Stress in Research. Part V: If you really are an Impostor, then it's not a Syndrome

By Charles Sutton on September 3, 2018
As you know, there isn’t really any solution to self-doubt. In the end, you just have to write and doubt simultaneously.
Zadie Smith

The final post of a series on stress in research.

A nice way to end this series would be to talk about impostor syndrome, but I’m the wrong person to write that blog, because I don’t think that I’ve ever literally felt like an impostor. My self-doubt comes out in a different way.

I’ll need to get a bit more personal, but an important warning first. If you are currently serving on a committee that is considering whether to offer me a new job, promotion, prize, or award, please can you stop reading now. Thank you.

My self-doubt comes out like this. I am secretly convinced that I am not good enough.

We have already discussed how the Tournament of Research is public. So I can see the accomplishments of those who have surpassed me in the Tournament, and secretly doubt whether I am good enough to compete.

I can see how quickly the field is moving, and how many new ideas are being introduced every few weeks, and secretly doubt whether I am good enough to keep up.

I can see the pressing problems that our research field is facing. I secretly doubt whether I am clever enough to create new ideas that are subtle enough to solve these tricky problems. I doubt whether I am good enough to create the kind of work that I would like to create.

This series of articles has had three themes: one theoretical, one practical, and one psychological. The theoretical insight is that the research community is structured in a way to grow and foster your self-doubt, and it succeeds in almost all of us. Self-doubt is, therefore, not your fault. More practically, self-talk can be a good way to continue doing good work in the face of self doubt. The psychological theme has been on the role of ego in research: necessary, but always carrying the dangers of jealousy and doubt. Combining the final two themes, the last advice I will give about self-doubt is about using self-talk to manage your ego.

A lot of advice suggests fighting self-doubt with positive self-talk: “I really am good enough! I belong here!” Try this and see if it helps you. Different strategies will work for different people. For me, positive self-talk does not seem to help; it is too hard for me for disregard the objective evidence that there really are people out there who are better than me.

So instead of reaffirming my ego, I use self-talk to deny my ego. I push my thoughts away from myself, and towards the tasks in front of me, which are easy to get excited about, and then the fear goes away. Imagine an actor, petrified with fear while waiting to go on, who once onstage and forced to perform, slips into the role without effort or doubt. I try to feel like that when I sit down to my laptop. Said another way: People report the fear that they are an impostor. But it does not matter what you are, it matters what you do.

Because, in the end, none of the dark thoughts matter. I am inadequate, I am not good enough, and it does not matter. It does not matter because all the doubts, all the dark thoughts, are self centered claptrap, exercises in destructive solipsism. The doubts are all about me, but when it comes to work, how I feel is unimportant.

It does not matter how good I am.

As long as I love the work that I do, and people are willing to pay me to do it,

As long as I continue to learn through my work, to learn from my students, colleagues, and collaborators, at the same time that they seem to be learning from me,

As long as I can see new directions for my work, to expand my knowledge and perhaps others’ as well,

As long as there is a chance, even a slim one, that I can create something that will change the way people think, or in a small way, improve the way the world works,

As long as I can do all this, it does not matter how good I am. As long as there remains much to do, I am going to try to do it, whether I am good enough or not.

Even if I reach the end of my career, and never do something that ever fully matches my ambitions, my work will have accomplished something, even if indirectly and in a small way. I have had the privilege to participate in the worldwide, centuries-long conversation of the community of scholars. And this larger conversation has made a difference, I am sure, even if my own part has been small. I have been part of the life of the research community, preserving, growing, and sharing knowledge. That is enough to make my professional life worthwhile, even after all the papers that I’ve written have faded into obscurity.

And that’s how I deal with self doubt.