Rolling off mount stupid is not bad at all

(also published at

Recently I had to fill in a couple of personality questions as a pre-interview process of a client and one of them sounded "Can you give us an example about a situation where you failed and what you learned from this?". Without hesitation I immediately knew what to tell, the moment I fell from my personal 'mount stupid'. 

It was the spring of 2013, the lead architect and the director had set up a meeting to discuss my ending contract. They notified me only a day before late in the afternoon, with a one line email. That gave me a doubt for the first time, they wouldn't let me go right? Sure, the mid year review had pretty low markers and the projects i delivered were late and buggy but not bad right? Plus from a social perspective the people enjoyed my presence. The tone of that one line email surprised me since I thought all was okay. And not getting a contract extension as a software engineer is a rare thing to happen if you are not displaying obvious dysfunctional social behaviour.

But the next day came, the meeting started and with audible difficulty in the first sentence the lead architect told me they would not renew my contract. I only heard half of his rationale, arguments like 'resistance .. if it doesn't fit you''you are rushing at the end , bringing stress to the project', 'when you deliver it is still suboptimal requiring others to intervene' and a couple of other arguments I couldn't really hear well anymore, I felt devastated. I did hear the director said in a soothing voice 'I'm sorry but it is just not good enough'.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a psychological phenomenon. It occurs in incompetent people who, precisely because of their incompetence, lack the metacognitive ability to see that their choices and conclusions are sometimes wrong. At the height of this effect lies mount stupid, a place where one has the unjustified feeling they are on top of their game while they are only merely scratching the surface. And experienced people who find themselves on mount stupid can often be difficult to deal with, because an experienced person may be irrationally confident.

This wake up call I received that spring day in 2013 made me realise i was irrationally confident. Surely I knew how to write vanilla php code and in zend framework but that was all that there was. I was not open to embrace any other parts of the stack (especially javascript), any other framework and woefully unaware how multi server architectures play out. Furthermore I had a rigorous belief system and sprung up resistance for anything that did not fit this system. A belief system i was not capable of explaining by the way. To top this off I was lacking the ability to adapt to the needs and habits of the organisation, basically a proper work ethic. And last of all, I did not see that irrational confidence at all.

In hindsight I am really happy that I got pushed over the tip of the mountain instead of me getting a renewal based on a weak grant solely because of them liking me as a team member: I might have still lived in that house on mount stupid. And in that sense I am really happy with the push, otherwise myself knowingly I would have resisted going down.

After securing a new daytime job I spent about a year in spare time of reinventing myself as a more complete software craftsman. Reading a plethora of books on software development and developer etiquette, practising with C to fully understand how things play out from a lower level. Understanding why I had that belief system and which parts were grounded and which parts weren't. It wasn't always easy to be confronted with my ignorance but the 'valley of despair' that i was in basically brought back that innate drive to learn every day and be adaptive to the needs of the organisation. I can wholeheartedly say that rolling off the mountain turned out to be a slingshot upwards, it does however sometimes bring me a bit of the ubiquitous imposter syndrome.

Should you ever find yourself at the top of mount stupid and realise this, best advice is then to embrace rolling down. Surely it will be confronting to discover the depths of the valley ahead but resisting it will slow your slingshot effect down. Begin by learning to learn every day, this will bring you joy for a lifetime. Best mentality hack is to think "oh, apparently I don't know this, good, so let me figure it out". Learning will get easy from there using this mindset. And do realise you are not at the starting point, you did manage to climb the mountain and you certainly already possess skills that 98% of the population doesn't have in the first place. Rolling down off mount stupid is not bad at all.

And if you're reading this and wondering how one can realise to be on mount stupid; I don't have that answer for you. I think my old self wouldn't be open for listening, it is in a sense an ego thing. If you have ideas on how to realise this or have encountered a likewise situation please tell me!