The More You Know, the Less You Think You Do

When I first started writing seriously, I was twenty-nine. It was the summer after my second year of teaching, and beginning to write down all the stories in my head was the first step on a long road toward rediscovering myself after a pretty difficult period in my life.

I came up with an idea. I started a new document.

And let me tell you: I was on fire.

The words flowed. Everything that came out of my brain was sheer, staggering genius. Angels wept, reading the beauty of my prose. I was convinced that I was going to sell in a minute flat. The instant I finished that bugger, publishers were going to be knocking down my door, desperate to bring my literary brilliance to the world.

Do you believe me? If so, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

I look back now on those first fledgling efforts, and I’m struck by a mixture of mortification and wistful fondness. Baby Me was so adorable! So naïve! So confident!

She didn’t know that you shouldn’t use two adverbs in every sentence, or that dangling modifiers were even a thing. She didn’t know about beat sheets, or Big Black Moments. Hell, she didn’t even know her book needed a f*$(ing conflict.

She was, in a word, a beginner. An amateur. She didn’t know what she didn’t know, and so she thought she knew everything.

I’ve come a long way since then, but it’s been a hell of a difficult road. The journey has been humbling, and there have been times when I’ve lounged around in a pit of despair, bemoaning my inadequacy. Even now, when things have been looking up in my career, I’m plagued by self-doubt. I’m arguably the most skillful at my craft as I’ve ever been, and yet my confidence is nowhere near as high as it was when I first started out.

In other words, I’m a poster-child for something known as the Dunning–Kruger effect.

If you aren’t familiar with this particular principle of psychology, allow me to briefly explain. The idea is that this basic cycle applies to everyone working to master a new skill or enter into a new field:

  • They begin as idiots who are so clueless that they don’t know how stupid they are. They achieve shocking heights of overconfidence.
  • They get kicked on their rears by actual experts, and their confidence in their abilities takes a nose-dive.
  • They slowly but steadily improve and learn. As they do, their estimations of their own abilities recover, until they achieve a modest, realistic perception of themselves.
  • They never, ever think they are as hot of shit as they did back when they were idiots.

To put that in graph form:

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

(I’m not sure about you, but the fact that psychology has actually given a name to what I’ve often imagined to be my own particular brand of neurosis is oddly comforting.)

Sometimes, it’s tempting to look back on the heady days when I first started out on this crazy road with nostalgia or even longing. I wish I could write that freely and with such self-assuredness, knowing what I know now.

But then I remember: I was an idiot back then.

And the fact that I feel like I’m an idiot now is a really good sign that I’m a lot less of one than I used to be. 🙂

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