Inverted vanity

A gentle mentor figure in my life, a Woodstock fellow by the surname of Muise, pronounced muse, once told me that he might have been 45 already by the time he began to question his own assumption that everyone — literally everyone except him — was in on the secret of how to live and do things. No competency and achievement was safe from his self-doubt. No proof was enough.

That suspicion, of course, is a symptom of imposter syndrome, wherein the afflicted feels unqualified to do any of the things they can, um, do, and suspects that their secret is always on the verge of being out, their jig up. It is by my estimation a worldwide epidemic.

Its opposite is the Dunning-Kruger effect (DK), the unshakable conviction that you are simply badass at something/everything even as objective reality and the consensus of experts pound you with a very different message. DK seems no less common and just as deleterious in a perfectly complementary way.


I feel quite certain that the self-censure, the deference to inferiors born of imposter syndrome has cost the world a great number of geniuses and works thereof, while, for all its fist-pumping and chest-thumping, Dunning-Kruger has never produced a single one. They are a yin-yang of sad and bad.

Anyway, I am more interested in the epiphanic, life altering moment of my friend’s realization than in the grueling drills of imposter syndrome, which I know all too well. Truth is, for me it was a slow dawning, he said, a path that appeared but still had to be committed to. All the best realizations need to be repeated daily. They are never one and done.

Revelations and epiphanies are just common truths but in a highly bio-available form. The best example I can think is mortality itself. Poll 100 people 100 times a day with the question “Are you going to die?” and you’ll get 10,000 affirmatives per diem, unless Ray Kurzweil happens to be in your cohort.

And yet, while we always “know” this truth to be true, why does it so rarely have the teeth of a tiger? Why so rarely a cellular-level power to invest every beating pulse of time with meaning and urgency? There are fleeting moments when the fact of mortality is bio-available, suddenly actionable, fully vested with its rightful, cardinal power. Most of the time, not.

Leading with death is like starting with dessert, but I am short on time here and keen to make my point. Would it ever seem plausible that everyone is more competent and qualified than you? That only you are winging it by necessity? That you and you alone missed a memo that fundamental?

Of course not, and with the withering of imposter syndrome’s delusion of exceptionalism, its inverted vanity, comes one sweet little fringe benefit: enhanced empathy to the interior struggles of all, even those Dunning-Kruger blowhards.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.