On Impostors

I've been catching up on my podcast backlog, including Back to Work Episode 132, wherein Dan and Merlin discuss frauds and impostors. Dan had never heard of Impostor Syndrome, and has no sympathy (but plenty of suspicion!) for anyone who says they feel like a fraud. Merlin said he's felt like a fraud, but then the two of them go around and around saying variations of "That's so silly, why would you feel like that? Stop feeling like that."

Thanks, guys. So helpful.

Let me tell you a bit about feeling like an impostor.

I regularly feel under-qualified. Like I must have -- unknowingly -- tricked people around me into thinking that I know what I'm doing. In my eyes, I'm just a country kid with some fancy papers on the wall. The people I'm surrounded by are so smart, and work so hard, and know so many things. And sometimes I feel like a hayseed.

I have to reassure myself that I belong here. It's not something I know, it's something I must actively remember.

My very first day, I met students from Berkeley and Cornell et al., who referred to textbooks by the authors' names and mentioned famous faculty like I might mention the weather. As far as I knew, my textbook was called "Chemistry." My alma mater is practically unknown outside its region, and it has such a confusing name that I know exactly each step in the getting-to-meet-you dance.1 So there I was, surrounded by students from "better" schools. It was absolutely intimidating.

Now, four and a half years later, I counter that comparison with another: I'm still here, and plenty of students with more prestigious pedigrees couldn't hack it.

Knowing that I'm not a fraud does not stop me from feeling like a fraud, though. It creeps into Q&A's (What if my question is stupid?), it follows me to conferences (I didn't understand that speaker at all; better not say anything), and it nags me as I work through my project (What if I'm wrong? What if I overlooked something? I know so little about this calculation or protocol or field…).

You know what doesn't help this feeling? Hearing that someone else suspects that frauds are everywhere. (Ahem, Dan: "I think the opposite [of Impostor Syndrome] is more common.")

You know what else doesn't help? Being told that your feelings are silly and so you should just change them. It's like telling someone with depression to cheer up, or telling someone with anxiety to stop worrying.

So what does help?

I keep a "Feel-Good File" of positive feedback, and I read it when I begin to doubt. I remind myself of the reasons why I do belong here. I remind myself that I am likely not the only person in the room worried of being found out for having flaws. I forgive others for making mistakes.

It's hard to be successful if you aren't willing to take risks, and it's hard to take risks if you're afraid of being wrong. If you feel like an impostor, you're very afraid of being wrong.

If I do this thing, people may judge me for it. They will find out that I don't actually belong here. They will know I have deceived them. They will not trust me.

The other thing that helps? Knowing that you're not alone.

1: You're from where? That's a funny name. Is that part of (totally unrelated famous university)?