Mount Stupid and the Valley of Despair


Think of a time when you learned something new. How to play an instrument, swing a bat, paint, or wrote an article or paper (like this one).

When you began the process, the momentum was there. You were excited about your progress. With little effort, you made big improvements. You could speak, to some degree, on the topic. You were confident, probably too confident but that’s ok.

Soon, you found that you didn’t know it all. You became frustrated with your swing, or you reread the article you wrote (like I did with this one) over and over until you killed it. Saved it to your desktop and closed your word session, only to reopen it every single day, tweaking here and there until you reshaped and reworked it enough until you were ready to step up to the plate and swing.

This is the curve that any good (or bad) idea will go through until it gets to the point where it is “ready”. Now, take that concept, your art, your sport, your idea, and apply it to business.

Take, for example, blockchain or bitcoin. They each had inflated expectations as they were introduced to the marketplace. It could be argued that they are currently still inflated, or you could argue that the two markets are in a state of agitation, where everyone is watching to see if they will make it back up the mountain they seem to have recently fallen from.

That mountain of confidence has a name. Researchers call it, “Mount Stupid,” and the fall from that mountain has a name too; the trough of despair. Don’t worry, the trough of despair is temporary, but only for those with the will to work for it. It’s the will to work for it that produces professionals, experts, and truly sustainable businesses. The will to stand on mount stupid, fall into the trough of despair and keep going is how you know your company has a true Growth Mindset.

Growth mindset

This experience came to mind recently when listening to Sarah Stein Greenberg, author, speaker, and all-around smart woman, speak on the topic of Growth Mindset. While the topic of Growth Mindset alone was intriguing, I’ve been ruminating on one concept she elaborated on in her presentation. She spoke about the “trough of despair”. You may have heard it called:

  • Struggle zone/Productive Struggle
  • Valley of Despair
  • Trough of sorrow
  • Trough of Disillusionment
  • Poop Sandwich (I made this one up, but if you think about it, it fits)

If you haven’t heard of it, I guarantee you’ve experienced it. The trough of despair is the lowest point on a graph called the Gartner Hype Cycle and, a similar graph called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It comes right after the highest point, Mount Stupid.

The Gartner Hype Cycle is often used when referencing the cycle of technology or application over time. When the technology hits the valley of despair researchers have found that you can correlate not only financial performance and investments but also employee morale. In short, people will get overzealous about new tech. Enter the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is used in psychology. It is a “cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area. This tends to occur because a lack of self-awareness prevents them from accurately assessing their own skills.”

What is most important to remember is that to be successful at your endeavor, the valley of despair is essential. The knowledge and experience you learn as you push through, or if you push through, will build wisdom, and that is your path out of the valley. It is only then that you can achieve enlightenment, productivity, and sustainability.

My favorite example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect comes from a bank robbery that occurred in 1995. Below is the story of this incompetent man:

“In 1995, a man named McArthur Wheeler robbed a bank and even smiled at the camera, thinking he was invisible. The reason for this was his belief that applying lemon juice would make him invisible to cameras. This led him to rob a bank in broad daylight. However, to his surprise, he was caught shortly after the robbery. At the time of arrest, he is said to have mumbled ‘the juice’? This was Wheeler surprised by the inability of lemon juice to hide his face from the cameras. The investigation concluded that Wheeler was neither a drug addict nor crazy. He was simply unable to judge his lack of understanding of lemon juice. In other words, he was unable to understand just how incompetent he was!”

The interesting this about these two graphs; The Gartner Hype Cycle and the Dunning-Krugger Effect, is that when you lay the charts on top of one another, they are nearly one and the same. They simply reference different, but similar concepts.

The example of Mr. Wheeler obviously extreme, and of course lemon juice will not make you invisible, but you must admire his confidence and commitment.

If you’re going through hell keep on going

How then, do you move through the valley of despair? When I googled, “antonym for despair” the following came up time and time again: hope and optimism.

In Brene Brown’s most recent book, “Atlas of the Heart” she speaks of hope in the following terms:

We experience hope when; we have the ability to set realistic goals (I know where I want to go). When we know how to achieve those goals including the ability to stay flexible and develop alternative pathways (I know where I want to go AND I know how to get there, I am persistent and I can tolerate disappointment and try new paths again and again). And then agency, we believe in ourselves (I can do this).

So let me go through this trilogy of goals, pathways, agency again…

  1. I can set a goal, I know where I want to go.
  2. Pathway: I know how to get there, if I have to plan b it or plan c it, I can do that.
  3. Agency: I believe I can do this.

Hope is a function of struggle—we develop hope not during the easy or comfortable times, but through adversity and discomfort. Hope if forged when our goals, pathways, and agency are tested and when change is actually possible.”

The difference between those people—or if you want to think of it in terms of the Gartner Hype Cycle, those businesses—and the people and businesses that don’t know how to come out of the valley of despair is the existence of two things; hope (a way of thinking) and grit (a trait).

What I hope you heard

Too much confidence and hype will cause inflated belief, but not enough might never get you to mount stupid in the first place.

Research tells us to succeed you must be willing to be a little bit stubborn, have the courage to fail, and the courage to march on. Find inspiration after you fall off your mountain, focus on the things you can control, and know that the “suck” is part of the process.

In summary, learn to play the instrument, write the article, go for the business idea, and always, always be the student.


  • Steve Winninger#1

    July 15, 2022

    Nice work Liz. Right on point.

  • Phoebe Winninger#2

    July 15, 2022

    Very nice, we’ve seen the mountain and the valley.

  • Denise Wymore#3

    July 22, 2022

    Thanks so much Liz. I have felt that valley of despair, most recently, trying to help new credit unions get started. Now I’m just taking it day by day enjoying little victories. I’m impatient. I know that. And this is going to take time. I’ve also started focusing on saving small credit unions. Again, one at a time. Still fighting for the future of credit unions, even though I may not be around to see it. Cheers!


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