Imposter Syndrome on the Flats

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By Tim Loonam

Is faking it keeping you from making it?

I’m standing on the deck of a Bair’s Lodge flats boat on South Andros and turn to look over my shoulder.  There’s our guide, Gary, wearing that huge Bahamian smile with the ever-present cigar stub in the corner of his mouth and an off-kilter ball cap barely covering his unruly mop of mini-dreads. I look down at Louis Cahill, my fishing partner as he finishes uncoiling the fly line I’ve stripped into the cockpit. He too smiles at me and boosts my confidence saying, “You got this, dude.” I turn forward just as Gary calmly says, “Get ready, mon…bonefish 2 o’clock…50 feet, moving right to left.” I take a deep breath and think of the Nobel Prize.

Wait, what…? Before you punch your fist into your open palm and say, “You’re dead, nerd!”, stay with me. As I got ready to cast, I thought about the 2000 award in psychology known as The Dunning-Kruger Effect. The Dunning-Kruger Effect applies anytime we engage in a new endeavor whether it’s learning a foreign language, flying a plane, performing brain surgery, or in my case, a double haul cast to a ghost of the flats. In their research, David Dunning and Justin Kruger plotted their subject’s confidence level in a task against the subject’s actual competency, and what they found universally was with any new task we all start out Unconsciously Incompetent: We simply don’t know how bad we are.  That certainly applied to my first attempts at the double haul.   I remember flinging that fly line around like one of those Korean dancers with a ribbon attached to a stick at the Opening Ceremonies of the Seoul Olympics. 

The next phase in the Dunning-Kruger Effect occurs as we gain just enough experience in our new endeavor to become dangerous. We become Consciously Incompetent: Now we realize we suck!  Of the four phases of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, this is where it’s easiest to come off the rails. The quickest but worst solution to being consciously incompetent is to react by doing the old ‘Fake it till you make it’ thing. When you fake competence though, in essence you’re lying to yourself, and you come to think you’re more competent than you actually are. Over time, these fakers lose humility and become very dogmatic. Flats fisherman in this category show up in the right clothes with the best gear falsely thinking they can buy their way into competence.  Guides can pick these fakers out in under 5 minutes.  These fisherman regale everyone with how long they’ve been fly fishing and where they’ve fished around the world. They don’t take criticism and shun guides’ instructions and even their suggestions on what flies to use. They eventually develop a God Complex and sadly, are unaware and quickly reach a plateau on the flats.

The other way to derail when you’re Consciously Incompetent is to develop Imposter Syndrome. This is me, and I’ve suffered from this phenomenon my whole life. It began when I showed horses in middle school, and followed me through high school football, college, and plagues me to this day in my career as a veterinarian.  Imposter Syndrome, coined by Judith Barwick, comes from award-winning research project in psychology. In the late 70’s there was a surge of women attaining top leadership positions in Fortune 500 companies, and Barwick and others tried to figure out what made these top performers different. As is often the beauty in research, they found something else: These high-achieving women all suffered from a pathological fear that they didn’t belong in their position and were at risk of being revealed as a fraud – they thought they were imposters! Further research found this also occurred in higher percentage across ethic groups, and in men – of course, only those who didn’t develop the God Complex. It’s so easy to compare ourselves to others, but comparison kills! Look at me; I’m fishing with THE Louis Cahill of Gink & Gasoline fame, currently one of fly fishing’s top influencers. His double haul that launched a fly 80 feet on target like it was shot out of a high-powered rifle did nothing for my Imposter Syndrome. It’s a wonder I didn’t just throw myself to the sharks. 

So, how to move to the third phase of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, becoming Consciously Competent, and avoid the clueless God Complex or the anxious Imposter Syndrome…? It’s easy: Do the work. Put the pie plate out on the lawn and go cast on a breezy day, get a lesson from your local fly shop or look up a FFI Certified Casting Instructor for a lesson. Read a book and some articles and check out the short but instructive videos at Gink & Gasoline from Louis and his pro pals Captains Bruce Chard and Joel Dickey. Be open-minded out on the water and listen to your guide. And most importantly, relax and stop comparing yourself to others. Remember, fishing is supposed to be fun, right…?

The final phase in the Dunning-Kruger Effect is when we become Unconsciously Competent. As a fly angler this is Jedi Master-enlightenment stuff with regards to our skills, kind of like the final stage in the life cycle of a fly fisherman. I’m sure you’ve heard this progression: First you want to catch a fish, then a lot of fish, then a big fish, then a big fish in a tough situation or an exotic locale, then finally, you just want to fish. Being unconsciously competent is when you see a single cruising bonefish on the edge of the mangroves and intuitively cast from a crouching position to get below the wind and lead that bone more than normal to account for the current and drifting boat…all without a thought. I’d love to get there someday.

Back to me on the bow. Gary says, “Do you see him, mon…? Cast now.”  I toss my fly outboard from a solid ready position as I begin the quick-cast Louis taught us. Two false casts later I shoot the Robcha fly on target. (No, that’s not a typo: the Robcha, tied by our friend and former Air Force Special Operations pilot Rob Young, is our group’s bastardization of the famous Gotcha. I take credit for the name though.) Louis whispers, “Nice, dude…”, and as I smoothly strip in the slack, Gary says, “He sees it, mon…strip slow.”  The bone tilts on the fly and does that little tail wiggle thing. I see the sand puff out of his gills and Gary says, “He’s on it…STRIP!”  I do and instantly feel the weight of the fish and that surge of power.  The only thing louder than Louis cheering and my line screaming off the reel is Gary hollering, “Put dat mon on TEEEE-VEEEEEEE…!”   I’m certainly not a god and I didn’t feel like an imposter that day, and I definitely enjoyed being conscious of the work I did to catch that bonefish.

In addition to being an Airborne Ranger, a successful Veterinarian and a damn fine angler, Tim is also an engaging public speaker. You can hear him speak on building resiliency and leadership on The Cairn Podcast

Justin Pickett

Gink & Gasoline 

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