Feel like a phony? Just fake it till you make it.
November 3, 2011 1:00 PM   Subscribe

Is this the second xoJane post is less than a week? And there wasn't enough telephone psychic.
posted by PJLandis at 1:10 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nobody knows that they’re doing.

This. A thousand times. Until a couple of years ago, even though I've been very successful in my field, I always felt like I didn't know enough to be where I was, and was always terrified that I was going to be found out as a fraud. Only recently have I become comfortable with the fact that I can't know everything in my field, and that nobody else does, either.
posted by KGMoney at 1:16 PM on November 3, 2011 [16 favorites]

During a very self reflective period this was the major thing I identified as needing to work on. I naively thought this was something unique to me, so I assumed it didn't have a name. I referred to as fear of getting caught. "Imposter Syndrome" sounds more scholarly and legitimate.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 1:16 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've got this to an extent, though I usually get over by thinking of the statistics.

I mean, is everyone in the class doing something I'm not? Despite working the same hours, reading the same books, attending the same lectures, are they somehow all getting something extra? Despite me only being about 1/3 down the list grades wise?

Not really. Go go gadget Gaussian distributions.
posted by Slackermagee at 1:19 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sometimes you actually get caught. I had a dear friend who we all loved, but knew he was a slack MF. One day he met us at the bar and told us he had been fired. Laid off? No, fired. Why we asked. He quoted the one thing he could remember from his boss, "You have been doing this job for four years now and you don't have a fucking clue what you are doing." We eagerly asked what his response was. "None of us knows what we're doing, I just refuse to play along." was what he said he said.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:20 PM on November 3, 2011 [24 favorites]

Surely there are actual imposters, they really aren't good enough or smart enough. No amount of affirmation or "being kind to themselves" is going to allow them to to succeed. How do I know if I have impostor syndrome or am an honest to god impostor?

Faking it till you make it sometimes backfires. This story is about hiring an actual imposter.
posted by Ad hominem at 1:20 PM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

I find that having gotten a degree in engineering does alot to allay my fear failure.

Several times a day, I say to myself "I've got a fucking degree in engineering. I can do this simple thing". And most times, it works.

Yeah, it's totally stupid like Dumbo's feather. But it works. And if it is stupid and it works, it isn't stupid.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 1:24 PM on November 3, 2011 [25 favorites]

"All lives are failures when seen from the inside" is a quote I've read, but I'm not sure where or from whom. I think it was Churchill? Or Chesterton? Either way, it's a good quote.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:25 PM on November 3, 2011 [11 favorites]

You ever feel like nothing you do is good enough and someday someone will expose you for the giant fraud you secretly are?

Not so much lately, but that pretty much describes the entire 28-year period I spent working in IT.
posted by Decani at 1:26 PM on November 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

I have an odd situation where I'm pretty good at what I do but well aware of my limitations, whereas my clients (I'm self-employed) by and large don't give a toss. My work is translation. I think of all the alternate interpretations or missed nuances, and often warn the clients of the same, suggest they get an editor to check it over and so on; the clients are just happy to get a block of English text that fits the space they have to fill without embarrassing them too obviously.
posted by Abiezer at 1:28 PM on November 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

"I’ve also become convinced that there is no such thing as adulthood -- or if there is, it is simply a state of having certain responsibilities, and not a matter of feeling capable and “normal” all of the time."

It took until I was around 35 years old to realize that my parents did not, in fact, have everything under control when I was growing up. I told my Dad about my recent realization and he asked me to clarify. I told him that my whole life they seemed to have all of the right answers and could solve any problem, but it just dawned on me that they had to be scared shitless and at a total loss many of those times. He replied something along the lines of "Many times? ALL of those times! No one told us what to do or how to do it, so we had to figure it out as it was happening and make the best of whatever we pulled together". He mentioned that there was a reason he liked to go for a quick drive so often - "I needed to think!". That was a huge weight lifted on me and greatly helped with my confidence in my decisions.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 1:30 PM on November 3, 2011 [12 favorites]

The job I left last month started out as a digital-collections type of thing that I was eminently qualified for, and I started out experiencing-- and dealing with-- a mild case of Impostor Syndrome. And then the job slowly morphed into an overarching all-aspects-of-IT thing that left me feeling fumbling and stupid every day as I tried to figure out shit that's usually dealt with by entire departments of specialists. Which, man, that was like tossing a bucket of gasoline onto the smoldering Imposter Syndrome embers.

It's actually kind of shocking to me to be at a new job where I actually kind of feel like I know what I'm doing. I'm just now seeing how much I internalized the "you're way out of your depth, asshole," stuff.
posted by COBRA! at 1:36 PM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

When I started my first Adult Office Job several years ago, it slowly turned into They Live. Except instead of realizing everyone is a zombie-alien, I realized that no one has any idea what they're doing. From the Big Boss to the secretaries to accounting everyone was sort of winging it. The mistakes evened out because the people who needed to catch the mistakes weren't catching them. And because these mistakes only mattered if and when they were caught, it didn't matter. My entire conception of the Adult World running like a finely-tuned machine fell apart at that moment. And you know what? Thank god, because nothing is as good for anxiety as realizing that the person in charge of catching your mistakes is less capable than you are at it.
posted by griphus at 1:41 PM on November 3, 2011 [27 favorites]

I've got a fucking degree in engineering. I can do this simple thing

This backfires on me pretty badly sometimes, though. Like when people hand me crying babies. I DON'T KNOW HOW TO FIX THIS AND NOW IT IS LEAKING FROM BOTH INTAKE AND EXHAUST.
posted by elizardbits at 1:43 PM on November 3, 2011 [92 favorites]

A telephone psychic? Jeeeezis.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 1:43 PM on November 3, 2011

David Foster Wallace explored the "impostor syndrome" space in an interesting way. I think that's about all I can say on the topic without drifting into pathos or sparking a hideous derail, but yeah. Good old neon.

Except instead of realizing everyone is a zombie-alien, I realized that no one has any idea what they're doing.

Coming to this realization when I was about 16, and really playing out all the implications of that, basically made me a fake genius superhero until I was about 25 and everybody caught up to me.
posted by penduluum at 1:44 PM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Nope, it was a lady. Unless your Jeeezis is female.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:44 PM on November 3, 2011

Also, when I told my mother (who had a high ranking/important position in a state mental health facility) my job was to catch miniscule mistakes in Important Paperwork and make sure they were rectified she said "yeah, we have some asshole doing that in our office too." And that's when I realized that my mother, who couldn't fill out a form correctly if it was a requisition for a burlap sack full of money, just taught me that my job is neither as dire nor important as everyone made it out to be. And I unclenched.
posted by griphus at 1:45 PM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Some nights I can not sleep worrying that this is the week they are going to figure it out.

It does not help that I work with some of the most intelligent and capable people I've ever met (they are a minority).

The thing that brings me relief is that I have looked at and worked with the source code of some of the best companies out there. The ones that every smart kid in high-school and college dreams of working for. Their codebase? Not that much better than the one we wrote at the start-up after 4 days of no sleep, blunting the caffeine mania with shots of alcohol.

Take home lesson: Fake it till you make it, the better fakers will make it farther.
posted by Ayn Rand and God at 1:47 PM on November 3, 2011 [5 favorites]

I’m in my late 40’s, and while this is something that you start to realize earlier in life it just becomes more evident and more comprehensive as you get older. No one, all the way up to the top, knows what they’re doing. Barack Obama is sitting there saying "Holy shit, what was I thinking…" Warren Buffett knows he doesn’t know. That’s why older, powerful people act so confident. Not that they know what they’re doing, but they know most other people think they do, and it doesn’t matter anyway because no one else knows any more than they do.

The people that really believe they know what they’re doing and are absolutely right are the ones to be scared of. They’re wrong and will hurt you and others. But then we all know that by now, having lived through the early 2000’s.
posted by bongo_x at 1:53 PM on November 3, 2011 [9 favorites]

One of the things I've found really healthy to do is to give myself permission to flat-out ask about stuff I'm unclear on. Often, the response from people around me is "oh good, I didn't know either".

Often, there's a set of stages people go through when learning stuff, in my observations of things like apprentices: 1. beginner mind. You're ignorant and you know it. 2. learning, but still pretty aware of your ignorance. 3. "I KNOW EVERYTHING" (except you often get defensive if someone implies you don't), and finally 4. "I know a lot, and it's okay that I don't know everything". Getting to that point where I'm confident enough in what I do know that I don't care if I have to ask what seem like dumb questions, that has been a really great thing. It's a sort of comfortable humility.

It took me a hell of a long time to get there, though.
posted by rmd1023 at 1:57 PM on November 3, 2011 [8 favorites]

I could have sworn I read about a study that showed an inverse relationship between depth of knowledge of a subject and claims to depth of knowledge of a subject.
posted by griphus at 2:01 PM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I came at it from the flip side. Somewhere around 20 I realised Everything Is Just People. There are no squadrons of super competent Agent Smith types hovering in the background really running things, with deadly efficiency. It's just people. Sometimes quite smart people, often people who know a lot more about a lot of different stuff and think a lot differently than I do, but still. Basic people. Subject to the same jealousies and blind spots, fears and hopes and ambitions, as the people you already know.
posted by Diablevert at 2:02 PM on November 3, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'm working on a Shakespeare-related PhD right now. I'm not an internationally recognized expert or anything (yet, anyway--I've got my ambitions), but I still find myself being completely surprised when I'm talking to someone who is and he or she takes me seriously. Sometimes I feel like a complete fraud who has no idea what he's talking about, but occasionally I stop and realize I'm comparing myself to people like Peter Thomson, and it's hard not to feel like you fall short of that level of scholarship. It helps a little.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 2:03 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

A telephone psychic? Jeeeezis.

I've found often things like divination can be useful if you don't look at them as sources of answers, but tools for helping you bump yourself out of a point of view you're stuck in. It's about helping you try to frame correct questions.

You don't have to believe Tarot cards are giving you answers, you just need to realize if all they are is a Rorschach blot that helps you get out of a mental rut, that's useful enough.

This is why this kind of stuff is generally helpful for folks dealing with feelings or relationships- a different internal perspective changes the way you operate, because much of the "data" is already with you. This is also why it's crap for stuff like engineering, where really, measurements and correct procedures matter, and feelings don't.
posted by yeloson at 2:03 PM on November 3, 2011 [8 favorites]

I recently got hired for a dream job and one of the things they tell you coming in is that you're not just feeling inadequate - you really don't know what's going on and nobody expects you to figure it out for at least six months.

It was extremely comforting.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 2:03 PM on November 3, 2011 [9 favorites]

May I just say I Love Leslie Kinzel.

Oh, and I feel like a phoney most of the time, too.
posted by jrochest at 2:04 PM on November 3, 2011

It's all relative.

When you compare yourself to the pinnacles of your profession, study, sport or hobby, you'll probably fall short. But compare yourself to someone who has only a passing interest, and you could be a giant to them.

GallonOfAlan: A telephone psychic? Jeeeezis.

yeloson: I've found often things like divination can be useful if you don't look at them as sources of answers, but tools for helping you bump yourself out of a point of view you're stuck in. It's about helping you try to frame correct questions.

I think the author of the article took it from an even more basic standpoint: she didn't want to pay for a therapist, but she wanted to talk to someone who would listen, and might even have some good insight in response. In her example, she was right: the psychic, not really flaunting any psychic abilities, identified the author's self-doubt in a way the author had not previously.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:07 PM on November 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

At the moment, I am taking a break from doing a thing for my job that I'm not entirely sure how to do, using a program that I'm not entirely sure how to use. The person who can answer all of my questions is on the other coast, and has gone home for the day. Sigh.

Fortunately, years ago, I figured out that no one will die if I do part of my job wrong. The world will not end. Really fortunately, I've managed to land jobs in places where mistakes don't get you humiliated and/or fired (at least, not the ones I'm likely to make), and where asking "So, how do I do this thing, exactly?" is not regarded as stupid.

Still feel like a faker sometimes, though.
posted by rtha at 2:10 PM on November 3, 2011

I sort of distrust anyone who doesn't feel like that sometimes. It's the people who make shit up instead of just saying, "Sorry, I don't know - I'll look into it and get back to you" who worry me.
posted by usonian at 2:10 PM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

I find that it's less "knowing what you're doing," and more "doing more shit than the next person." I find myself getting paralyzed by trying to figure stuff out instead of doing stuff...trying to make sense out of things takes too much time, which affects business.

Do it. Right or wrong, I think most people will look at doing anything an accomplishment, whereas doing it right just makes you look slow.
posted by Chuffy at 2:12 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I always feel that way but if you ever work with a true expert in something... like woodworking, cheesemaking, winemaking, brick laying... basically an Artisan they don't seem to suffer from this like inofmatatrons or business people. Maybe it is the fact that is what you do is questionable you may question yourself.
posted by mrgroweler at 2:15 PM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is there is something like an impostor syndrome in the second degree? I have unshakable confidence that I am not an impostor, but sometimes, in the wee hours of the morning, I might wonder if that confidence is overstated.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:15 PM on November 3, 2011

I could have sworn I read about a study that showed an inverse relationship between depth of knowledge of a subject and claims to depth of knowledge of a subject.
posted by griphus

posted by COBRA! at 2:15 PM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I was fortunate enough to learn about this concept shortly before beginning graduate school. I didn't know much - and really, there's not that much out there about it. All I knew was that it existed. The worry about being revealed. The feeling of not measuring up. The sense that everyone else was doing fine.

One night, at the bar with my classmates (8 of us joined the program, so we were pretty close), I brought it up. I explained what it was. All eyes were locked on me. "This," I realized, "is why people become professors." I described my struggle with it. I think people were genuinely surprised because, throughout high school and college, I learned how to ask questions that made me sound really, really smart without actually knowing much. But it was all a sham, really. Smart questions don't matter much if you can't remember the basics. I felt like I was just barely getting by.

I went out on a limb to admit my feelings about it. And I was pretty surprised that every single one of my classmates admitted to feeling the same. Every one of us.

I think that's the number one thing that helped me get through it. My friends and peers all had the same feeling of being at the bottom of the class.

One year later, I feel like I can cope. But only because I know that I am not the worst. I am just like everyone else.
posted by rebent at 2:18 PM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have yet to recover from my profound disappointment in discovering that my managers, and directors and VPs really don't know what they're doing.

After all, I went through decades of formal education, on the job training and various extra-cirricular training to get the dippy job I have, and it's just a slap in the face that you have a crap degree, from a crap school and you got your job because you knew a guy.

Let me tell you, it is sometimes very difficult being the one guy in the room who DOES know what she's doing, and dealing with the fallout of decisions of people who don't have the brains to admit that they don't know what they don't know.

That's not to say that there aren't moments, when I'm staring at a screen wondering why a formula won't work, code won't run and why the damn printer is making that noise, where I question if I know anything worth knowing at all.

I learned long ago, American business doesn't succeed because of its great leaders, but in spite of them.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:18 PM on November 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


I think I have that. It has been years since I have been at a loss about something in my field. There must be something wrong.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:22 PM on November 3, 2011

Well, I actually do know that I'm doing; I'm doing pretty much all the time. But what I'm doing? Often no clue.

The problem is that it gets worse. I've recently seen a bunch of PhD theses in preparation, from people who literally (sometimes illiterally, forgive me) have no clue about what they're doing, and they seem to be entirely happy with the outcome, gleaming of pride actually.

The more you read, the more you immerse yourself in the smartness that's already out there, the more you understand that other people have written substantial and well-reasoned things about not only your own topic, but about gazillions of tangentially related ones that (had you known about them) would have widened your own horizon to post-genial proportions, the more you begin to appreciate the analytical heroic feats of the giants in your field; in short, the more you're on the path toward becoming quite a decent scholar yourself, the more you will understand that what you really are is a complete fraud.

Now try to write some job applications, when you're actually quite a decent scholar. It's a nightmare.
posted by Namlit at 2:23 PM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

So kind of like a reverse Capgras delusion? The belief that you've been replaced by an identical-looking impostor?
posted by justkevin at 2:31 PM on November 3, 2011

I think W Bush was saying this under his breath for all of 8 years, every day.
"Fake it til you make it, heh heh heh."
posted by el riesgo sempre vive at 3:02 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

My hobby is telling mid-to-late-twenties women about this and watching their faces. Great stuff. Knowing it is a thing helps, but I am on about a five year cycle whereby I get a job I am able for but officially (and openly) unqualified for, advance well within it, and then switch to a new branch because I can't handle the stress of *today* maybe being the day they find me out. The downside of having done well for oneself despite not having much formal education.
posted by Iteki at 3:03 PM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

In my research assistant job, I constantly feel like I have no goddamn idea what I am doing and have had to learn the skill of just powering forward regardless, asking questions and looking things up and just generally getting on with it to the best of my ability. I have had to make peace with the fact that 90% of the time my experiments are going to go wrong, and 90% of the time nobody will be able to tell the difference between something that went wrong because I screwed up and something that went wrong because the Science Gods were unhappy that day. I survive in a constant state of uncertainty and must either keep moving or succumb to total paralysis.

In my retail cigar store job, I also kind of feel like I don't really know what I'm doing, but I do know more than 99% of my customers so I'm generally pretty confident that whoever I'm talking to isn't going to notice. And if something comes up in the shop that involves any sort of significant judgement call, I just kick it up to the boss and say "hey, rather than just blindly fucking this up I thought I'd ask you what you want me to do," and that tends to go over pretty well. I'm not being paid enough to stick my neck out past my comfort zone.

Now, at that job, we do have several cigar rollers on staff. Most of them are older Dominican guys, and some of them have been making cigars for over 40 years. I did the math on a cigars-per-day basis, factoring in the occasional week of vacation, and worked out that some of our guys have easily made over 3,000,000 cigars in their lifetimes – and they're still at the benches five days a week, cranking out their 250 cigars/day. Those motherfuckers are no imposters – they know exactly what they are doing at all times. There is absolutely no cigar-rolling-related situation that they have not encountered countless times and no matter what they know exactly what to do, no hestitation.

Now, you might say "yeah, but that's just making cigars. It's not like they're doing neurosurgery or something," and you might be right but you'd be missing the point. These are people who have truly and thoroughly mastered their field of expertise, and I have nothing but admiration for them, maybe even approaching awe. Customers – or not even customers, often just ordinary non-smoking tourists who caught a glimpse of them on the street – will come in and stand there for minutes at a time, watching these guys make cigar after cigar, just because they instinctively recognize that they are standing in the presence of true mastery and utter confidence. It's something to behold.

So anyway, I guess what I'm saying is that while I get that this imposter-syndrome thing is a common experience, and one that I have shared to different degrees, I disagree that it's a truly inherent part of the human condition. Maybe it's more and more inherent in our current society where we are dealing with more and more complex systems and our positions within them are becoming ever more ambiguous and specialized, but I doubt if it's always been that way and I doubt if it's the way that we are meant to be. There was a time when a person felt rooted in the world, when a man or woman understood his or her place in reality, knew what he or she had to do, and was able to do it with confidence and grace. If you go out and read some good ethnographies written by anthropologists who have studied indigenous and traditional cultures, you'll realize that one of the most alluring aspects of "primitive" societies is the lack of ambiguity, the sense of peace and self-assurance that comes from having a complete vision of the world and a mastery over all the skills and systems that one needs to get along in it.

Maybe I'm not sure what I'm saying here. Perhaps I'm just bullshitting myself, I'm sure I am to some degree, but I've long felt that there's something substantive in the so-called primitivist movement, and that there's something to the notion that traditional societies, at least in their pristine state (not that we can ever study another culture in a pristine state) do not know disorders like anxiety and depression and this "imposter symdrome" as intimately as we do. Maybe we've unmoored ourselves from reality somehow in our quest for more lavish lifestyles and ever more complete hegemonies of control. I'm not sure. I think I need to leave this off and go sit under a tree somewhere until my anxiety calms down. After all I've still got Organic Chemistry, and then I have to hit the grocery store on the way home and the house is perpetually a mess and I have I-don't-even-know-what homework to do and I need to something about dinner...
posted by Scientist at 3:35 PM on November 3, 2011 [23 favorites]

"Fake it 'til you make it" has always struck me as awful advice. I mean, I guess it's supposed to be about faking confidence and not, like, falsifying research data or lying on your resume or pretending to be a more interesting person in order to get laid. But... I dunno. If I'm already worried that I'm some kind of fraud, telling me "so just be a fraud already!" isn't really helpful.

Hell, even just faking confidence is sort of problematic. If you aren't positive you can pull something off, saying "I know I can definitely do this" puts you at risk of having to cover your ass down the road and so having a real objective reason to feel fraudulent. "I don't know but I'll try" makes way more sense.

Sadly, the alternative to "fake it 'til you make it" is that godawful AA cliché about comparing your insides to other people's outsides. Which I think is much better advice for dealing with the whole impostor syndrome thing, but I hate being the sort of person who spouts AA clichés.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:56 PM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

My name is obiwanwasabi, and I have imposter syndrome.

Straight A student through primary and high school. Family circumstances meant I had to drop out during my final year, work for a while, then matriculate through a technical college. I think that's where it started - somehow, there was a disconnect between straight A for 12 years obiwanwasabi, and this new 'got a high school certificate from TAFE' obiwanwasabi. That I matriculated with straight High Distinctions, aced the STAT exam, got the equivalent of a Band 1 tertiary entrance score and had my choice of degrees didn't seem to make a difference. I wasn't like my mates who'd finished Year 12, had a prom, and gone to uni while still living at home. They'd done 'the right thing'. They deserved their success. Me? I had a wife at 18, had been living in my own flat since 16, and was a high school dropout with a series of menial jobs on my resume.

The second compounding factor was uni. I didn't know what I wanted to do, and changed degrees a few times (apparently impossible, but my years in the grown up world had shown me you could do anything by sitting down with people in authority and having a nice chat). In all this transferring around and having to make up subjects at short notice I found that I was still getting high grades. How could this be possible? Uni was supposed to be hard, but it wasn't for me. Could it be because I was a good student? No - it had to be because the system was broken. The system should have caught me by now for not doing the hard yards, and while it hadn't yet, it soon would.

And so I left uni and started work, and it got worse again. I was new. I didn't know what I was doing, but I did what I could as well as I could. And got promoted. And got promoted again. But that agency must have been broken. Except I moved to another agency, and got promoted again. And again. And again. Then a third agency, and another promotion. The latest promotion has me shitscared that I am woefully, utterly out of my depth, but people seem to think I'm doing a great job. But that can't be right, because that would mean everybody else is a fucking idiot doing a lousy job, but the building isn't on fire.

My salary has literally tripled since 2004; my wife doesn't have to work and can look after our kids full time, my mortgage is a little over a year's salary, and I'm apprently one of the top 0.23% richest people in the world. I didn't finish undergrad, but I've got two Masters degrees with pretty much straight HDs. I'm typing this sitting in my enormous office with my full window-wall view of Parliament House, looking at my calendar filled with meetings with Very Important People to talk about Serious Matters Of National Importance. People vastly more qualified and experienced than me ask for my advice, and act on it. My staff bake me brownies and tell me about their families.

And any day now, somebody is going to find out I'm an imposter.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:28 PM on November 3, 2011 [21 favorites]

And any day now, somebody is going to find out I'm an imposter. (sic)

I am reporting you. And taking your job.
posted by joe lisboa at 4:41 PM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

How did I know this would be about a grad student?

posted by naoko at 4:56 PM on November 3, 2011

I'm totally an imposter. All the time I pretend I'm gonna post something here, and then I chicken out and close the window at the last minute.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:56 PM on November 3, 2011

I basically figure that in the absence of any other evidence, I'm probably about average in any group I'm in. And usually that's good enough. At least this is what I think when I'm being rational, which is not usually.
posted by madcaptenor at 5:11 PM on November 3, 2011

I feel like I keep hearing about this Dunning-Kruger. Do I have Dunning-Kruger Baader-Meinhof?
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:47 PM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I understand the concept, but I can't deal with the cognitive dissonance, that's why I work for myself now ;)
posted by Chuckles at 6:16 PM on November 3, 2011

I'm only an imposter on Metafilter. I should not be allowed to make FPP and the expertise others reveal when responding in AskMe will always be beyond me.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:20 PM on November 3, 2011

I still have these feelings, but at some point, you look around you and realize that you really do have confidence in handling simple problems, an analytical framework that can be applied to most common issues in your field, and a level of capability that means you can be trusted to take on projects that are a bit over your head now, knowing you'll grow into them.

Honestly, a lot of what passes for impostor syndrome is just the reality that if you're challenging yourself, you're always going to be working at the outermost fringe of your abilities, and you're not going to know how well you'll fare. You'll either find yourself capably dealing with the issues on that fringe - even if it feels messy and reactive on the inside - or you'll quail and step back a level.

I guess I'd rather be out at the brittle edges wondering if I can step quickly enough to manage than staying where I feel a total feeling of safety and capability. Nothing new is accomplished when you feel like you totally know what you're doing and just repeat it over and over. That is an important function that workplaces need, but it's not where growth or innovation happens. More often than not, you turn out to be capable of more than you thought. I've learned to ask for feedback and listen to other people more than I listen to myself. My inner voice compares myself to my own (impossible) standards; external voices compare me to expectations from across the field and make judgments untainted by my own neuroses.
posted by Miko at 6:41 PM on November 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

I have Impostor Syndrome all the time. I wish I could get it Eternal Sunshined out of my brain.
posted by sweetkid at 6:49 PM on November 3, 2011

I don't have imposter syndrome. I do have lots of other neuroses, though.
posted by yarly at 7:40 PM on November 3, 2011

Obscure Reference wrote: I'm only an imposter on Metafilter. I should not be allowed to make FPP and the expertise others reveal when responding in AskMe will always be beyond me

What, you don't look through your past AskMe answers and revel in their utter brilliance?
posted by wierdo at 8:30 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Amateurs all.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 8:48 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Knowing what goes on behind my placid exterior, I have a strong suspicion of what goes on behind yours."
-- Richard Needham

I have felt so much more comfortable in my own skin after finding that quote a few years ago.
posted by bryon at 9:03 PM on November 3, 2011 [14 favorites]

As a guy with a history of getting arrested, fired, kicked out, rejected, overlooked, set aside, disregarded, and shunned, I've ample proof of my own incompetence.

So it's satisfying to think that you successful people imagine yourselves similarly afflicted.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:03 PM on November 3, 2011 [6 favorites]

Huh. I generally feel confident about my line of work, and that my range of knowledge extends well beyond the scope of my duties.

Then again, I also feel that I'm severely underemployed.

See also: the Peter Principle.
posted by Graygorey at 11:01 PM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think imposter syndrome -- and the accompanying "nobody knows anything" insight -- both only really occur in certain situations: those in which there is essentially no limit to the level of mastery one could attain. It's common in science, because we spend all our time by definition on the edge of what we know, and we're constantly pushing ourselves past that edge (at least, if we're doing it right); but the same goes for complex fields like art, or politics, or economics, or anything dealing with social systems -- hell, navigating life in general -- nobody understands these things in all their complexity, because nobody could understand them.

Most people feel like imposters in these situations because the more you learn, the more you realise what you don't know, and you implicitly compare yourself to the mythical person who knows that thing. Of course there often is one person who knows any one thing -- but there is no one person who knows everything.

However, there are areas and situations that don't beget imposter syndrome, where you can have (and recognise) true mastery. I bet Tiger Woods doesn't feel like a golfing imposter. although I'm sure he feels like he could always improve: the sphere of "excellence" is basically defined by what other humans can do, rather than derived from the complexity imposed by the external world.

Anyway, that's my theory. I know I have imposter syndrome worst of all when I'm comparing myself to what an ideal scientist would be like, or when I'm thinking about the vast amount I don't know and can't do.
posted by forza at 11:18 PM on November 3, 2011 [5 favorites]

Somewhat apposite...

“I divide my officers into four classes; the clever, the lazy, the industrious, and the stupid.

Each officer possesses at least two of these qualities. Those who are clever and industrious are fitted for the highest staff appointments. Use can be made of those who are stupid and lazy. The man who is clever and lazy however is for the very highest command; he has the temperament and nerves to deal with all situations. But whoever is stupid and industrious is a menace and must be removed immediately!”

— General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord
posted by Devonian at 1:41 AM on November 4, 2011 [8 favorites]

I don't have impostor syndrome.

Whenever I've worked in an office, I've always wound up being the tech guru for the computers, network or goddamn internet. Not because I am a guru or even want to be one, but because I either do know more than most people in the office (which isn't saying much, 'cause a lot of people are scared or resentful of technology and rightly so) and, this is the key part, I'm willing to look up, learn or figure out the needed information.

Most people don't give a shit about a lot of things at work, they're rather just focus on their tasks, have someone else figure out the hard stuff, go home at 5 and collect a pay check every two weeks. By default, anyone willing to do slightly more is an expert.

Me, I'm keenly aware that there is a ton of knowledge and skills I don't have and probably never will. But if I need to, I know I can do the work to acquire that information .

Does that make me an arrogant jackass? I don't know, let me research it a bit and I'll get back to you.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:56 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

First time poster, long time lurker.
I've been reading this blog daily for years but this is first time that I've been compelled to post. I read the article on the train this morning and I felt like I was meeting a long lost relative for the first time. This describes me exactly and I've felt this way ever since the 6th grade. I read comment after comment and realized that it's just not me. I felt so alone all this time and I'm so tired of fighting this alone. This is why my username is "liminality" because I've always felt that I was in some intermediate state, condition or phase.
My 30 min train ride felt like 3 hours this morning but I never felt more at peace.
Time to get back to running from the "man".
posted by liminality at 7:05 AM on November 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

The downfall of our culture is that we don't spend more time talking about this. It's an important part of the social relationships that are required to live without massive stress.
posted by rebent at 7:31 AM on November 4, 2011

Impostor syndrome is kind of what drove me to education (which I'm not in right now, but want to return to). When I was teaching, it was wonderful, I felt that I actually knew what I was talking about. I had to, to be able to explain it coherently. If I had trouble dealing with a student, it was obvious, it was something I couldn't fake doing well and something that I could seek help to deal with. I had to be able to answer questions. It was amazing.

But it is why I didn't go on in math. I realized that I was writing proofs that I knew were correct, that I knew would please my profs, that I had no idea why they were right. That there had been spots where I had not understood the material and simply accepted the results. And that terrified me. Not that I'd be found out. But that my fundamental lack of understanding of something in say, Abstract Algebra, would screw me up when I was tackling a problem in Combinatorics (looking at permutation groups and associated subgroups, etc.).
posted by Hactar at 7:34 AM on November 4, 2011

Come work in health insurance, where no one understands shit except the underwriters, and not even them all of the time (that's when the lawyers get involved). Not only do products/laws change from year to year, but from vendor to consultant to company, the exact same terms are used for entirely different meanings. It's fucking chaos. There's no standardization, and no hope of same, because it's the fucking free market, man, and all anybody cares about is how much money is coming in vs. going out and if you don't do it for Giant Client X, well, someone else will, even if what Giant Client X wants contradicts the laws of finance and possibly physics.

Most days, I had no idea what the fuck I'm doing and neither does my boss who's been here 10 years longer than I have, but that doesn't matter. What matters is making someone...salesperson or VP or some other sonofabitch...sign off on the shit I create, so that it's not my ass on the line.

posted by emjaybee at 8:31 AM on November 4, 2011

Argle bargle - don't want to sound like I am chasing kids off my lawn, but....

I see this all the time, and usually they are imposters and they had this done to them. Like Hactar they have learned how to do whatever is required to get the next star or go to the next step (although unlike Hectar they usually don't even grasp that doing steps or a task is not mastery) and that's what they think doing and knowning is. When someone, like we evil people in the job they fought for, asked then to go accomplish a goal and accomplishing that goal requires deciding what tasks they'll have to, they flip out because it just doesn't make any sense. And they're terribly insecure because in a very real way they are not attached to anything - they don't have to tools to assess the world or a situation and reflect and understand their place in that context. It's always been about class rank and good grades and anything they might have learned is - to them -incidental. 

Whenever someone's teen says they don't want to do X because they don't want to do it ,"Unless I can be the best," I find it helpful to sarcastically but with affection point out that there are billions of people in the world so their odds of being the best at anything are slim to none and, even if they end up as the best something or other, luck and timing probably had more to do with it than smarter-faster-stronger.

At work, we push and counsel them until they take over their own lives (or find another place to work).

And, hey, you imposter sufferers, go check out the Ted talks on drive and mastery and motivation.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:24 AM on November 4, 2011

I know that there ARE people who know what the hell they are doing. And I've stepped into their world and they've felt me out fast, same as I smell out anyone who doesn't have competence in areas in which I do.

It's just not true that no one knows what they are doing. I have worked with some programmers who can program rings around others, they have a clarity of vision that cuts right to the bone of any logic problem, plus they have the smarts to be able to write good code, too -- they can not only see the problem(s) but they can code their way to the heart of them, and code their way out of them, too, where people such as myself just coded around them, if I was even able to do that. Over time I did get better, but there is NO WAY that I'd ever approach some of the smarts of those people, when it comes to code, when it comes to logic. Never. I was a lead, and did okay at it, but I never was a master nor ever would be. I master other things, no problem, just that I have tried to shove my round peg into square holes in which I did not fit.

The phone line people -- My younger brother worked on one of those 1.99 a minute phone lines once, and people would call with the damndest ideas and notions and problems. I know he told me of one lady who'd called because of big money problems, he sortof went off on her "Hey lady, you're broke and you're spending money in this stuff? Get off the phone, don't call us back!" Really fun. He was at the time a dead-head living in Ocean Beach CA, where you can get stoned just walking because there's so much pot in the air, he was playing in a pretty successful Grateful Dead cover band (The Elastic Waste Band -- get it? Ha ha -- wasted! The band was wasted! Ha ha!) and he had a big-ass braid in his beard, he was at that time nuttier by far (though he sure was/is a supercool, fun, funny and happy guy, plays one hell of a sax, too) than any of the people calling him and spending $120 an hour to hear his advice drawn from the I Ching, some runes I'd sent him, some hokey star sign crap, and common sense. It was a good job.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:34 PM on November 4, 2011

The man who is clever and lazy however is for the very highest command

Now my life makes sense.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:55 AM on November 6, 2011

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