Please welcome Karen Herbert to the attic this week. Karen and I have crossed paths a few times over the years, as fellow members of the WASO chorus and as hockey mums, so I’m thrilled to have her in the attic as a début novelist. Her crime thriller, The River Mouth, has just been published by Fremantle Press, and has already been optioned for film and television.
Karen spent her childhood on the midwest coast of Australia, before moving to Perth for university where studied psychology. She has worked in a variety of sectors, including aged care, disability services, indigenous land management, and social housing and is the current President of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA) and convenor of the Book Length Project Group.
You can find Karen on Facebook and Instagram, and buy a copy of her book here.
Mount Stupid Again
Around fifteen years ago, I was promoted to my first grown-up, management job. The man who put me there – a delightfully terse accountant named John – told my new team that I had been appointed for my expertise in governance and strategy. After a hesitant scatter of applause and a cup of tea, I went back to my office and scribbled his words down on a Post-it note. Governance and strategy. Who knew?
In the ensuing months, I scrambled up the face of a mountain. As it turned out, I did know a bit about governance and strategy, but when it came to managing a big team of architects, engineers and project managers, I wasn’t as well-schooled. My team knew it. They’d looked me up online, asked around. I had a degree in psychology and a career with a government watchdog. They weren’t just hesitant, they were sceptical. But they were also kind. They let me learn the business, get some early wins and excused my new-girl mistakes. I approved budgets, signed off on projects, wrote business plans and shook hands with clients. I worked hard, made a few missteps and learnt to listen to people who knew more than me. I dragged myself up the rocky scree.
I got to the top of that mountain. I won over some difficult clients, brought our projects in on budget and turned our department into a place that the team was happy to call their own. I was somewhat bruised and exhausted, but feeling pretty good about myself. Really good about myself. So good, that when I looked over my shoulder at the people scrambling up behind me, I started shouting encouragement, offering advice. Throwing down bottles of water. They should learn from my experience, avoid my mistakes. Stay hydrated! I could help them if only they would listen. But they didn’t listen, the fools, they kept their eyes on their feet so they wouldn’t slip and kept doggedly scrambling upwards, making the same mistakes I did.
What I didn’t recognise back then, was that I was standing on top of Mount Stupid, a landmark made famous by David Dunning and Justin Kruger in their seminal research, Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Mount Stupid is where we stand when we have enough knowledge to be vocal about it but haven’t realised we still have a long way to go. It is where you find the people who have a fistful of knowledge and are the least aware of their own shortcomings.
I gave up on the people behind me. It seemed they were intent on making the same mistakes as me. I turned around and looked ahead. To my horror, all I could see on the other side was a valley, with another mountain behind it. The people who had gone before me, those earlier scramblers and hikers on the mountain path, were trudging down the other side of my mountain, bent-backed and doleful. They disappeared one-by-one under a dark canopy at the bottom of the valley. And then I knew my climb was only the start, and I started to feel smaller, and the blisters on my feet hurt, and I felt foolish about my excited and premature advice to the people who were still only halfway up. Being nice to difficult clients and meeting project budgets was only a small part of the journey; there was still so much ahead to learn.
I didn’t want to leave the mountain heights, but I knew I had to follow the path into the valley. In the distance, I could see the ground rising again and small figures climbing upwards. At the top there appeared to be a plateau, golden in the afternoon light. There was only one way to get there, so down into the dark canopy I walked.
As we approach the end of 2021, I’m standing on top of Mount Stupid once again. I’ve published my first book and I am full of excitement and advice for the début authors coming behind me. I feel fit, healthy and very, very tall. But I have seen the Valley of Despair before, I know it’s waiting for me, and I have an inkling of how little I really know. This time, I will exercise some humility and contain my excited advice-giving. I will walk through that valley and accept all the help I can get along the way. In time, if I work hard and I have a fair amount of luck, I’ll get to the other side and begin my climb up the Slope of Enlightenment. And maybe, if I’m very, very fortunate, I might publish another book or two and get to stand in the golden light on the Plateau of Sustainability.
(With thanks to social psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger for their work on cognitive bias and their seminal study “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”)
Karen has kindly donated a copy of The River Mouth to giveaway.
To enter, simply comment on this blog or any of the social media posts about Karen’s book.
The winner will be drawn 12pm (WST) this Friday, 29 October, and will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but we can only post to an Australian address.