Happy Tuesday, everybody. Let’s start the week with a reader question, the way I do every Monday. This week, I’m going to answer a question about impostor syndrome and expert beginners. And I’m going to do it on a Tuesday because I was on the road this weekend and didn’t get a chance to post ahead of Monday.
I was reading about “expert beginner” and it was fascinating and rude awakening in some parts. How does this compare with the feeling of impostor syndrome ? Are they even related?
First, let’s start with some background. The question asks about two terms you may or may not be familiar with: expert beginner and impostor syndrome.
Expert beginner is a term I coined years ago in a blog post (and eventually made into a satirical Twitter account). You can read the blog post and the eventual series for extensive background on the topic, if you’d like. But for our purposes here, I’ll describe him more briefly.
An expert beginner is a small king in a small kingdom. If you go to work at a small software development shop, you might encounter him as the senior architect who has been there forever. Management gives him the run of the place in spite of the fact that, as it turns out, he’s not really very good at what he does. Management trusts him because it doesn’t know any better, and he equates this trust with objective demonstration of his superior skill and ability. He seeks no oImputside input or validation, ruling with an iron fist from a position of mediocrity.
Impostor syndrome describes something entirely different. Those suffering from impostor syndrome believe their achievements the result of luck or favor rather than merit. They constantly feel like frauds or impostors. Think of a programmer with 5 years of experience and a track record of delivering results thinking he’s not a “real” programmer.
Impostor Syndrome vs Expert Beginnerism
This is pretty simple, right? These things are opposites. Expert beginners overestimate their competence and impostor syndrome sufferers underestimate their competence. Case closed.
And I suppose one could close the case with that take. But that isn’t my take. I think something more subtle is at play. I’d say that expert beginnerism and impostor syndrome are sides of the same coin.
Both represent a critical inability to meaningfully internalize feedback.
Now, before I proceed, I want to be clear about something. Not everybody that is prone to coming off as a blowhard or who doesn’t recognize the value of a coworker’s suggestion is an expert beginner. Likewise, people who have moments of self doubt aren’t all suffering from impostor syndrome. If you didn’t suffer at least occasional self doubt, you’d be the sort of narcissistic maniac that I once characterized as a “master beginner.”
With both true expert beginners and true impostor syndrome sufferers, you have a sort of cognitive blindness.