I didn't end up going to the Impostor Syndrome session at ScienceOnline 2013. I told myself this was because it would be more professionally useful to attend Life in the venn - What happens when you're forced to wear many hats? since I have recently added a hat of my own (Director of my university's Center for Ethics). But, if I'm honest with myself, it's because I felt like too much of an impostor to contribute much of anything -- even useful tweets -- to the impostor syndrome session.
I have felt like an impostor since at least high school, and maybe before that.
I have known, since at least my second year of college, that the impostor syndrome was a real phenomenon. It was even the topic of my term paper in Psych 101. But knowing that the syndrome was a real thing, and that it involved a mismatch between one's actual accomplishments and how accomplished one felt on the inside, didn't make me feel like less of a fraud.
It probably goes without saying that I had a flare-up of the impostor syndrome in my first Ph.D. program. I had another flare-up in my second Ph.D. program (although I was maybe a little better at hiding my self-doubt). Going on the academic job market in philosophy made me feel like perhaps the biggest fraud of all … until I went up for tenure.
The frustrating thing about the impostor syndrome is that it makes it utterly impossible to tell whether your successes reflect any merit, or whether they are pure luck.
Whether the potential others see in you is real, and could somehow be converted to something of value (if only you manage not to blow it), or whether your only actual skill is talking a good game.
Whether piping up to share what feel like insights is reasonable, or whether you are just wasting people's time.
I worry that what it might take to overcome my own impostor syndrome is an actual flight from reality. I know too many smart, accomplished people in my field who have not met with the recognition or success they deserve to believe we're working within a pure meritocracy -- which means it's unreasonable for me to take my own success as a clear indicator of merit. I also know that past performance is not a guarantee of future returns -- which means that even if I have done praiseworthy things in the past, I could blow it at any moment going forward.
And I also worry that maybe I don't really have impostor syndrome, in which case, the reasonable conclusion, given how I feel a lot of the time, is that I actually am a fraud.
So, yeah, it's one of those topics that feels very relevant, but is perhaps relevant enough that I'm not really in a good position to benefit from a discussion of it.
How's that for a paradox?
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Tweets from the Impostor Syndrome session have been Storified here.