I've been meaning to comment on these tweets for a while:
I went to high school with some scary smart people. Never made math team. Didn't get into honors math. Thought I wasn't good at it.— Stanislav Nikolov (@snikolov) June 30, 2016
Stan, of course, is one of the most talented people I know.
It reminded me of a conversation I had with my colleague and friend Jim last year. I had just recieved an email from a former student turned friend. We were trying to find some time to catch up. I told Jim I had just heard from this young lady and Jim replied "I remember her, she's awesome. Really smart." I mention this because the individual we were talking about, while to us, extremely talented in addition to being just a terrific person spent much of her career living in self doubt.
Meantime, I was having a conversation with another friend and the topic turned to impostor syndrome and the desire to make it a thing of the past.
Problem is, I don't know if that will ever be the case. I'm approaching 50 and have a career of good work behind me but I still find myself questioning my credentials, work, and ability. Then I realized I wasn't alone when I read Robert Talbert's recent blog post about his going through the tenure process for a second time and "learning through this process that I have not outrun impostor syndrome and probably never will."
Stan's tweets tell part of the story. When we surround ourselves with smart, accomplished people, we sometimes feel we don't measure up. I've found that for the most part, the extremely accomplished people I've worked with are very unassuming and low key. They seem to operate assuming that everyone else is at least as capable and quick as they. I recall Paul Graham talking about this in an essay but I don't remember which one. The problem is, if you don't understand their sincerity, you end up feeling even more inadequate.
It gets worse when we start comparing ourselves to some unreal composite. I remember feeling pretty stupid back when I was younger comparing myself with others. The problem was that I clearly didn't measure up to the best math kid, or the best computer kid, the best fencer, the best violinist, etc. Now, the best math kid might have been a lousy athlete and the best fencer, a so so mathematician, but to me, I was comparing myself with this composite super human. No wonder I never measured up. Eventually, though, I realized three things. First, there's always someone better at something and always someone worse. Second, that's not the true value of ones worth as a person, and three, I bring some good stuff to the table and I should be (and am) content with that
So, I still struggle with impostor syndrome but at the end of the day, it just serves as a reminder to look back on what I've done and what I've learned in the process. I start out in question but in the end, leave confident. Maybe the trick isn't to eliminate impostor syndrome but rather to understand and contain it. We don't want to live in fear and anxiety but both are useful emotions when we control them and not the reverse.
It's probably good when we question ourselves and re-evaluate our positions - we just have to make sure as we're bringing new people into the tech fold that we foster acceptance and confidence and when impostor syndrome sets in that it can be channeled into a positive and not scare people away.Tweet