Impostor Syndrome

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Every so often, people ask me if there are other terms I’d add now that the book’s been completed. Based on conversations I’ve had in the past few days, I’d say yes. Here’s one… In this case, one that might be the largest concept underlying the book, one that appears in other words throughout.

Impostor Syndrome. Well, you are an impostor, aren’t you? You clearly haven’t mastered everything in your discipline—there will always be someone waiting with a recent piece of research you don’t know about, a concept you don’t know, an important thinker you haven’t encountered. And teaching? Come on, who the hell ever let you get up in front of a classroom? You’re barely staying a chapter ahead of all these nineteen-year-olds, just wingin’ it and hopin’ for the best.

We have this notion of knowledge as sort of game-show fodder, where every moment might bring us an opportunity to hear the big wrong-answer buzzer and be sent away in shame. Especially for those who haven’t come from a princely upbringing and thus don’t have a native sense of ourselves as royals, we scuttle around within the castle, attempting simultaneously to show ourselves as worthy and to not show ourselves at all, to hide safely in the servant’s quarters.

I remember preparing for my dissertation defense, and thinking of half a hundred objections to the quality or the very conception of my research. In my imagination, they were all voiced by the same person, a self-important man who was indeed very smart but imagined himself to be an order of magnitude smarter than that, the personification of the word pedantic. (It all turned out fine, and I fooled the crowd once again.)

And you might think that you’d get past this, that twenty or thirty years inside is enough to become a naturalized citizen of the kingdom. I can assure you that it is not. Just as the identity of Vermonter is reserved for those with ancestors in the cemetery, the identity of scholar is reserved for those who bear it in their protein pairs. The rest of us are spies, forgers, double agents, practicing our accents and memorizing our backstories.

There is nothing objective about being a scholar, or a writer, or an artist. There is no 2016 PhD Finals, during which we and a competitor can be faced with paired challenges and demonstrate ourselves to be undeniably better than the rest. There is no QED at the end of the proof. We are, by nature, unfinished projects, unready for viewing.

I heard a radio interview with a restaurateur who had been wildly successful for over a dozen years, running a Hollywood hotspot where deals were done and beautiful people were seen. And he said that for the entirety of his time in the business, at the end of the day, he locked the door behind him, patted it lovingly, and said, “Let’s hope that people come to see us tomorrow.” And that’s the life of the scholar: no matter how much success we’ve had, for no matter how long, we have to put on our amulet, recite our incantation, and do the work that will keep us safely undercover for one more day.