Feeling Stupid Doesn’t Have To Hurt

Many young scientists complain about feeling stupid compared with their peers, and even more suffer in silence. This phenomenon, called Impostor Syndrome, can be quite crippling and even cause people to quit their research careers. It’s frequently discussed these days, particularly in the context of gender balance in science, as women appear to be affected by it more than men. Perhaps it’s yet another reason why women disproportionately opt out of a career in science? I’m not sure I sign up to that idea, but it’s an interesting question nonetheless.

I was reminded of Impostor Syndrome today by an honest post by fellow astronomy postdoc Rita about her own feelings of inadequacy, and I’ve had similar discussions with many friends over the years. In my first few years as a postdoc I suffered massively from Impostor Syndrome in the same way that is described by so many others: fear, anxiety, insecurity, frustration.

Clearly, no one wants to live like this, and the associated anxiety that Rita talks about is common and completely understandable. In the last year or two I’ve thought a lot about these feelings, and I’ve figured out ways of dealing with them.

Perhaps the most helpful things to realise is that you don’t have to overcome feeling like an impostor: you can acknowledge it and work with it. David Foster Wallace had some great words about it in his famous “This is Water” speech:

There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.[...]
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

There are all kinds of things to take from this, but the way I interpret it is: your Impostor Syndrome is a feature, not a bug. The fact that we feel stupid and hate it is the reason we become researchers in the first place: throughout our entire education an career we seek to associate ourselves with those who know more than we do, so we can learn. We literally chase after the stuff we don’t know, obsessively and to the point where we feel emotionally crushed by weight of the knowledge we don’t have. When you think about it, that’s insane. Most people are clueless about many aspects of life, but they don’t lose sleep over it or make it their life’s calling to figure it out.

I realised this once again at SciFoo last summer, where we were given the following advice on day 1: “To get the most out of SciFoo, get used to feeling like the most stupid person in the room”. It’s a great way to open a conference.

And by the way, those who think they are really smart and have figured the world out are idiots. Stay away from them, as they will teach you nothing.

Impostor Syndrome also comes with a weird paradox: we feel that everyone else in our field is much smarter than we are, but we fail to acknowledge that these very smart people have hired us to work with them. They hired us to further their own career (no one hires you to do you a favour!). If you’ve ever been involved in the hiring of a PhD student or a postdoc, you’ll know that these positions are massively oversubscribed. Yet if you are in one, someone you consider to be much smarter than you picked you from this huge batch of applications as the best candidate for the job. Why aren’t we better at trusting that judgment?

Finally, it helps to realise that many senior people too suffer from Impostor Syndrome. One scientist, who comes across as  supremely smart and competent, once told me this, after delivering a keynote speech to a thousand-plus audience. They still feel like they’re on the verge of being uncovered as a fraud, and the audiences only get bigger. This may be a depressing thought to some, but it can be liberating as well. Fraudster feelings aren’t something we have to beat into submission to “make it” in science. Think about those scientists you consider to be not just smart, but terrifyingly smart: in my experience, these are the people who are quickest to say: “I don’t know”.

The bottom line is that learning new things is really hard and slow work. If you’re the kind of person who gets their kicks from figuring out the immense complexities of the Universe or the planet or the human mind, it’s inevitable that there will be times when you feel overwhelmed by everything you don’t know. If you accept that it’s normal to feel this way, you can let this drive you to new ideas. Feeling stupid doesn’t have to hurt: your Impostor Syndrome is not a flaw, it’s a symptom of the fact that you’re smart, inquisitive and challenged by the unknown. That’s not something to feel bad about.

Comments

  1. Excellent post, with valuable insight.

    I often think it’s inevitable that we, as astronomers, end up with Imposter Syndrome*. It’s an intelligent profession: astronomers will often have come from a background where they excelled at school, came top or near top of their class. Then, at university, they often will have walked away with a first class degree or 2:1, and again been near the top of their graduating year. At the PhD stage, too, the nature of the degree means that only the best-adapted to a research lifestyle will survive. At each level, the number of our peers becomes smaller, and the quality of our peers becomes greater and greater. Our scales shift, and I think it’s only natural that you would think yourself an “imposter”, because you may not be near the top of your peer “class” any more. But that doesn’t mean you’re not good, or you’re not competent. You still have made it through many levels of testing, and find yourself among the best of the best.

    As Sarah says, what will mark you out for further progression now and lead to further personal development is more your attitude than your intelligence… how do you approach learning? Do you want to keep learning, or do you want to stick with the things you know how to do? Do you have the courage to ask questions, or would you prefer to avoid bringing attention to your /perceived/ lack of knowledge? I think once you accept that you don’t know it all, and never will… and nobody else does either, things will change for the better. The people sitting around you at a conference when you’re asking questions at the end of a talk will be thinking that they’re imposters compared to you.

    *Unless, of course, we’re arrogant asses, and there are definitely a few of those in astronomy…

  2. Wow. I SOOO needed to read this right now. I’m preparing for my PhD defense next week and feeling like a super-fraud – that I don’t know enough, that one day someone’s going to find me out and that I actually don’t know as much as everyone thought I did.

    It’s not just in sciences, as you well know. My field is in theology & religious studies….and I’ve been saying for years, “You know, it doesn’t take much to impress people!” as an outward expression of this Imposter Syndrome that sits within me.

    I also resonate with the question about gender you asked earlier in the post. I think that in academia (at least in the humanities) it is still less acceptable for women to be as assertive in their writing and in presenting their ideas/opinions as men.

    Thanks so much for this piece!

  3. You’ll do great! A PhD defense is probably the one time in your career that you can be absolutely sure that you know most about your topic out of anyone in the whole world, as you’ve spent years studying that, and only that. And once you have the PhD, no one can take it away from you. Have fun, soon-to-be-Dr-Jayme ;-)

  4. The remedy you describe here for Impostor Syndrome is a good one: being patient and self-compassionate when learning new roles. Having a name for Impostor Syndrome helps to recognize it. Even better is some perspective on where it comes from, which a book I’m currently reading seems to me to provide.

    The book is called “Mindset,” by the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. Dweck argues that there are two main models for human capability. In one, talent is fixed: your smarts, artistic creativity, sociability, etc., are set, and your life experiences are a reflection of how good you are. In contrast, a growth mindset affirms that abilities in all fields improve with practice. Dweck shows convincingly that people with fixed mindsets make detrimental choices as they try to avoid any failure that might prove them untalented. (In fact, ability does strongly depend on practice, e.g. http://calnewport.com/blog/2011/12/02/is-talent-underrated-making-sense-of-a-recent-attack-on-practice/ )

    What’s the connection to Impostor Syndrome? Dweck suggests–and it matches my personal experience–that if you think your abilities are fixed, when you start a new job or move into a new area of research, you will think you should be good as soon as you start. Any confusion or lack of success means you’re not really talented–an impostor! As Paul says above, at worst this leads you to avoid asking questions for fear of showing ignorance, which is what really stops you from improving.

    For me, having a name for the fixed mindset is helping me–slowly–to focus on learning rather than worrying about judgement.

  5. This syndrome exists in many more places than scientific research. I am an engineer with 30 years of experience yet I still feel at times like one of the densest persons on the planet. I have to tell myself at times that I do good work and that I wouldn’t still be employed if I wasn’t at least marginally capable.

    Good article. Just remember, you are not alone.

  6. Sarah – I think you are right that its a feature. Anybody who isn’t insecure really is dumb. Some of the most famous astronomers I know are clearly driven by insecurity. I shan’t name names, but if you buy me a drink one day… Its not just science. The autobiography of the famous actor Simon Callow has this wonderful passage where he describes how on the first day of rehearsals of a new show he could make the whole cast unsettled by walking up quietly behind each actor one by one, and whispering in their ear the words “Have they rumbled you yet ?”

  7. Thank you for this post. I am a first year CHEG grad student, and although I find my courses relatively easy, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed in the lab. It is not with the “direct” workload or the time commitment, but with the sense of “stupidity” I feel when I come across an unexplained result in an experiment, or feel I have to constantly ask my superiors for advice. I am the type of person that will look into something small, and then get lost researching every aspect of the concept as I feel the need to understand it in its entirety before continuing. I then look back at the last 4 hours and think to myself “wow, you really don’t know anything”, and feel ashamed.

    Basically I have suffered with this inferiority complex my entire life. I over think things and always downplay my opinion and my conclusions. I hope to get past this in grad school. This article has been the first step.

    Thanks.

  8. EB> I love that book! My AP math teacher suggested it to me my junior year, she knew I’m really into self-help books. Imposter Syndrome got me good my sophomore year of high school, I entered every test room thinking I was going to fail. Mindset by Carol Dweck….I wanted to believe in the growth mindset, but I doubted myself too much. I also read 7 Habits for Highly Effective Teens, but I was too immature to change the way I thought about stuff, I felt really guilty, I was always kicking myself. I didn’t think I could be proactive but over time, I was inspired by so many things, people, music, including the stories shared at Beta Club Conventions, and I was fully able to believe in the growth mindset. And YOLO has taken my generation by a storm it seems like xD, that also helped make it easier to think Carpe Diem and act! Did some soul-searching this summer and I’m happy that I have became more proactive with my life. I’m attending college in the Fall, choosing a major that my parents doubted I could handle. I believe that after I fail at something often enough, I’ll eventually learn to win.

  9. Don Davo says:

    Great article. As a male ex-scientist (a “very girlie” one, apparently) I suffered from this and left te research world. Twice. Ended up in investment banking (full of idiots so felt I was smarter). Clue: don’t follow my path! 16 years wasted doing nothing for humanity…

  10. Hey Sarah (another Sarah here!) Love this post, although I wanted to add; being unemployed and knowing that I’ve been rejected by employers over and over again, imposter syndrome surfaces pretty often. Sometimes you need more than just external validation to overcome imposter syndrome, you need to have some kind of internal reminder that you are good at XYZ.

  11. Thanks all for the lovely comments and contributions.

    @ Tim: every scientist you talk to will have felt like this at some point. starting off in research is really hard! it’s what makes getting results all the more special.

    @ Don: I’d like to see “leaving science” rebranded from “failing”. this choice of words is pervasive in academia, and it really doesn’t help with coping with the pressure.

    @ Sarah: very true. just remember that your profession or your employer (or lack thereof) needn’t define who you are – only you can do that. keep adventuring.

  12. Jonathan says:

    I have to admit to feeling this way about my journalism from time to time. Despite websites and newspapers inviting me to write for them, I still get the feeling that I’m somehow no good. This seems to occur more frequently on pieces where I’ve had to do a large amount of research, as though my brain assumes I have stolen the knowledge wholesale from others. Nice to know it has a name, and I’m not the only one.

  13. Incredible… I thought I was the only one dealing with such things….. its nice to have kinship like that. I have felt stupid AND smart at the same time too, when I think along the lines of “I should be able to do that/figure that out instantly instead of mulling over it for a week” and then discover that others are also taking the same or longer times to do so.

  14. Brian McCandliss says:

    This is a simple case of “outcome-based orientation,” in which one seeks a certain outcome; this is opposed to a “mastery-based outcome” in which one simply seeks to master the the means to it.

    In today’s world we’re more than ever in competition for proof of external validation, and we feel judged on our achievements and social status; so we are driven to strive for outcomes for this purpose as a measure our worth– rather than simply to master them as a means to an end.

    Outcome-based orientation naturally causes fear and anxiety, since you basically have a proverbial “gun to your head” which promises negative consequences if you fail; i.e. feelings of worthlessness, peer-rejection, lower social-status, loss of prestige etc. And so this becomes a self-fulfilling concept as it causes you to eventually quit, since each step is filled with self-criticism rather than positive improvement.

    This problem also compounds itself when they make life-decisions for validation-purposes rather than personal reasons, leading to choosing paths for which they may not have natural aptitude or interest. This creates a torturous situation which ultimately leads to disappointment.

    The solution is to focus on mastery of the tasks required for goal, rather than on the goal itself; however given the immense pressure for “success” in our society, this can be a problem.

  15. I too am guilty of having Impostor Syndrome. I could also see that I was very smart at times. In reality, I would still feel a bit unsure of myself. So, I have learned that, “practice” makes “perfect”. That always gives me a ” m o r e ” confidential feel. At that, I give myself a HUG.

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