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Thursday, July 7, 2016

Imposter Syndrome
I was recently infected with Imposter Syndrome. You’ve heard of it. It infects many women. You know you have it if you feel like a fraud in your own life. If you’ve got a PhD. in Physics, for example, which I’m not saying I do - indeed, I’m saying I don’t - but if I did, and I felt like I didn’t really know what I was talking about when I was talking about physics - which I don’t, because I don’t have a PhD. in physics - but if I did, and I felt unqualified to weigh in on some topic in physics, then that would be imposter syndrome in action. 

Come to think of it, I’ve been infected with Imposter Syndrome for a long time. For example, with my book and my blog. As I thought about taking a leadership role in my own life by redefining success and sharing that with others who might be struggling with the term, I found myself wondering some of the same types of things as real, live successes wonder: Did I have anything to contribute? Was I qualified? Shouldn’t I go back to school for a PhD in Positive Psychology before continuing?

It’s very common for women, especially, to feel as if they aren’t ready to take on a challenge unless they are super-prepared. Studies show that men will apply for a job if they meet sixty percent of the listed qualifications; women, however, don’t apply unless they meet all or almost all. Women often fail to put themselves up for promotion because they feel like they need to get really, really prepared for the next step; meanwhile, many men just raise their hands and figure they will work out problems when they get there.  Recent research suggests that our culture encourages males to be brave and take risks, but encourages females to be perfect. Really, who is perfect? No wonder so many women feel like imposters.  

For example, consider this. Recently, the husband took up triathlon training with a trainer, let’s call him Roberto. This training involved open water swimming as well as stroke improvement; weight training; cycling indoors and out; yoga; and running. After several months, a bunch of Roberto’s trainees, including the husband, ranging in age from twenty to sixty-five, ran their first race, a mini-triathlon. Everyone completed it, even an obese woman and a woman with a neurological problem with her extremities. The husband has a bad knee. In other words, there were many challenges for Roberto as a teacher.

At the celebratory meal afterward, I asked Roberto if he had been triathlon coaching for a long time and if he had a lot of experience with personal training.

“No,” he said. “This was my first time. I don’t really have any experience. I work out, mostly I cycle – I work in a bike shop - but I figured, what the heck. I’m learning as I go.”

I gave the husband a look. He had trusted this guy’s advice for handling his bad knee. (It was fine.) He had trusted this guy on the open water of a lake in fifty degree weather. They all had. (No one drowned.) Roberto had succeeded. He didn’t seem to feel like an imposter. He hadn’t let doubt stop him.

Meanwhile, Readers, consider this. I recently did exactly what studies say women tend to do. There were two openings on our town’s school board. I decided I might like to run. So I started talking to people, to other board members, to board members in other districts, asking about their experience, their backgrounds, and their campaigns. I felt like before I ran, I had better attend several BOE meetings so I would know what was going on and be able to answer questions. I would have to run a whole campaign. Maybe even debate another candidate or two. Eventually, I decided I wasn’t qualified to run, so I didn’t. What do I know about education in our town, after all? I only have two children in the system. Oh, and a Master’s in Education. But I wasn’t prepared. I let the deadline to sign up pass. I then discovered that for the two openings on the Board, only two people had signed up. They had been both been selected. No campaigns necessary. No proving themselves. Just diving in. Both were men. 

I’m not saying we should take huge risks, like Roberto. But I am saying, take action. Take a power pose a la Amy Cuddy, then step forward. Hold a pencil between your teeth, which mimics the action of smiling and triggers positivity in the brain, and - much as I hate to say this now overused phrase, but it is perfect for this situation - lean in. I decided that next time there’s an opening on the board, I’m going to sign up. Imposter or no. 


  1. Hi Hope, you've been super-kind about posting comments on my wife's blog The Directrice, so I thought I would return the favor. As a freelance writer myself I suffer from Imposter Syndrome all the time, mainly because I actually am an impostor: I don't have formal training in any of the things I write about, like neuroscience and astronomy (English degree here.) But the book I'm working on now is terrifying: it's about how evolution could create non-human kinds of high intelligence on other planets. It's a huge stretch. For example, I argue that insect colonies could, in evolutionary time, convert their larvae into big neurons to do linguistic thinking. It's just outrageous. Surely there's some fundamental reason why that couldn't happen, right? But I've run the idea by half a dozen biologists and none of them have laughed at it. So maybe I'm on to something -- or maybe I'm talking to the wrong biologists, or to very polite biologists. In any case I'm just taking the plunge and doing it. Seeing what happens. What makes the risk worth taking, I think, is the conviction that it's sometimes more valuable to be interestingly wrong than boringly right. Being Interestingly Wrong, if that's what I am, still might trigger fresh ideas in someone else's head that will be Interestingly Right. So I'm willing to take the risk -- imposter and provocateur that I am. Thanks, Hope, and I hope your fear of Imposter Syndrome will not stop you from finishing your own book-in-progress.

    1. Hi Michael,
      Thank you for taking the time to write! Your collaboration with The Directrice is just so very dang fun! I appreciate your comments about Imposter Syndrome. I suppose it was pretty sexist of me to basically attribute it to women. Although, in my defense, what I've read about it suggests it's something more women have than men. Maybe there's a subcategory of vulnerable people of whatever gender who are especially susceptible: writer. I was an English major, too. One of the reasons I finally decided on that major was that I figured I could learn about any subject by reading. And so I have.
      Your book sounds very scary indeed! I'm assuming it's your own project. I have to give you props for being willing to take on such a scary topic. The other night I had an idea for a novel, but it was really scary, and I decided I couldn't face it. It was about what would happen to an American suburban family very like mine if the power went out and never came back on.
      Anyway, perhaps these dark thoughts are also part of The Directrice blog's appeal.