How I Cured My Impostor Syndrome

Academia is funny.  At the beginning you keep asking yourself, “What if I am not really any good?”  Then once people finally start admitting that you are good you ask yourself, “What if I’m not really as good as they are finally admitting that I am?”  Now don’t get me wrong — I’m not judging — I used to ask these questions too.  A lot.  My own favorite version was always, “Why am I so much more famous than I deserve to be while not being nearly as famous as I want to be?”  But then I got over it and stopped giving so much of a shit, which makes me cured.  Here are six things that helped, in case you’re interested.

How I Cured My Impostor Syndrome

1.  I got Tenure.  Let’s just get that out of the way, shall we?  When you don’t fit the mold or look the part and you constantly get messages saying you don’t belong, there is no Earthly substitute for a piece of paper that says you can never ever be kicked out.  The people who say that tenure should be abolished because it doesn’t mean anything anymore are both full of crap and without exception white men who’ve never been anywhere near the wrong side of the line.  My only quibble with tenure is that the people who have it don’t exploit it nearly enough to take new risks and generally agitate the system.  But that’s a whole other and more bitchier post.

2.  I took a good, hard look at my stuff.  And some parts of it ain’t pretty.  Particularly my early stuff.  Some of that was just bad bad bad bad bad.  If it came my way now I would reject the shit out of it.  I would use Microsoft Paint to scrawl “Your proposal is bad and you should feel bad” across the summary page and then upload it to Memebase.  No friggin wonder there are people out there who think I’m way overrated.  But you know what?  My science has gotten a lot better over the years.  A LOT.  So while I don’t have any confidence that what I am doing now is good enough, I have tremendous confidence in my ability to fix whatever inadequacies are shown to me.  I’ve also accepted that some of the poor bastards who had to review my early crap will never respect me.  Others are just plain prejudiced.  I can’t do anything about either, so why stress over it?  By the way, the folks telling you that you should just grow a thick skin and not care what people say are not your real friends.  A thin skin is the way to go.  Only if you let the criticism cut to the bone can you fully examine the wound and clean it up so it can heal.  But promise me that you’ll also let the praise in, and absorb it just as deeply.

3.  I worked myself to and through exhaustion.   I could tell you the details, but they would make you question my sanity even more than you already do.  I will say that it involved years of high doses of nicotine, maltodextrin, lorazepam and prednisone, along with a lot of other things, and not always in that order.  And while I can’t in good conscience recommend it, it did accomplish something important for me: I don’t have to wonder if my Science could be improved if I just tried harder or put in a few more hours.  It might make me a lot deader than I am now, but aside from that nothing would meaningfully improve, and I have the data to show myself.  So Merry F*cking Christmas, because whatever you’re getting from me is the very best I can do, and we’re all just gonna have to live with that whether we like it or not.

4.  What I am is separate from what I know and how I perform.  I’ll even go you one better: I believe that my carnate self is necessarily and inescapably an imperfect approximation of my truest self.  Yea verily I say unto thee that I am one of those poor sorry sonsabitches who actually believes all that crap.  And you know what?  I lean pretty hard on this belief every goddam day.  Ok Dr. Bozo, you think that my science is garbage.  Well DUH!  Of course it is, you dumbass.  It is merely one rotten brick within this great subcelestial City of Shit that we are collectively tasked to remake for a better purpose.  So shut your hole, pick up a shovel and help me out.

5.  I lost interest in the question, How good do people think I am?  I wondered and wondered but I never came up with a satisfying answer.  It was like trudging around one of Dante’s circles minus even the companionable presence of other wretched souls.  I eventually realized that endlessly interrogating my intellectual worth was akin to weighing myself three times a day, which I also used to do and which was an equally pointless exercise.  When I finally conceded to myself that, well, f*ck it — maybe I’m not as good as people say I am.  Maybe I’m not as good as I should be.  Maybe I’m just actually as good as I am – then a more interesting question presented itself: What now?  What now.

6.  I realized why I the hell I am doing Science anyway.  And you know what?  It turned out that I am not doing this to please the Academy.  I don’t covet the approval of people who will never respect a face like mine.  I’m not even doing this in the hope of recognition, though should fame come my way I will unctuously welcome it with greedy open arms.  I confess that when Science is fun it feels like I am doing it for me, but in reality that’s not true either.  I am doing this because I am too small and the world is too big, and so I need to be part of something that is bigger than I am.  I am doing this for the women in my family who told me that they wanted to be scientists but never had the chance.  I am doing it for my grandmother who couldn’t have imagined the luxury of thinking for a living.  And I am doing it for the women who will come after me.  Each day I will deal with a little more of this shit in the hopes that they will someday deal with a little less.  I will roar like a dangerous Pekinese at my male colleagues, laugh in their faces as they twist the knife, and then go back to my office and cry into my blistered hands.  I will postpone lunch, then dinner, then pissing, then the dentist because I need Science now.  I will pound on the door of one funding agency after another until something finally opens.  And I will always keep doing too many things.  I will want too much, say too much and go too far.  But I will not wonder whether I am as good as I appear to be.  Because I am far too distracted with the fond labor of making myself into what I want to be.  Because I know that I am good enough.  For that.