When I was an undergraduate student, I did very well in a particular subject, and the coordinator asked me to tutor in the subject the next year.
“Um, I feel like a bit of a fraud,” I said. “Maybe my marks were just luck, or something like that.”
“I feel like that all the time,” confessed the lecturer. “But I can assure you in your case that you did well because you really did know the subject and we all agreed that yours was the best paper.”
We discussed this further, and I was amazed to find that this lecturer also had a feeling that his success was a result of simple luck. This was even though he had published a renowned and ground-breaking PhD thesis and was one of the most brilliant scholars in his area. He and another awesome lecturer were responsible for inspiring me to go into academia.
Unfortunately, I still have bouts of this feeling. When I get a negative review of an article I have written, I think, “Ah ha, this person has uncovered the fact that I’m an imposter”, but when I get a positive review, I think, “Hmm, must have been lucky.” My attitude sometimes frustrates those who love me: my husband and my best friend couldn’t believe that I seriously doubted that my PhD would be confirmed.
This is apparently a well-documented phenomenon: impostor syndrome. It has been said to afflict academics in particular, as this blog post tells. I wonder why academics are particularly prone to this feeling? Perhaps it’s because there’s no internal measure of whether a particular article or piece is good or not. One is relying on the feedback of others.
When I looked at the links in the Wikipedia article linked above, I saw that the articles referred to academics, actors and entrepreneurs who all had this feeling from time to time. Then I thought that maybe it’s also linked to those who have “performative” careers – a lot of being an academic is about performing, and persuading others. And of course it’s central to the career of actors. I can imagine that being an entrepreneur is also about acting in a way such as to give others confidence about your business (although as I’ve said in a previous post, some entrepreneurs do actually believe their own performance to such an extent that it may be detrimental).
I have a “performing persona” when I’m teaching or addressing a court room. It’s like I put on a different self. Perhaps people who “perform” for a career have difficulties in connecting the achievements of that self with their normal self?
Anyway, I was thinking about all this with regard to my upcoming conference presentation – it’s hard not to feel like a fraud – but I’ll just have to put on my confident performing persona, and remember that she is an aspect of me too!
Check out this awesome cartoon (link courtesy of JC). Obviously I should get into literary criticism instead.