February 7th, 2016

My government once trusted me around nuclear weapons. Granted, they were small, only a few kilotons, not the city busters we really worry about, but still, they were fully functional nuclear missiles. The U.S. Navy did so because of an interlocking web of safeguards any reasonable intelligent individual could have circumvented.

Those safeguards ultimately depended upon a belief that I, and those who worked with me, weren’t crazy or evil. We weren’t and nothing happened. Ever.

I’m reminded of all this this morning because I’m reading a piece by Oliver Burkeman from a couple of years ago that asks the question: Do you feel a fraud?

Burkeman’s thesis is that we all (excepting frauds and idiots) suffer, at some level, from impostor syndrome, the feeling that you’re a fraud, and any day now you’ll be exposed.

(“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt,” said Bertrand Russell.)

I’m fascinated.

Arguably the worst [frustrating irony of impostorism], though, is that getting better at your job won’t fix it. Achieve promotions, or win accolades, and you’ll just have more cause to feel like a fake. Enhance your knowledge, and as you expand the perimeter of what you know, you’ll be exposed to more and more of what you don’t. Impostorism, as Pacific Standard magazine put it recently, “is, for many people, a natural symptom of gaining expertise”. Move up the ranks and if your field’s even vaguely meritocratic, you’ll encounter more talented people to compare yourself negatively against. It never stops. “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find [me] out now,'” as some low-profile underachiever named Maya Angelou once said.

There have been, and continue to be, times when impostorism looms in my life. I’ve even warned those I felt were being hoodwinked by my inexpertise that they should not so happily follow me down the garden path. Yet, they persist, I now think, out of fear of the exposure of their own impostorism.

Scary, huh?

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