Recently, I read an essay by Nick Campbell, titled “Polymath the Impostor.” This really hits home for me, because I’ve been a long-time sufferer, despite having the knowledge that the syndrome exists. As Nick puts it, “despite any praise you receive or even a whiff of dissatisfaction from those in charge of your paycheck, you feel doomed to be found out.” Yes, this is the crux of it, but is it really so bad? I think most people are impostors. According to dictionary.com, the word ‘impostor’ means, “Pretending to be someone else in order to deceive others.” But don’t we do that as a means to aspiration? E.G. I aspire to become a great writer, so I do as writers do. To me, this means that anything we aspire to is a target that is constantly beyond our current grasp — an intentionally unreachable carrot on a stick of failure. (We could talk about all the pitfalls of constant dissatisfaction1 as well and how that’s considered by some to be poison, but I’ll leave that for another post.) So because we desire to be better at something, we start to learn about it. The more we learn, the more we figure out that we don’t know, but in order to move forward on the learning curve, we fake it.
Perhaps a fancier way to put things is that we channel traits and behaviors. It starts when we’re children. When I was little, I wanted to be a better and faster fighter than Bruce Lee — perfectly reasonable, right? — so I would watch his movies, as well as a variety of other movies2 and I would copy what I saw to the best of my ability. Believe it or not, I got pretty good and would often jump from tall objects and land in a split, causing adults to groan and probably question whether there was anything between the ground and where my body touched it. My friends and I would also perform all kinds of high and low kicks, jump kicks, spin kicks, somersaults and the like. Not that it would do any good against any opponent of Bruce Lee, let alone Bruce Lee himself, but it felt great snapping old fence boards in half. It’s a good thing boards don’t hit back3. Being an impostor was okay. It was because I channeled Bruce Lee and Frank Dux that I was able to achieve any sort of skill, despite realizing there was an ocean of difference between what they could do and what I could.
Maybe, then, the difference is in being paid to do something.
No one was paying me to spend hours of my day watching kung fu movies and practice my (probably embarrassing) moves, but I suppose if someone had, it would have been different. The focus would shift from learning for the sake of wanting to be something, and it would turn to being something for the sake of money, which means I get to buy stuff and keep buying stuff in the future. All of a sudden, there’s pressure to fit a job description and everything that entails. Now I have to shove aside pretending for the sake of just being better in order to pretend to actually be the complete version of something that fits nicely inside the job description. After all, no one wants to pay someone to learn on the job. The best candidate is the one who has all the skills and then some. But how could anyone have 100% of all the skills listed on a job application. Unless the listing is extremely short and to the point, I’d bet the answer is no one. So why do we write job descriptions that way? My guess is, much like people channeling the traits of heroes, we aim higher than where we intend our arrow to land.
Yet the unspoken expectation is that we are that person. Even though there’s a valley between where the expectation is and where we actually are, we are expected to act as if. Is it any wonder we feel the pangs of the impostor syndrome? It’s not that I’m assigning blame to the people above us — hell, they probably experience the same thing in one form or another — but I am saying that a reasonable person should not expect god-like knowledge in a job title. We are not omniscient beings, nor could we be even if we aspired to it. There is just far too much information to take in.
Looking at my Feedly, I currently see over 1,000 articles that I’ve yet to read from a handful of sources I’ve chosen in order to more easily digest information. This is to help me stay current, or in other words, maintain the facade of omniscience in my field. The trade-off is that I feel a ball of anxiety sitting somewhere in my brain — the knowledge that I have so much to learn today, which doesn’t include all the things I missed yesterday or will miss tomorrow. There’s just too much. I’m just one man. There are too many Bruce Lees now, and it’s important to realize that.
So, am I an impostor? No, I’d probably go with “imitator” — one who follows or endeavors to follow as a model or example — since this definition removes the connotation that I am attempting to be a con artist. I am not. However, there are things I have known in the past that I’d have to look up today to use again. So I’m not only imitating others, but myself as well. It’s hard to keep that much information always at hand, always present. I think it was Einstein who said it was more important to know how and where to find information rather than the ability to store it. And I am very good at the finding of information, as I suspect many of the people in my field are.
Knowing this helps to soothe the nagging voice4 that tells me I’m not good enough and people are going to find out5. Beyond that, I’m lazy. I value happiness and tranquility over knowing everything, but I don’t mind taking short power walks on the unending treadmill of new information. I also don’t mind having a variety of interests. I’m sure it would bother some to know that I don’t have a few key subjects that I have mastered, but in the information technology field, mastering an entire subject is nearly impossible. We can master the basics, and then hold a solid grasp on aspects thereof, but since they are ever-changing and the “best practice” is a moving target, we are set up for failure if we hope to master all. When placed in this light, living up to every demand in our job description becomes less of a hard requirement and more of a nice-to-have. In fact, most of the time, us impostors just have to know how to Google It.
Footnotes. Because they’re amazing.
- As the Sunakkhatta Sutta puts it, “Craving is said by the Contemplative to be an arrow. The poison of ignorance spreads its toxin through desire, passion, and ill will.”
- I’m pretty sure, wherever they are, my VHS copies of Enter the Dragon, Bloodsport and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are stretched thin from all my repeated watching.
- This is a quote from Enter the Dragon, in case you were wondering.
- So far, I only hear one voice, but if I ever start to hear more, I’ll be sure to write a post about it.
- Certainly they already know. Someone once told me, “you’re the dumbest smart person I’ve ever met.” If I ever give into the voices, that person is first on the list.