Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Austin, Ally, and the Dunning-Kruger effect

You may or may not know about my age-inappropriate love for the TV show Austin & Ally. For those of you not in touch with your inner 12-year-old, the latest episode features title character Ally preparing for her entry as a finalist in an up and coming artists feature. Ally wants to shoot a dance video, but she's a terrible dancer. Her friends try to tell her nicely that she sucks, but she isn't having it. She likes her dancing, she insists. And isn't that all that matters? If you think you're good at something, it doesn't matter what others think. Right?

There's a popular psychological theory called the Dunning-Kruger effect. It basically says that people who are really good at something frequently doubt themselves and their abilities, while people who are terrible at something will often (but not always) think they're really good. It's also called the American Idol effect, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who has seen even a commercial for American Idol.

But is this effect scientifically accurate, or is it all BS? When multiple people tell you you're bad at something, should you listen? After all, bad is subjective. If Stephenie Meyer let people read Twilight before it was published and they absolutely hated it, would she have refrained from publishing it? Would Twilight fans have never gotten the books?

Ally says several things throughout the episode that indicate she doesn't really get it. "All those people who don't like my dancing just don't understand my vision." "Oh, they're all just jealous." In the end, though, she keeps the dance routine in her video but turns it into a self-parodying dance instructional video. The video is a hit and wins the contest.

But does this always work? How do you know when you should value the opinions of others or trust your own gut? What if Ally had made the video and it had been a disaster?

If the Dunning-Kruger effect is accurate, then I must be a pretty good writer, because I doubt myself all the time. I've always struggled with self-confidence, and when you release your work into the world only to have it picked apart or rejected all together with no clear reason why, it can get frustrating. Fortunately, I have had enough positive feedback to convince myself that yes, I really am a good writer. But since writing is subjective, there will always be doubts when someone rejects your work.

I know self-doubt is a part of most people's lives, and that it's normal. But sometimes I feel like it's pulling me down, keeping me from doing my best. That little voice in the back of my head says "why put effort into this? It's going to suck no matter what."

But if you listen to that voice, you'll never get anywhere. What if J.K. Rowling had listened to that voice? Stephen King? I'm nowhere near their level and probably never will be, but that doesn't mean I can't share a story with the world. That's all I really want to do.

Fortunately, I have had a bit of writing luck in the past few weeks and months. The little pieces of positive feedback are hard to hold onto because it's in our nature to focus on the negative things first. I haven't quite figured out yet how to primarily focus on the good things instead of the bad. But I know that's what needs to be done.

How do you deal with criticism and self-doubt? How do you focus on the positive in your life instead of the negative?

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