Sunday, February 12, 2012

Ubiquity of the “Impostor Syndrome”

Discussing complicated intellectual subjects with others often involves area’s of knowledge in which we feel uncertain or inadequate.

You and I would not be the only one to have a sense of not belonging when caught in such a situation, even when we are in fact experts in that particular field.

This feeling of being found out as an impostor who talks nonsense despite the fact that we are well schooled on the subject, is a widespread phenomenon called The Impostor Syndrome. Although a rather benign sort of mental aberration, it can severely hamper our confidence.

The Cambridge professor of physics Athene Donald has broached the subject eloquently in a blog post, discussing her experience of the phenomenon in the world of academia.

She noted that it seems mainly an issue woman seem to talk about openly, but she has now followed up with a second article showing there are also plenty of men experiencing these feelings, although they seem less inclined to identify them as genuine instances of Impostor Syndrome.

If you share the feeling of inadequacy in the presence of peers or when speaking as an authority in academic or other capacity, it may pay off to read the articles and realize that this is pretty common. It’s not unlike the notion of feeling our looks, smells or physical behaviour is inadequate compared to others.

Whilst in most cases, others share these feelings, probably at the same time.

The spiritual opposite of the Impostor Syndrome is called The Dunning-Kruger effect. This effect comes down to an obliviousness to our inabilities, causing those with minor to no skill to be unable to detect their lack of competence and hence value their ability much higher than it in practice is.

If you and your colleagues all wonder how how that supremely incompetent and dislikeable manager got that position in the fist place, it may simply be the Dunner-Kruger effect in action.

The person may lack the self-consciousness and skill to realize his or her capacities are minor and hence prances around with the confidence of kings, which can translate eventually to promotion over more skilled, but far less confident, collegues.

In short, the Impostor Syndrome shows us that even the most competent of people, academics of fair repute, experts in their field, can constantly have the nagging feeling they are inadequate compared to others.

All of which brings us to a wonderful quote from the great British philosopher Bertrand Russell:
One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision

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