The prisons of our own self-images

We all have understandings of our own strengths and weaknesses, abilities and expectations, forming a self-image, or a mental model of the person we are. But these often become hardwired, with a whole bunch of cognitive effects together with the difficulty in getting objective information making it rather difficult to re-evaluate your own understandings. Outdated beliefs in your own ability or lack thereof can act to drive your career in suboptimal directions or inhibit your confidence, as well as impacting on your own direction in the world. I’m going to run through an example which has belted this home for me and inspired this post.

My self-image asserts that I’m a sub-par writer. Hell, I remarked on it self-depreciatingly for the From Ace Combat to Zeno Clash series. I can trace this back to a single test – an entry examination for the SHIP talented students program I took at age 12. I performed strongly across all the other areas, but well outside what would be expected in the writing test. I still got in to the program on the back of my other skills so it didn’t even actually matter, but it was of note in a class of kids readily swapping entry test results. I’ve failed maths tests and messed up engineering problems since without it impacting my confidence in those skills. So why the hell is my self-image so hung up on a single test from more than 15 years ago?


At the time, I probably was sub-par. I’ve always had a predilection for making intuitive leaps, skipping over intermediary steps which has served me really well when solving logical problems, but when writing I have to be careful to make sure the reader can follow those jumps. At age 12, I would have been making massive leaps without trailing any rope for readers to follow. I’ve always had a disdain for arbitrary rules based solely on tradition, which is a pretty good descriptor for English grammar. Compounding things, from late primary school I was more interested in the harder sciences than the humanities, which allowed me to write off this result as unimportant rather than something which really impinged on my scholarly self-image. That dreadful engineer’s snobbery had struck early, nudged on by parents who were both in STEM and simply through having better teachers in my STEM subjects.


Throughout my schooling I tended to get Bs in the humanities (as opposed to As in the sciences), before taking Legal Studies (and squeaking an A) as my sole required subject from that area in year 12. Regardless of my writing, I didn’t yet have the level of critical thinking and maturity required to interpret texts beyond the surface level, while the social sciences were compressed to irrelevance by the SHIP program. I also now wonder what impact reading the ghoulish Murdoch tabloid which is Adelaide’s only newspaper had on those slow developing critical thinking skills. So my results in the humanities were a step below what I was getting in the sciences, which helped reinforce the self-image of my sub-par writing. I suspect that the false-consensus effect played a role here as well, particularly since I was surrounded by a talented peer group. This bias means that people tend to assume that others are similar to themselves and tends to result in those with high skills underrating their own ability. With a skilled peer group, it would have been easy to extrapolate this as the general level of the population.


I then studied engineering at university, where the quality of the writing was rarely of any import. It did however give me one class where writing was central and could have given me the information I needed to update my self-image. Checking back on my transcript, ‘Engineering Planning, Design and Communication M’ was my third best subject (of ten) in first year, with a Distinction which should have given me cause for some introspection. I suspect that by this point I had fully internalised both the self-image of my writing ability and the engineer’s snobbery which asserted that non-technical subjects were easy by default.  This is likely an example of confirmation bias, wherein information which supports our opinions is weighted more heavily and that which is against it is ignored or weighted more lightly.


Afterwards I got into the construction industry, where the writing ability of my co-workers was clearly far worse than mine. But the industry couldn’t compare with my peers in engineering studies nor those from the SHIP program in high school across pretty much any academic area. They knew tons about the esoteric language of the construction site (from penetrations to soffits) and had plenty of practical skills, but clearly weren’t educated enough to be fair comparisons for my scholastic talents. So my self-image has persisted in the absence of any solid information.



I recently applied for a job as a Data Analyst, and although I didn’t get it, the recruiter was willing to serve me with not only an actual rejection notice (which is surprisingly rare these days), but also some feedback on my application. My ability to communicate in writing was rated particularly highly, but they weren’t so sure about my ability to interpret trends in data.

WHOA. whoa. whoa.

Hold up, that’s the opposite of what my self-image says.

I’m supposed to be a technical and analytical expert who struggles to communicate, not some kind of fancy pants writer.


I can rationalise away the weakness in the other areas because it is rather hard to actually demonstrate them in a written response to selection criteria, but the format is actually perfect for judging writing skills. So maybe the mental model does need adjustment, maybe my writing skills aren’t solely defined by a test more than 15 years ago. Perhaps the time I spend devouring the social science books I once disdained has actually made me a better writer, and now I can market (marketing – another thing my self-image says I’m woeful at) it more strongly than just as a notation on big list o’ engineering skills. So an external information shock can be enough to force a re-evaluation of your self-image. Of course, it is always possible that the recruiter’s level of writing competency is so low that they can’t recognise competence in themselves or others ala the Dunning-Kruger effect.