The better you get at your craft, the louder your impostor syndrome often becomes.

A side comment from “Everything Everywhere All At Once” co-director and co-writer Daniel Kwan last Sunday reminded us of this. You’d think that winning an Academy Award® would crush impostor syndrome like a grape. For Kwan, the experience was quite the opposite.

“I never thought of myself as a screenwriter or storyteller. Never thought I was good enough,” Kwan said from stage, statue in hand. “I have self-esteem problems. My impostor syndrome is at an all-time high.”

Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert accept the Oscar® for best original screenplay on March 12th, 2023.

Viewers love to bicker about what they thought of this movie, and journalists love to cover it because they get to use descriptive phrases like “dildo fight scene.” On one of the biggest nights in cinema, Kwan and co-director Daniel Scheinert’s mind-bending masterwork “Everything Everywhere All At Once” delivered the most dominant Oscars® night in 15 years, scooping up seven trophies, including three for “The Daniels,” who co-wrote, co-directed, and co-produced the film. So why the impostor syndrome?

It’s more common than you might think.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

You know who doesn’t have impostor syndrome? Amateurs.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a phenomenon in which those who are the least informed or experienced on a topic think they are the most informed, because they are unaware of their blind spots. Psychology Today defined Dunning-Kruger effect as “a cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area,” and that “this tends to occur because a lack of self-awareness prevents them from accurately assessing their own skills.”

The term was coined in 1999 when two Cornell psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology on their findings. In four separate experiments, when testing participants in categories like humor, grammar, and logic, subjects in the bottom quartile of test performance estimated themselves to be, on average, in the 62nd percentile of performance, a discrepancy much greater than the other quartiles.

At its best, Dunning-Kruger is innocent arrogance. In a famous survey of Stanford MBA students, 87% of them self-identified as being in the top half of the class.

At its worst, Dunning-Kruger effect discourages continuing education and leads to misinformation mills, which often have destructive outcomes. Pop on Twitter or another social media platform for about five minutes and you’ll see it in action.

For “The Daniels,” a Tight Budget Didn’t Help

Although the role of director gives you considerable artistic control, you still have to operate within a budget. In an interview with WIRED, Kwan noted that “Our film is an independent film, it’s fairly low budget for the ambition of the script, and this was the only way we could pull it off.”

In a feature interview with WIRED for their YouTube channel, The Daniels and visual effects artist Zak Stoltz broke down some of the workarounds they implemented to achieve blockbuster effects on a shoestring budget.

This meant the Daniels had to roll their sleeves up and get directly involved with many of the film’s nuances themselves. Some of the street timelapses were shot on an iPhone. The movie was edited in Adobe Premiere Pro. The entire visual effects crew was just five people, including the directors, an impossibly lean team by usual Hollywood standards. The cast and crew also did extensive in-person press; in the weeks leading up to the ceremony, they were featured in everything, everywhere… well, you know where I’m going with that.

Rather than delegate the craft, the Daniels fully embraced it, partially because they had to, but primarily because they wanted to. The result is a durable, meticulously crafted film that will entertain audiences for years to come.

Take Impostor Syndrome as a Sign

The better you get at your art or craft, the more praise and opportunities you’ll receive. Sometimes, as skill goes up, awareness does too, and having a deep knowledge of industry nuances can make you start to second-guess yourself.

Remaining humble certainly helps you get better. But when weaponized, self-flagellation can start to hold you back. Keep your craft front and center, and you’ll go far.

“It was so creatively fulfilling for us,” Kwan told WIRED. “We love to be in the weeds. That’s just always how we’ve done things.” ◆

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