Dunning, Kruger, and Mr. Ping: How Mystical Noodles Helped Me Conquer Imposter Syndrome

The original version of this post appeared last spring on the charming Ron Vitale’s blog.

My kids love the movie Kung Fu Panda. They love it so hard, they twitch like dreaming puppies in the fight scenes, subconsciously acting it out. We watch that movie at least once a month, to the point that I recently confessed on Twitter:

But there is one part of the movie I never get tired of. In fact, I get a little teary every time, because it speaks to a tender spot in my own fears.

Like most writers (indeed, most creatives I know), I struggle with Impostor Syndrome. There’s this Voice inside my head (God, I hate that voice) that whispers,

“You’re not a real writer. Real writers create magic on the page. They give the world something it needs, something unique. You have no magic. You have nothing unique to say. Your ideas are trite and boring and pointless. You’re pointless. Don’t bother, because nobody cares. Why should they?”

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s really hard to argue with the Voice because its premises are all true, and its conclusions sound perfectly logical.

There’s a psychological phenomenon known as the “Dunning Kruger Effect.” Observation of unskilled and highly-skilled people performing the same task showed that the worse you suck, the more awesome you feel. Conversely, people who know a lot about a task have high standards for their own performance, and tend to underestimate how well they are doing.

Sadly, knowing this doesn’t really help me a lot. I see it play out in creative life all the time, from terrible hacks who constantly puff themselves up, to great authors and artists who suffer agonies of despair over how far short their work falls from their amazing vision. I’m neither. I often enjoy writing, and I always enjoy reading what I wrote when it’s finished. Indeed, that’s how I know it is finished – because I have fun reading it. It’s not earth-shattering brilliance — I don’t expect to write the Great American Novel.

So if thinking you’re brilliant means you suck, and thinking you suck means you’re probably brilliant, where does that leave me? In Salieri’s asylum usually, wailing to the Patron Saint of Mediocrity.

But on those days, I remember Thanksgiving, 2002.

See, 2002 was the year my husband and I started dating. Thanksgiving was going to be our first big “meet the family” holiday, and we road-tripped out to his parents’ house. (Frankly, as much as I hate road trips, that was a sign right there that this relationship had legs.) Somewhere in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania there’s a sign proclaiming the “Highest Point East of the Mississippi.” My lovely fella stuck his head out his window and screamed “I love you!”

Great. Just great. Now I have all the nervousness of meeting my boyfriend’s parents (and enormous family – 23 at the table on Thanksgiving Day), and I have to figure out what to say back. Thanks, dude. No pressure or anything.

After an initial flurry of hemming and hawing, I kept pretty quiet until the next rest stop. I spent quite a long time in the very small fast-food bathroom, staring at myself in the mirror. Was I ready to say I loved him back? Did I love him back?

What if I said it, and the relationship went sour? Worse yet, what if I said it in a rush of warm-fuzzies and realized later that it wasn’t true? With me, that could happen.

Then, staring at my reflection, I realized: I could decide to make it true. I wanted to say it back, because I did love him. That wasn’t an observation about some fleeting emotion, it was a promise of what I intended to do. I was promising to love him, no matter how I felt.

Thirteen years. So far, so hard, so good.

That day on I-80 has carried me through a lot of things in life and in our marriage. It also carried me through the Voice when it tried to stop me from writing my first book. Not a real writer? Maybe so. But I wrote a real book. And some short stories. And a blog. And some freelancing. And another book, which is making me prove all over again what it takes to make it true.

Now, what on earth does all this have to do with a ridiculous animated kids’ movie? Everything.

Never underestimate the power of popular entertainment, because great themes meet people’s heart needs. See, Kung Fu Panda  isn’t really about pandas, or kung fu. (Shhhhh, don’t tell my kids.) It’s about overcoming the Voice — conquering the fear that you aren’t real.

Let me break it down for you. If you’ve been living under a rock for the last eight years (or just don’t like cartoons), beware of spoilers!

Po the panda is anointed as the prophesied “Dragon Warrior” by a series of complete accidents. He knows he’s not The One. All the other students in the kung fu school know he’s not The One. His teacher knows he’s not The One. But the school’s master insists that Po pursue his training, because according to him, there are no accidents.

By working hard and mastering his art, Po gains confidence and starts to believe that maybe — just maybe — the master was right. The crisis comes when Po is handed the mystical scroll which is supposed to grant unlimited power to the true Dragon Warrior. But when he opens the scroll, it’s blank. The shiny surface of the scroll shows him nothing but his own reflection.

Devastated, Po returns to his father, Mr. Ping, who runs a noodle shop. Po’s ready to give up, become a noodle maker and start producing Mr. Ping’s famous “Secret Ingredient Noodle Soup.” Flushed with pride, Ping passes on the magic of the recipe:

There is no secret ingredient. The soup is special because they make it special.

That’s the moment I always start crying, because that’s when Po realizes that the scroll is not blank. It’s a mirror. There is no mystic knowledge or magic spell that will make him the Dragon Warrior. The secret ingredient is himself.

So train. Work hard. Master your art. And the next time the Voice drips its poison into your ear, go get a mirror, and take a good look at your secret ingredient. Then go write something. Make it true.

Fight on, Dragon Warrior.


Ellen Seltz writes good old-fashioned mysteries with a big shot of humor, described by one reviewer as “Dorothy L. Sayers having drinks with P.G. Wodehouse.”

After working  in the entertainment industry for twenty years as an actress, producer, comedy sketch writer, librettist, and script doctor, she turned to fiction writing in the vain hope that the performers would do as they were told.

Joke’s on her.

You can find Ellen on Facebook (Ellen.Seltz.7), on Twitter @EllenSeltz, and on her blog, EllenSeltz.com

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