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Feeling overwhelmed and unconfident? It might be a good sign
July 21, 2021

A few months ago I attended a freelancing workshop run by Alison Grade. These things can be hit and miss but since it was put on by the Guardian I thought I’d be in fairly safe hands (they often run useful and interesting masterclasses).

My biggest takeaway wasn’t really about freelancing, but it was about psychology. She talked about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which explains three important things:

a) Why teenagers believe they know everything, 

b) Why you might feel overwhelmed with the knowledge of everything you’ve yet to learn, and

c) Why it seems like people who are less accomplished than you are more confident in themselves

Basically, the hypothesis suggests that people with low knowledge or ability tend to overestimate their abilities: they don’t know what they don’t know, and they think that the small amount of knowledge and understanding they have is the extent of the knowledge available. To use another famous phrase, they’re working with unknown unknowns.


The Dunning-Kruger Effect is shown in graph form; people who are to the left of the graph don’t know much but believe they know a lot – that’s the peak towards the left. Those people are often said to be “standing on top of Mount Stupid”.

As you progress through your life and career, you learn more of what there is out there, and begin to understand how little you do know, even though you’ve attained more knowledge and skills along the way. When you’re facing those known unknowns, you start to feel inadequate. You start to worry you’ll never be good enough. Then you look at people around you—people you’re sure have less skills and knowledge than you—and you see them confidently promoting their talents, and you feel even less confident because you’re comparing yourself. 

I remember years ago feeling baffled, upset, and unconfident that someone I knew (and whose writing I thought was laboured and twee) was charging $900 US to write one website page (!). Now I know why!

Anyway, the moral of this story is, if you’re feeling like you’re a bit lost in your creative career, that’s totally fine. It’s natural, even. It’s a sign that you’re making progress, even if it doesn’t feel that way. And you can also quietly have a giggle at the people who are about to tumble down the other side of Mount Stupid. Here’s a little more on the Dunning-Kruger Effect if you’re interested.