How do I overcome my cognitive biases to figure out what I'm good at?
November 14, 2014 12:02 AM   Subscribe

The infrequently mentioned counterpoint to the Dunning-Kruger effect is that people who are better than average at something underestimate their skills. Self-evaluation is hard. I know that I personally have a hefty dose of impostor syndrome and distorted thinking to add to that cognitive bias, but how do I adjust for this?

This is something of a followup to my last question on dealing with my career anxieties so I could start applying for jobs. The answers on that question were very helpful, and I've at least gotten as far as opening up my C.V. and feeling pretty okay about it. But then I run into another problem: as tchemgrrl put it, "Now without knowing you I can't say whether your negative self-talk is your brain being naughty or a true perspective on your career prospects [...]"

Thing is, I don't know either. I know I'm not as bad at things as depression and impostor syndrome would have me believe, but I don't know how much to adjust my self-perception upwards from that. It may not affect the actual writing of a C.V. or resume, since those are mostly restricted to objective things like "gave this presentation" and "held this job", but it does very much affect what jobs I apply to and what I try to emphasize in cover letters and the like.

How can I get a better sense of where I stand on key skills when I've lost faith in my own judgement?
posted by cortisol to Work & Money (7 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Don't worry so much, first of all. Imposter syndrome is likely to be more impacful than Dunning-Kruger, especially if you have earned professional qualifications. They don't hand those out for free! Seek feedback on skills you are concerned about, to learn what you are good at. If a skill can be tested (via examination or comparison to people at a similar level of experience to you) then do that.

Other people are going to have an idea of what you are good and bad at, so make sure to get a range of opinion. Talk to past employers/your supervisors, even lecturers/teachers from the past. Examination results will give you an idea of where you fall in a bell curve. Also note that the more time you spend doing something, the better you will (usually) get at it, so if you have experience with doing something then you are probably better at it than most people are.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 2:22 AM on November 14, 2014

Make a list of what knowledge, ability and experience being good at something requires and measure yourself against it. Keep in mind professionals have different mixes of those things and people with very different backgrounds can succeed in a field.

Have others contribute to the definitions and measurements as appropriate to help you trust them.

Dunning-Kruger is mostly something people use to put down others. It's easy for some people to pretend to think little of their abilities and criticize people who assert knowledge. The truth is that we can determine what is required of us and what is required of us at the next level of performance or achievement, and if we stop to think, whether we are doing it or have the potential. We may not be too accurate at ranking ourselves against others, but that doesn't have anything to do with perceiving objective competency.
posted by michaelh at 3:27 AM on November 14, 2014

What have reasonable people in your life (bosses, supervisors, friends, teachers, partners, family, therapists) complimented you on? There's likely feedback about your work or efforts that's somewhat consistent.

It's also worth paying attention to the types of things you enjoy doing.

Any overlap between things you enjoy doing and things you've gotten positive feedback about should be things you're very strongly emphasizing.
posted by jaguar at 7:16 AM on November 14, 2014

You are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good here, I'm afraid. If it helps, this is a classic procrastination technique, a lot of us do it, and I understand what you are going through.

The thing is, none of what you've talked about in your question really matters when it comes to applying for a job. It doesn't matter if you feel you have imposter syndrome, or if you are prone to under- or over-estimating your skill.

1. When it comes to getting a job (a career type job!), you are in a competition, and you are playing to win. Therefore, you ALWAYS aim as high as you possibly can for the skills you have. And you are AlWAYS selling yourself.

You do NOT outright lie. You do NOT say, for example, that you have a degree you don't.

But you DO cast every skill learned, honor received, practical experience obtained and degree earned in the most positive light.

If there is any thing that reflects poorly on you, leave it right the hell off of your CV and applications! The only exception would be if you are legally obligated to report the information during the course of applying for a job. Unless you are a convicted sex offender or otherwise a felon, there are very few things that meet this requirement, though.

Think of your CV as an advertisement, with the goal of selling yourself to anyone who reads it. Get a book on keywords employers look for if you think it will help. Remember, this is a competition, and you want every advantage going in you can get.

2. Cast a wide net.
Mine the widest market of potential fits for the skills you have. Look at jobs you think you would like to do that are at all related to your field. This is important, and what I did wrong early on, and what I think a lot of students do wrong early on, as well--do NOT limit yourself! Do not say, well, my degree is in accounting, but there are no openings for accountants, so I guess I am screwed. You could work for the FBI with an accounting degree! You can be a financial advisor! You can take some software courses with H & R Block do people's taxes!

If you have a degree in education, in addition to the usual school, tutoring and virtual teaching gig, you might find a job in corporate training and creating instructional manuals for employee handbooks.

3. Treat the Job Search Like Another Class
You've written themes on all kinds of topics by now. Adjust your CV to the specific job you are applying for when it is not an obvious fit. Usually, this means a few little tweaks, and you can even have templates set up to make it easier. You emphasize your degree when the job matches that, and de-emphasize it when you are looking further afield.

In applying for the instructional handbook job, for example, you would emphasize your flexibility, your ability to break down difficult concepts and explain them, and that you are educated in the processes people use to tackle problems and commit instructions to memory, rather than that you are certified to teach Shakespeare to teens. ;)

Research companies when you can, even if it is just on Linked In, so you don't go in blind. This is like taking pre-reqs before you progress to upper level courses.

4. Network. Get with other students in your program and network. Maybe they know of resources you don't. Maybe they have a job lined up and know who is hiring. Ask your favorite professors for references.

5. Make Your Anxiety Work for You
Okay, so you got this far and now comes an interview, and again you are worried about how to present yourself. Especially when you know you are likely to get crap questions like, "What is your biggest weakness?"

Again, you are competing, so you need to de-emphasize the bad and emphasize the good. In your case, I can flat out say that a great answer would be, "I am often my own worst critic because
my standards for success are quite high and I frequently reevaluate myself to make sure I am meeting them." You could even add a self-deprecating, "Yeah, sometimes I can overthink things!" That is one of the best "bad" qualities to have, really.

Now comes the tricky part-- questions that ask how would you rate yourself on various skills, or want you to compare yourself to others. That's always tough, when you are basically an honest
person, trying to be fair. As a woman, I can tell you that women are frequently conditioned to be modest and downplay our accomplishments, and I have struggled with this.

Obviously, no one who goes to a job interview is going to say they are below average at anything. That just makes no sense when you are competing for a position. You might as well not even walk in the door than sell yourself short.

It might help to think,of it this way: you are a college-educated person. You stuck with it and got your degree. Do you know how many people can't even get into college, or drop out? Even if you are modest by nature, you know that you have accomplished something many have not. You are already above average!

When asked how you might compare to others--Why should we hire you over anyone else?--a good idea is generally to focus in on positive feedback you have received in the
past when answering. Stress both your enthusiasm for the work and any very specific skills you might have that the average candidate might not, while naturally NOT getting into your lack of practical work experience. If this is brought up, point out that your college education has been, in many ways, similar to on-the-job training, requiring you to think on your feet, learn new skills, etc.

Again, it doesn't matter if you are perhaps over-selling, as it is up to the interviewer or recruiter to determine if you are actually a good fit for their job. Sell yourself!
posted by misha at 10:15 AM on November 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

If you're looking for academic jobs (you mentioned in an earlier post that you're a grad student), you should consider talking to folks who work at different types of institutions. When you're in grad school at a research institution, it's easy to get locked into the idea that research is the only thing that matters. But many institutions value teaching more, and are leery of candidates who seem too research-focused. If you'd be interested in a more teaching-oriented job, putting together an application package that makes this clear can be a HUGE advantage. (Feel free to MeMail me if you want to talk about this in more detail. I'm in a STEM field, if that makes a difference.)
posted by yarntheory at 5:49 PM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks; I've marked a couple of best answers, but all of these had useful elements to take away. I guess I was kind of hoping someone would pipe up and explain the magic formula for accurate self-evaluation, but it's just like every other area of life: you have to proceed on incomplete information.
posted by cortisol at 8:48 PM on November 15, 2014

it's just like every other area of life: you have to proceed on incomplete information

Yes, and like every other area of life, the more bits of evidence that agree with one conclusion, the more likely that conclusion is to be true. You don't have to rely only on your own perceptions; make sure you are not discounting other people's feedback.
posted by jaguar at 9:11 PM on November 15, 2014

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