I thought this a lot during my very first week of classes at UBC: “Everyone seems so much smarter than me."
And even now, I still catch myself thinking this.
But university is the time and place to feel like you don’t know everything—because nobody knows everything. In the wise words of Professor Gavin Paul, “We are all here not because we know everything, but because we want to recognize what we don’t know.”
Being aware of how much you don’t know is the first step in recognizing how much there is to learn.
Why we think we’re either geniuses or fools
Ever wonder why amateurs think they’re the absolute best and why a perfectly competent person seems to constantly doubt their own abilities? It turns out we’re not very good at evaluating our own aptitudes—we tend to overestimate or underestimate ourselves.
According to the Dunning-Kruger effect, our cognitive biases convince us that we know everything about something we really know very little about, or nothing about something we’re fairly competent in. People with a good amount of expertise will often have less confidence than someone with little to none.
For instance, I used to think I was a lot better at bowling than I actually was—because, how hard is throwing a ball down an oiled alley? That being said, I’d only ever played Wii bowling (let’s just say I still use bumpers) when I thought this. Yet on the other hand, as a writer, I’m constantly doubting the quality of my work, even though I’ve been studying literature for numerous years.
I think a lot of us tend to underestimate our own abilities, especially when it comes to academics. But we often feel this way because we know enough to be aware that there’s a lot that we don’t know yet.
Unmasking imposter syndrome
Undermining your own abilities can be a symptom of imposter syndrome—the feeling of being inadequate or like a fraud among your peers. This happens to the best of us and the first step in reframing that feeling is adjusting your perception of yourself.
Sometimes, you need a little reminder that…
You belong here: We’re all at UBC because we want to learn and because we’ve earned our successes—remember, that is no small feat.
You are capable: The tendency to undersell yourself may seem like a gesture of humility, but sometimes, you start believing it. Take pride in your strengths and the little victories—you’re more capable than you think.
You are not who you’re comparing yourself to: It’s unhealthy to compare yourself to a perception of someone else because you are an Entirely. Different. Person. Instead of putting other people on pedestals, focus on how you can learn from their strengths, rather than using them to fixate on your own flaws.
Discover your untapped knowledge
All of us can feel inadequate at times, but the liberating difference is how you decide to act on this feeling—especially when it comes to participating in class.
I am notoriously participation-shy because I don’t want to be that person with nothing unique or insightful to say. But more often than not, the questions I think are obvious lead to the most learning (and odds are, someone else is wondering the same thing as I am). In asking what I thought were "dumb" questions, I realized that I knew enough to be able to ask those questions in the first place.
By owning up to everything I didn’t know, I shifted my concentration from the appearance of learning to actually learning.
So with all this in mind, approach the rest of the school year knowing that you don't need to know it all. Don’t let what you don't know stop you from participating in class, trying something new, and discovering your potential to grow.
Header photo credit: Paul H. Joseph / UBC Brand & Marketing