Impostor Syndrome and Subways
I was recently at a talk about science communication by a brilliant senior scientist. She was asked by a young person if she ever had "impostor syndrome" and the senior scientist's reply was "Of course, everyone does! We should all talk about this! All the time!" (I'm paraphrasing, she was much more articulate).
I think this was a really generous response by the senior, to let young scientists and students know that they aren't alone in their "impostor syndrome". In reality, many people from all walks of life, of all ages have these impostor feelings, such as:
- "I don't deserve this award/honour/position"
- "Someday everyone will find out I'm an idiot"
- "I must be the only person who doesn't know _____" *insert technical thing*
- "Oh no, you should really talk to someone who knows more" *when asked for advice*
- "It's all just luck/having a great boss/knowing the right person. I didn't do anything"
In my work experience, my mild impostor syndrome has been a positive, mainly because it has prevented me from sending out work that isn't up to my standards. When I think I *might* be wrong it's a self-prompt to dig a bit deeper and make sure I'm really satisfied with my evidence. It also makes me more open to hearing other people's perspectives, because as someone who *might* be an idiot, I can always learn.
Severe impostor syndrome, when it affects your ability to do the work you want to do, is obviously a tough problem. But, I would say that it's even worse to be the opposite way, to have have absolutely no impostor syndrome. The only people I know who never feel it and have absolutely bulletproof confidence are mostly jerks and very often wrong in their high opinion of themselves and their abilities.
I think of it this way: have you ever been in a confined space, like the subway shown in the above photo, or an elevator, when you smell something bad? Most of us, in this situation our impulse is to check discreetly if we are the source of the smell, to see if maybe our deodorant has failed us at an inopportune time. But because you have the impulse to check, I can predict that you are very likely not the source of the smell. The source of the smell is almost always the one person on the subway car or the elevator who is not checking and thinks they are just fine. They smell bad because it never occurs to them that they *might* be smelly.
Applying this principle to impostor syndrome, occasionally thinking that you *might* be an idiot means that odds are, you are not an idiot, because you're one of the ones who checks.