Fighting back against “Imposter Syndrome”
I recently stumbled across a couple of really interesting articles about imposter syndrome (the feeling that you are not good enough or smart enough and that at some point everyone is going to figure that out and kick you off the island), which I thought I’d share. Imposter Syndrome is very common among scientists, particularly female scientists (I know I struggle with it), and knowing other people feel the same way helps, but maybe there is more we can do to help each other.
The first article Could imposter syndrome learn from sports? is by a post-doc with an interesting hypothesis that imposter syndrome is so prevalent in science because scientists in general are afraid to show weakness, we tend to hide our failures from colleagues and students. As a consequence, it appears that everyone around you is always succeeding and you are the only one that keeps failing. She has a good point:
And while these tales of achievement and shining sources of confidence may be inspiring, they are also intimidating. They make us think we can never live up to what the successful among us have done. That we will never be enough. From where we sit, it looks like these people never saw failure in their lives. Oh, we know intellectually that it must be there. But we never, ever see it.
That article lead me to another article Impostors, Underdogs, and the Status of Science. That author was inspired by the first and expands on her hypothesis to posit that the root of this tendency to hide failure stems from the general narrative that is told about scientists in the press, in literature, and in popular culture is “a story of the inevitable triumph of genius” which is in stark contrast to the typical sports biographies that highlight how the underdog rose to success after years of sweat, tears, and hard work.
The notable thing about this is that the stories we tell about sports are fundamentally inclusive while the stories we tell about science are exclusive. In both cases, we’re talking about people who do things that are completely beyond the reach of the average person, but when we tell those stories about athletes, they’re cast in a way that makes them seem different from ordinary people only in a quantitative sense– they’re a little taller, a little quicker, a little more disciplined. The framing invites the reader to imagine themselves at the center– “If I’d only been a few inches taller, that could’ve been me,” or “If I’d been able to spend a little more time working on my swing…”
The standard stories about scientists, on the other hand, are exclusive. They tend to emphasize the difference between the reader and the subject. Even as children, great scientists are often portrayed as qualitatively different, as people whose brains just work in a fundamentally different way. They either breeze through their education, or battle with administrative structures that are too confining for their genius. The framing encourages the reader to step back and gape in amazement at the subject.
This is why when I tell people what I do, often the first reaction I get is “Boy, you must be really smart.” not “Boy, you must work really hard.” The myth of the genius scientist is a lot to live up too. Not only is it okay (and inevitable) to fail, it is noble and inspiring to pick yourself up and try again. Maybe we could all try to be a little better about sharing both our successes and failures?