Episode 1


The Dunning-Kruger effect in creativity

About this episode

The Dunning-Kruger effect in creativity explains a lot about why we struggle to get started with learning new creative skills, big or small. Have you ever expected to be great at something before quickly realising you're terrible at it? The Dunning-Kruger effect at work! I'll tell you how to push through it and actually see it as a positive of being tricked into starting new things that you could be great at...

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The Dunning-Kruger effect in creativity

Have you heard of the dunning kruger effect? No?! What do you mean no?! Well the good news is you’re in the right place because that’s what I’m talking about on this episode of The Positive Creatives!

[The Positive Creatives Intro Jingle]

Goooood morning, afternoon or evening wherever you are. It’s Adam here and welcome back to the first ever episode of The Positive Creatives – thanks for joining me!

I’m so happy to have started this podcast as a home for my fascination about creativity, creative people and the creative mind. To find out more about me and The Positive Creatives head over to thepositivecreatives.com where you’ll also find the show notes and a full transcript of this and all future episodes.

Since last week’s trailer I’ve had some people ask me about the positivity side of all this. Some people were asking me if it’ll just be me saying ‘you’re great’, ‘you can do it’, ‘you’re the best’ and all that kinda stuff along with some good old cheesy motivational quotes like “You’ve got to look through the rain to see the rainbow”.

I can tell you it’s not going to be that.

I think creatives suffer from self-inflicted negativity quite a bit – and I’m going to be taking those kind of negative situations we often end up in and giving you ideas, strategies, and options for how I think – by adopting a more positive mindset – you can battle your way out of those negative situations and be on the way to a more enjoyable and fulfilling creative life.

I also think sometimes we get kind of lost in the fog and just need a reminder that we’re doing ok. So here’s your reminder this week…

It’s ok to be low on motivation and inspiration during a global pandemic!

Yeah, it is! That is 100% true so stop beating yourself up or wondering why you’re not firing on all cylinders. I’ve needed to remind myself of that this week, about a hundred and fifty seven times!!

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been affected by the pandemic at all… and I don’t just mean the virus, I mean mentally and how that affects your ability to come up with ideas and to have any enthusiasm for the ideas you do come up with, let alone having the drive to actually see them through and do the work without getting distracted every ten seconds!!

So just remind yourself of that and I’ll say it again for you…

It’s ok to be low on motivation and inspiration during a global pandemic. Your mojo will come back. Don’t be hard on yourself.

Right. That’s your pep talk done.

I mentioned something right at the beginning called the Dunning Kruger effect and it’s something that I found out about a couple of weeks ago and I was like hmm ok that’s interesting, let me read about that.

And let me tell you now you’ll love it because it explains something we all go through.

Have you ever decided to learn a new skill, and thought you’d probably be really good at that thing… gone into it with maximum confidence fully expecting to absolutely nail it and then as soon as you start trying to do that thing you realise….

You’re absolutely terrible at it. It actually turns out there is nobody worse than you – IN THE WORLD – at this thing you thought you’d be amazing at.

Yeah… me too!

I’ll give you an example. Towards the end of the summer when I realised I just wasn’t going to be working this year thanks to you know what, I decided to start doing videography so that I could offer it as a service to local businesses. I thought I’d make a few videos and knock a polished little portfolio together, and start getting some work.

Now, I should explain if you don’t know already I’ve been a photographer for over a decade. I think I’m visually pretty literate, I know how to use my cameras, I’ve got a shedload of really good quality equipment… and I’ve watched A LOT of movies. So how hard can it be – flip the camera from photo mode into video mode and off we go. I’ll have Spielberg worried by the weekend.

I think I’m a pretty good photographer and I expected to be the same as a videographer.


Turns out no.

That’s not how things worked out. And this is where the dunning kruger effect begins to come into play.

So these two guys called David Dunning and Justin Kruger are social psychologists in the United States.

They had a theory and did some studies and found that the less you actually know about something the better you think you are at it! Have you ever heard that saying: “fools are blind to their own foolishness”? Well yeah it’s basically that.

No I’m not calling you a fool. I’m not. I promise!

But yeah they discovered this quirk of the mind where we think we’re amazing at stuff we know nothing about. This also explains why I couldn’t instantly play the harmonica I bought even though IT LOOKED SO EASY ON YOUTUBE…

Anyway I’m digressing already.

So you decide you want to do the new thing – like I did with video – and instantly you’re like ‘yeah I’m gonna be so good at that’. That’s the dunning kruger effect at work.

But there’s more. What happens next is you start doing the thing because why wouldn’t you, you’re clearly going to be a world beater… so you begin learning about it and you instantly come nosediving back to reality.

See, this little bit of knowledge has instantly made you realise just how little you actually know. So that false confidence caused by the dunning kruger effect is instantly wiped out and you decide, probably in a fit of rage if you’re anything like me, that you’re actually… ABSOLUTELY AWFUL AT EVERYTHING, ESPECIALLY THIS NEW THING THAT YOU WERE SURE YOU WERE GOING TO BE AMAZING AT!

So if you imagine – and I’m drawing a graph in the air here with my finger that you can’t see… up the side is confidence and across the bottom is time… you start off at the beginning and confidence is maxed out before you know a single thing. And – it turns out weirdly – that confidence will never hit that level again – I’ll tell you why in a minute.

But yeah you start off with max confidence, learn a bit, nose dive and your confidence absolutely flatlines. Couldn’t be lower. You’re out for the count. You’re actually considering throwing in the towel.

Not only have you realised how incompetent you are at the thing. You’ve realised that there’s so much more to learn than you ever imagined. And now you’ve totally flipped and you’ve got absolutely no confidence that you could be good at this. At this point, my advice to you is this…

You’ve got to TRUST IN THE PROCESS and know that this is pure psychology at work and just a painful part of learning something new… of adding that new string to your creative bow. It WILL be worth it.

I’m not promising you’ll ever be as great as your total lack of knowledge and the dunning kruger effect led you to believe, but now your feet are firmly planted in reality. You know what you’re dealing with, and the only way… literally… is up.

That confidence you started with was just a helpful quirk of your brain wanting to help you get started. It worked, you’re in. Now the challenge is staying in.

And you’ve gotta stay in. Because now the magic starts to happen and you’re on the good road to something new and growing as a creative.

You’ve got to commit to it for a bit, learn some more, practice a whole lot, and see if you actually like the new thing once you start getting good at it. Because you will get good at it if you stay in it. I can tell you that I’m now an average videographer and I no longer think I’m terrible, but I know I have a shedload to learn and I’m no longer deluded about my potential abilities…

I realise that my potential lies in the hands of persistence and practice, the same way that I got good at photography and that didn’t happen overnight either.

I’ll also let you in on a secret. I’ve considered quietly deleting this podcast all week because after releasing the trailer I started thinking ‘what am I doing? I’m not a podcaster! I’m not an expert in creativity! I’ve got nothing interesting to say!’. But here I am persisting and practicing and committing.

And that’s what I encourage you to do.

I mentioned before that those two guys Dunning and Kruger… they found that your confidence actually probably never hits the same heights even when you become an expert, as it was before you knew anything.

How weird is that?!

They discovered that people who know a lot about something or who are experts at something – they know that they know a lot about it, but they are kind of no longer aware of how much they know so they just assume that everyone knows what they know and it’s no big deal.

Who doesn’t love the human brain?!

So that’s the theory, let’s talk about the reality.

Have you experienced the dunning kruger effect without knowing it existed and that there was something you could LEGITIMATELY BLAME for your irrational thoughts about your abilities?! Maybe you’re experiencing it with something right now like I am with video, with the harmonica, with this podcast and basically everything?!

I’ve spoken to some of my creative friends this week about it and they’d all either experienced it or were experiencing it basically all the time. Because I think something that unites creative people is our desire to constantly be learning new things, developing our skills and just generally getting better at our crafts, or adding new strings to our bows.

So if any of this has resonated with you, then just know that you’re not alone, we all go through it and it’s just a quirk of our brains and something we need to accept and actually embrace as part of the creative process.

And maybe next time you find yourself at that rock bottom confidence realisation that you’re terrible at something you thought you’d be good at, your brain was just helping you get started with that dose of false greatness. Something deep down told you that you could probably be great at it, but you needed the push to get started. The dunning kruger effect gave you that push my making you think you were already great just so you’d start.

That next phase of the effect… realising you’re bad at something… that will never feel good, but at that point you can take a step back, have a quick out of body experience, and tell yourself it’s just part of the process and now the work starts.

The learning, the persistence and the practice.

This is not to say that you have to persist with everything you start cos that would be too much.

Lots of things I start, I realise I don’t enjoy them. I have a quick check with myself that I’m not just saying that because it’s hard and I need a get out clause. And then if it’s truly that I don’t enjoy it then I stop and move on to something else. Life’s way too short to do things you don’t enjoy – THAT is a definite lesson of 2020.

So keep at it. Commit to learning, and persist with your practice. Your confidence will begin to increase and you’ll see and feel yourself getting better. At that point it gets easier and easier to keep going – you know this already! You’ve been there before!

And I promise you when you remind yourself of all this at the start of your next creative journey or… actually it’s worth mentioning that this applies to small new things too – not just big new conquests like video or a whole new skill… maybe you’re just using some new equipment or a new technique…

Oh you know what here’s a cool story… I saw something amazing on instagram this week where a lettering artist I follow in Portland suddenly had this realisation that he can only draw with his right hand… and what if he injures his right hand and can’t use it for drawing?! He can’t imagine not being able to draw, so he’s decided he wants to see if he can draw with his left hand – maybe as a backup to his right, maybe so he can draw with both hands – who knows!

So he’s started drawing with his left hand. Of course, it’s nowhere near as neat or refined as what he draws with his right hand, and I bet you he thought — because of the Dunning Kruger effect — that he’d be better with his left hand than it turns out he is. But he’s not just going to give up, he’ll persist and learn and practice drawing with his left hand because that’s the only way he will get better at it.

It’s all part of the process.

And the more you understand about this, and the more you accept it, the less it will get you down and you’ll start thinking ‘ah ok I’m in this phase, it’s just psychology, I just have to stay on it’ then you’ll feel a whole lot better about stuff… or at least a bit less down when you’re in the low confidence phases because you know why it’s happening.

There’s a meme you might have seen which summarises it which often does the rounds which shows the six stages of the creative process, and it says

Stage 1 – This is going to be amazing!! We now know this is the dunning kruger effect tricking us — helpfully — into getting started. Then we’re straight into…

Stage 2 – Wait!! This isn’t easy. Why isn’t this easy? I was sure this was going to be a walk in the park. Stage two is quickly followed by…

Stage 3 – This is TERRIBLE. I just can’t do it. Why did I ever think I could do it. Maybe my equipment is broken. Do I need to buy something new? But then you realise…

Stage 4 – Oh it’s actually ME who’s TERRIBLE. I have zero talent and I resign from everything. But then almost out of nowhere…

Stage 5 – Wait. Hold on. This could be ok. And stage 5 is usually followed fairly quickly by…

Stage 6 – This is amazing! I’m a genius. Ignore everything I said before.

Ok maybe you never say you’re a genius but does that sound familiar?! I seem to spend a whole lot of time in the “this is terrible” and “I am terrible” phases. But I tell myself this and I’m telling you this today:

It’s all just part of the process!

So – make a mental note of the Dunning Kruger effect and add it to the list of things you can blame when things aren’t going so well! It’s not your fault! It’s just psychology!

I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode – let me know what you think I’d love to hear from you so drop me a message on instagram @thepositivecreatives or through the website thepositivecreatives.com and you can also let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to cover on a future episode!

I’m finishing with something that may become a regular feature at the end of each episode if I can think of something every week. I’m calling it Listen, Read, Watch. I’m going to recommend you something from each category whenever I can. It’s easy this week as I can recommend three of my favourites:

Listen – I’m going for the amazing spoken word poetry of Shane Koyczan. You can find Shane on Soundcloud and Spotify and Youtube and I’ll put his links in the show notes on the website for you.

Read – It has to be Big Magic, Creative Living beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. It totally transformed the way I see a lot of elements of creativity, especially inspiration and if you’ve not read it, make it a priority!

Watch – I’m going to recommend Jim and Andy, The Great Beyond on Netflix. It’s about when Jim Carrey played Andy Kauffman and how he approached it like only Jim Carrey could – it’s an absolutely fascinating insight and I’m sure you’ll love it, even if you’re not a big Jim Carrey fan!

Have a great week and I’ll see you next time!

Think positive.
Stay creative.
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