What to do when surrounded by charlatans

Preamble

This is a common and unpleasant situation that you may make worse by acting carelessly. The post could be longer, but I will let you reach out to me if you have any questions. Similarly, this may be a first world problem for the top 10%, if you think other more pressing problems would benefit from me writing about them, please feel free to comment on that.

For easier reading, the post is divided in three sections:

  1. Understanding the problem,
  2. Getting away, and
  3. Surviving until the exit.

Let’s get to it.

Understanding the problem

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

A charlatan, an impostor, or (my favorite) a lemon, is “a person who pretends or claims to have more knowledge or skill than he or she possesses”. I have previously written a few examples of types of impostors which may help to better understand the dictionary definition.

The question is how could people get away pretending to have knowledge or skills that they do not have. While “lemon” is probably the least frequently used word, it is in fact the one best described in economic terms, and to some extent cybernetic terms, as the core of the problem is information asymmetry and the resulting feedback loop. The Wikipedia has a great article on lemons, and if you feel strong you may choose to read the original 1970 paper.

Summarizing the problem: Information asymmetry means that the lemons cannot be properly judged by the other side, which grows increasingly skeptical, creating an arms race that drives peaches away (the legit ones). This arms race is often a race to the bottom, with delusions and spurious metrics respectively, where more information makes in fact the problem worse.

If you consider yourself a peach and you find yourself in such a situation, it may trigger your flight or fight response. Both are a mistake. Lemons play status games, if they see your weakness at them, they may use it at their advantage. If you are surrounded by them, chances are that at least one will attack your reputation to build theirs. If you do not want to play status games, keep a low profile, continue building your skills, and let your reputation be an inevitable consequence of facts. Try to make the facts visible from outside of the lemons circle.

Of course, avoiding the flight or fight response does not mean staying indefinitely where you are. You should get away, but you should do that carefully. Look forward, and walk backwards, slowly, imperceptibly if possible. The more you do in a lemon context, the more you are going to look like a lemon, or even become a lemon. Each action should be strategically planned and carefully executed, for maximum effectiveness and damage control.

Do not underestimate the potential consequences. Lemons thrive in toxic work cultures. You should consider that your physical and mental health is at risk, as well as your career, and the potential economic consequences of it. Tread carefully, and do not postpone it.

Getting away

“I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.” — Groucho Marx

First, you should consider that if you are in a bad situation. However, it may not be an extraordinary misfortune, it may in fact be normal in your job, sector, country, or even humanity as a whole. Initially, you should assume that any alternative is comparable, because usually most people are in the most usual kind of situation, which paradoxically may be a fat tail of different but comparable kinds of situations.

Therefore, you should manage your expectations. Avoid futile searches for impossible ideals that only lead to frustration and disappointment, or even to worsening your situation. If you have done well until now, it may be that you already are in the best possible company or context in general.

Considering that, I would take the next five steps:

  1. Decide on the minimum acceptable standards that you would need to tolerate your new job or context. It may be the case that you need to be its CEO, which may be easier as founder. In such case, go to point 4.
  2. Define proper ways to evaluate on them. Watch out for potential delusions. For example, you may decide that presenteeism is a problem and remote work prevents it, just to find a Taylorist hellscape where every keystroke is logged, as part of your “productivity score”.
  3. Find places that seem to meet your criteria. Aim as high as possible at this point. Give yourself some margin of error. Acquire any information that you may get from those places. See how the place where you are looks from the outside, probably not too different from them. Reflect on the reasons for the differences, and similarities.
  4. Find out if you need to improve at something to get there. If it is too much to do at one go, you may choose to do it in several steps, to gradually improve your situation. Repeat as needed from point 1 to 5.
  5. Go for it. Be careful, some mistakes may be fatal. Do not take longer than needed, life is too short, and it is a race against the clock. “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”. If you have made a non-fatal mistake, learn from it, and repeat. Mistakes are to some extent unavoidable. Fatal mistakes should be avoided as much as possible.

Whatever you do, try not to fight against lemons in lemon territory. There is nothing to win. Get away.

Surviving until the exit

“Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.” — Marcus Aurelius

You have identified the problem, and you have in place a plan to solve it. All you need is time, and resist the “lemonic pressure” (to become a lemon) while working on becoming the kind of person that can easily land where you want to be next.

The usual advice focuses on mindset and visualize where you want to be, and other stuff that might not hurt and might help, but it may as well increase your frustration and burnout rate. If that works for you, kudos to you!

Contrary to popular advice, I have my own methods, derived from experience, which I have not found explained anywhere else. I divide them in five points:

  1. Define boundaries. This is exactly an “us versus them” mentality. Be a professional, know what is your responsibility, and what is not. Keep your head above the mayhem.There will be work left without doing, work done in terrible ways (possibly illegal ways) and all types of shit hitting fans. Know which fans you may keep out of the shit, and do not accept responsibility for any other fans. Make the boundaries clear. If useful, pretend to have less knowledge, skill, or capabilities than you actually have. This tends to work well with lemons, who do the opposite, and will keep you out of great unnecessary trouble; if they attack your reputation on this basis, focus on the facts (next point).
  2. Be objective, especially with everything related to your boundaries or beyond. Lemons do not like facts. For them, it is like holy water for demons in films. Forget about your opinion. Write it on social networks with a pseudonym if you want. Stick to the facts. Keep them dear. Write and document everything as if you were going to provide that to a lawyer, you may have to. Quantify as much as possible. Forget about the McNamara fallacy, this is about surviving. You may need to traverse or inhabit reality distortion fields of powerful delusionists, your only chance to survive is keeping your factual power field in good condition. Without any of the two types of fields, you will be the weakest of the pack, and the scapegoat for all the shit hitting the fan.
  3. Be anti-fragile with the chaos out of your boundaries. When shit is thrown at your fans, or your factual power field is under attack: consider that as a challenge, learn from it, and get better at it. It will happen, anticipate to it. Have contingency plans for it. If it happens either regularly or painfully, you may not have done properly one of the two previous points. Try to learn and get better at this before it is too painful or survival likelihood is jeopardized. Hopefully, you will soon find less lemons around you and those would be lemons in a lesser degree, but you will always find lemons around, and you have to learn to handle that. This is your chance to become an expert at that. Make lemonade, in moderation.
  4. Keep time for you out of the boundaries of the job, use it to become who you want to be and get where you want to get. You may choose to change your goal, but do not do that too often. Define a plan, stick to it, and try to make a habit of it. Losing hope in the valley of despair is easy; plan for it, reward yourself for milestones that show progress. If you have completed a plan, and the results are not as expected, again learn from it and try again, the person trying now is wiser.
  5. Optimize the process within your boundaries. Here you may think about the McNamara fallacy. The previous points are only possible if you work on this one. You have to be able to do all of the previous while also doing your job, which means you have to be really good at it. If you are surrounded by lemons, you may already be better than all of them combined, but do not relax too much. You have significant challenges ahead, life is too short, and you could have used some more luck so far. Keep improving. Keep moving. Most likely, you want to survive among lemons the least amount of time necessary.

YMMV. Whatever you choose to do, think about it first, and decide by yourself. Good luck, you will need it. Please do not hesitate to ask.

Hope this helps,
trylks

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trylks

trylks

I write to have links to point at when discussing something (DRY). Topics around computers, AI, and cybernetics, i.e. anything.