The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.--Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
In December of 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning published a paper entitled Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. In it, they described what has since become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.
If you’ve ever seen a craptastic poet who thinks he’s some kind of genius, you’ve seen the Dunning-Kruger effect. If you’ve ever seen a brilliant artist fret over the tiny flaws in her work, you’ve also seen the Dunning-Kruger effect. The gist of the paper, as the title indicates, is that the worse you are at something, the worse you are at determining just how bad you are at it. The flip side of this is that the more skilled you become, the better you get at assessing your ability.
In the course of the original research, Kruger and Dunning also found that as people improved their skills, their ability to self-assess improved as well. What the research doesn’t mention, but many people can tell you, is how discouraging this process can be. The Dunning-Kruger Threshold is my term for the point at which you become competent enough to see just how incompetent you’ve been. You can also call it the Oh My God I Suck Moment.
Anybody who has flinched when confronted with their earlier work will know what I mean, whether it’s the cheesy spy stories you wrote after seeing that James Bond movie when you were a kid or the angsty poetry you wrote as a teenager or that first try at a novel you wrote in college. I also suspect that a certain baseline of metacognitive ability can be absorbed through the osmosis of appreciation. For example, I’ve listened to enough music to know what a guitar is supposed to sound like and that what comes out when I pick the thing up is definitely not it.
So what do you do when you’re good enough at something to realize just how bad you are? (And I mean genuinely gut-level aware, not just deliberately self-effacing in the hopes of a pat on the head and reassurance that you’re not that bad, really.) As painful as it can be, it’s an encouraging sign. It means you can see more clearly what needs to be fixed and work on advancing your abilities in order to fix it.
And if you think that everything you create is unmitigated brilliance? Be very, very worried, because that means you still have quite a long way to go.