Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Impostor Syndrome

In the past 2 days, I've finished 2 books(!)  Okay, hold the exclamation point.  These books, both which should have taken me only 2 weeks or so to read, instead took me multiple months-- for one book this was simply due to not committing to reading and for the other book this was due to lack of excitement.

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow (#86 on the Modern Library's top 100 novels) just didn't do it for me.  A book that is only 270 pages long in a large font and takes 4 months to read... not good in my records.  I'm not gonna dwell on it.

The other book was our graduate women in engineering's book club book last semester: The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, by Valerie Young.  If you've never heard of the Impostor Syndrome, listen up.  It's a common feeling that people get when they feel like they aren't actually good enough, that they're just faking it and soon someone is going to find out that they don't know what they're talking about or doing.  It's that feeling you get when you think you don't deserve that promotion, that award, that grant.  Wasn't it just luck or charm?  No.  The Impostor Syndrome can be debilitating in terms of career and personal growth, despite the fact that it is most common in those who are very well accomplished.  There were three interesting takeaways from this book:

  1. The source of these Impostor Syndrome feelings is widespread, including simply being a student.  That's right, we students are put in a position of constantly feeling like we don't know enough or aren't good enough (like that's shocking).  BUT...Just knowing that these feelings come with the job helps relieve some of the anxiety associated with the Impostor Syndrome.  It's not all our fault; it's partially our job's fault, so you need to take your feelings with a grain of salt.  School (particularly grad school) is meant to beat you up a bit... you signed up for this.
  2. People who have the Impostor Syndrome often have a certain view of competence that falls into the categories of the Perfectionist, the Natural Genius, the Rugged Individualist, the Expert, or the Superwoman/man/student.  As I read this section of the book, each new "type" I thought to myself, "Hey, that's me!"  These are unreasonable ways to consider what it means to be "smart" or "competent" and can hold a person back.  It's time to re-frame what competence means to you, and this books helps give alternatives.
  3. The book ends by discussing how fear limits not only us as individuals but also others.  In particular, it was noted that we should "have interesting failures."  You're going to fail at some point (if you're not holding yourself back), so at least make it worthwhile!  Don't just fail an exam-- anyone can do that.  Make your goals grander and your failures interesting. 
I would recommend this book if you ever feel like an impostor or if you know someone who feels this way.  While some parts of this book are dull, other parts describe interesting research studies and statistics that help re-frame how we view ourselves and our competency.  If you think you sometimes have impostor feelings, you're not alone, and if nothing else, this book helps you realize that.

Do you ever feel like an impostor?

(I do sometimes.)

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