Impostor Syndrome, Redux

In response to a previous post of mine about my own experiences with the impostor phenomenon, a friend of mine, Joji Kojima, wrote this awesomeness that follows. I definitely think it’s worth reading, and I’m still thinking about a worthy response to his wrote. Anyway, here it is:

Nick, I appreciate your honesty in sharing your perspective at this stage of your experience. I had some preliminary thoughts to share about what might be called the “impostor complex” which you have described.
I recently worked as a lab tech for six months, and I can say that if I never again work in such environs I will not miss it much. The reason is that one feels very small in the face of science. The compromise we make, as scientists, is that we can see ourselves as relevant to a given project, and if we can convince ourselves that that project is relevant to capital S science, then we can go on about our lives convinced that we are also relevant even as small cogs in a big machine. However, for those who are given to skepticism, simply the fact that our project exists, is endorsed by an enthusiastic PI, and is receiving funding sufficient to maintain the project is often not enough to convince us that said project is in fact relevant.
As the world becomes more complex, particularly in fields such as yours which rely on huge amounts of data collection and analysis, where the limiting factor in many experiments is likely related to the organization of large amounts of data, a given person is likely to be so specialized that they feel overwhelmed, as you describe, by the huge amount that they don’t know. If this arrangement of division of labor works, we can rest assured that our own intellectual output is feeding into a kind of hive-mind-type structure which is working to create scientific conclusions of relevance. Therefore each individual inevitably feels somewhat alienated from the knowledge that they are, perhaps indirectly, involved in producing.
There’s a quote that I like, which goes something like: “It is not enough for the fortunate man to simply be fortunate. He must also believe that he deserves his good fortune. Specifically, that he deserves his good fortune more than the next man.”
Your impostor complex is kind of a backwards take on this quote, but it still proves that without belief in your own merit of your good fortune, you are somewhat unsettled.
Nietzsche argued (to my understanding) that it was possible to become a superman through sheer human will power. That our capabilities are inherently endless, that we can as humans, perhaps within several generations, create the conditions in which we become perfectly suited for any given task of engineering or scholarship. I’m reaching here, because I haven’t really read nietzsche, but let’s let that stand as the idea of the “superman.”
Modern people are inherently obsessed with the idea of the superman. We watch documentaries, CSI Las Vegas, Ultimate Fighting Championship, iron chef, and we get it in our head that people are out there doing great things because they have immense inherent talents and or have undergone unimaginably rigorous training programs. Most biographies of great authors or US presidents are self-consciously burdened with the task of explaining why a person stands out, what makes a given person, a successful person, so different from his peers. Consider the book “the outliers” for a good example of this post-facto analysis of exceptionalism.
So we come away with the idea that there are these incredible people out there, who are inherently super-intelligent, or extremely diligent with the use of their time, or are given extraordinary abilities by their single-mindedness. And when we manage to break in and rub shoulders with the “elites” we experience a certain cognitive dissonance caused by the fact that we know that the confused spider’s web of concepts in our own mind does not resemble the well-tuned scientific process if we are truly among the elites. So either I am a fraud and the people around me understand everything much better than I do, or the people around me are pretending to understand everything but they are just as lost as I am. Or the projected image of who I am supposed to be, as a PhD in astronomy, is inherently unrealistic. Or there are just not that many people who are as diligent as I am about, say, astronomy, even though I play capoeira in the evenings and play video games and go clubbing on the weekends… even given those faults there are still not enough people who like astronomy and get up early in the morning enough to beat me at my game…
So, I will posit to you that by and large the emperor (the academic ivory tower) has no clothes. As a society, we decide to set aside a certain amount of resources (I would probably argue, a pathetically small amount) for the pursuit of knowledge of the universe for its own sake. You have beaten out a high percentage of people in the game of merit that is played for those resources. You are correct in your suspicion that, just because you have proven a certain level of merit, does not mean that you will do anything great. Answering questions on a test goes a long way in securing your financial security and your funding as a scientist (not far enough, you would probably say). But it has very little bearing on whether or not you will actually be instrumental in doing what you have set out to do, which is discover something about the universe. Because the march of science, unlike the march of institutional academia, does not have checkpoints and endpoints pre-built into the system. It is pretty much chaos, everything is up for grabs. There is no merit-based system to determine what you will actually accomplish as a scientist.
I feel like I’ve written a lot but said very little. 🙂 Kudos to you on your QE’s.