the person was constitutionally capable of saying "I don't know." People who can't are a pain to work with.
posted by Zed at 12:21 PM on February 22, 2010


οὖτος μὲν οἴεταί τι εἰδέναι οὐκ εἰδώς, ἐγὼ δέ, ὥσπερ οὖν οὐκ οἶδα, οὐδὲ οἴμαι

– Socrates

Aw, cute! Socrates accented his words with little hearts! (Those things are little hearts, right?)
posted by filthy light thief at 12:30 PM on February 22, 2010


I would be sure to come up with a question the interviewee didn't know the answer to.

Always a good choice. Another one is "Tell me about a time when, professionally, you've had to lie". I'm always wary of people who immediately claim to "never, ever lie", and it lets me see how they react to an uncomfortable think-quickly-on-their-feet situation.

Getting to see them squirm is just gravy.

See! I should not be put in charge of people, this kind of shit is just irresponsible!
posted by quin at 12:40 PM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


For a while I actually seemed to seek out jobs where I just straight-up did not know how to do what was required. This was how I became an employee at Arthur Andersen responsible for using XML and ASP to design (ironically) a knowledge base for the company.

I'm not sure why I thought this would be a good idea, and it in fact did not turn out to be one. I am also not sure why they hired me, except that I was so different from what they expected that I think I startled them. By the time they realized what they had done, it was too late.

At the interview I followed Mike, the fellow from human resources who I'd immediately ascertained was (like me) also not a programmer, out of the conference room and and into a hallway. We were heading towards a bank of computers and some serious-looking men with bad posture. As we walked, Mike put his hand on my arm. “Listen,” he said, “I don’t have time to explain this but I’ve got to tell you. Don’t touch Masood.”

“What’s Masood?” I asked, trying to keep up with him.

“He’s from Egypt. He’s not allowed to touch girls.”

We arrived at the nest of cubicles. None of the men looked up. Mike’s throat made a noise. “This is Staggering Termagant,” he said. “I thought you might want to ask her some questions.”

I looked at the team. Srini, Masood, and Irwin looked back at me from their Aeron chairs. We were all terrified. What would they ask me, these men with musical accents and pocket protectors? And what would they ask me, this woman who wears makeup and shows off her knees? This is no programmer, this is something in stockings, with a lot of hair. I sat across from the three of them for a long, long time. They asked me politely how I was doing. They asked me if I was married, if I had any children. They asked me where I was from, if I liked it where I was from. They were very nice. Finally, Irwin spoke up. “Could you please tell us,” he said, “What is a cursor?”

“A cursor,” I said. “That’s the thing that allows you to move around inside a database.”

“Oh, very good, very good,” said Irwin, and the interview with the programming team was over.

I followed Mike back into the conference room and we sat back down at the big shiny table. The head of the entire department came in to meet me. He looked at my resume. “It says here you speak Russian,” he said.

“Yes,” I replied.

“We have a programmer here from Moscow,” said the boss, “his name is Vladimir.”

“Wow!” I said, “You’ve got people from all over!”

“Yes,” he smiled. “Mike, go get Vladimir.”

When the door opened a few seconds later and Mike and Vladimir stepped in, I launched. I stood up, opened my arms to the slight blonde man in the doorway, and said absolutely anything in Russian that came into my head. Here is what I told Vladimir:

“Well and what of it!? I am honored to meet you Vladimir! How exciting, what a heavy thing, to be a Russian programmer! And what a dream it is to speak Russian again after so long, after I have forgotten already everything! I lived in Moscow, on Sandy Lane, around the Hawk metro stop and I cry every night: 'Where is my Moscow? Where is my favorite little city!'”

I said all this passionately, without taking a breath, gesturing wildly to the startled Muscovite. When I finished I looked at him from under raised eyebrows. I was breathing hard, and sweating.

“Nice to meet you,” said Vladimir in English.

I guess they figured that if I could speak Russian I could write computer code. Maybe that's what I thought, too.

I was very relieved when, 6 months later, Arthur Andersen collapsed. I'm nearly certain it was not my fault.
posted by staggering termagant at 12:57 PM on February 22, 2010 [37 favorites]


I'm a college drop out with no certifications working in tech, and I can't tell you how many times I run into fully degreed and certified 'network engineers' who think they know everything and are completely unwilling to entertain the possibility that they might be wrong.

I've had basically knock down drag-out arguments with these guys that almost always end with me going 'please, just humor me and try this command in your config file'. And when it fixes the problem, they just go 'oh.'

I rarely have this problem because as someone not-degreed and certified, I'm fully aware of the scope of my expertise, which is essentially 'problems i have run into and fixed before in the real world.' and I'm willing to look for outside help when I run into new situations and I don't have a whole lot of preconceptions about what the solution or whether a solution is possible.
posted by empath at 1:29 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Being There. A film on what makes one succeed with lots of unknown unknowns.
posted by Ruodlieb at 1:56 PM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


Just to elaborate on the Dunning-Kruger thing, what the researchers actually found was that (1.) low performers overestimated their abilities, (2.) high performers underestimated their abilities, and (3.) middling performers were about right in their estimates. In other words, everybody is bad at judging their abilities, not just the less competent. Everybody just seems to use some mid-level default estimate.
posted by svenx at 1:56 PM on February 22, 2010


I have to agree with Rory Marinich about the "cultivated stupidity" idea. Using this method was how I got to meet Stephen Hawking. A friend of mine left me a message to meet her at the theater where Hawking was pimping his new Brief History of Time film at the local planetarium. So I go down to the theater and see a line of 3,000 or so people and I think, "Huh, I'll never be able to meet up with my friend if I wait in that line. Where's the alternate entrance?" So I went and found the kitchen entrance, went in, said "excuse me" to all the bustling staff who brushed past me, and finally found my way to the main hall and met up with my friend. A minute later Hawking drives by, parks not three feet away from me, and opens himself up to questions. So I ask him some questions.

Was I an unthinking ass for bypassing the line and taking access to something everyone else patiently waited for and many thousands were denied? Yes. Do I regret it? No.
posted by effwerd at 2:19 PM on February 22, 2010


Svcenx, that's not how I've seen Dunning-Kruger discussed. For instance, people who are not good at something overestimate initially, and then they are given some background and training, and ask to estimate how they'll do on the next pass, and because they understand the task, have a closer estimate of how well they'll do. (Which is not true of people who have some other, non-subject matter, coaching between rounds one and two.)

But, to all this: "Her professor had told her that she was the best nursing student she had had in years." Am I the only one who knows professors and bosses and coaches who tell half their charges things like this?

And as far as imposters, in some of my pervious jobs, I ran into people who had those fears and they were entirely justified. It's amazing what one can not learn - outside of gaming the system - if all one does is game the system throughout school and then get good at kissing ass and taking credit in their first few jobs. I suppose, if they're not eventually found out, these people end up working with clvrmnky.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 5:03 PM on February 22, 2010


In the IT world some of my experience has been.. people fronting like they know absolutely everything there is to know (colleagues) vs people fronting like they know things they don't know at all (clients). Usually, out of frustration at dealing with people who think they know things they don't know, colleagues insist they know everything there is to know. If this article can just help to get a *few* more people to realize it's OK to listen and admit that you don't know everything...
posted by citron at 5:15 PM on February 22, 2010


Lesser Shrew: And as far as imposters, in some of my pervious jobs
Wait- are those places you worked still hiring? I think I'm eminently qualified- stupendously overqualified, if I'm being honest.
posted by hincandenza at 5:24 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance.” --Confucius

“He must be very ignorant for he answers every question he is asked” --Voltaire
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:45 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


hincandenza - check the Juggalo News post on the main page - looks like the pervs are all thriving.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:49 PM on February 22, 2010


svenx: "In other words, everybody is bad at judging their abilities, not just the less competent. Everybody just seems to use some mid-level default estimate."

They also demonstrate that grading peer's work raises confidence in one's own work, and more substantially for the upper quartile than the lower quartile. Essentially, the best way for competent professionals to improve their confidence is to be a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA).
posted by pwnguin at 9:06 PM on February 22, 2010


This thesis reminds me so much of drunken conversations I've had with colleagues.

Me: I can't believe I'm getting away with this job, I'm so rubbish.

Them: No you're not, you're brilliant and the fact you even doubt yourself shows how brilliant you are.

Me: Yeah, YEAH. You're right. I am bloody brilliant. And humble too.

This is amusing. I was thinking along the same lines as the author this weekend, because I received praise, a decent raise and a substantial bonus at work when I thought I'd had a pretty sub-par year.

This happens to me too, and although I like to rationalise it by saying "I just don't know how great I really am," the reality is probably that my faults just haven't been noticed. People don't really notice what other people do.
posted by Summer at 5:52 AM on February 23, 2010


Is this something I have to be a mid to upper level office drone/designer type to understand? Near as I can tell this guy is trying to say that he can't explain his own success and doesn't feel justified in receiving it.

Imposter Syndrome is quite common for a lot of people in a lot of disciplines. Others have mentioned that the academic is rife with these sorts of self-doubts for many people. Which feels pretty much as you describe it here.

You may not feel this way, in which case: great!

This is just the way some folks cope with the stress of attempting to succeed at something. Whether or not you feel this way might have a lot to do with your general approach to "success" (however you define that) or something else.

But failure and success in this modern world is a tricky thing, and humans are many and varied, and have to negotiate a complex world. We should not be surprised that some react this way.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:37 AM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Jeez, game warden- did you not read the very next sentence that roystgnr wrote where s/he acknowledged Rumsfeld's wisdom didn't extend to his actions?!

Oops, guilty as charged. Sorry about that.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:24 AM on February 25, 2010


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