Once a well-known theoretical physicist is purported to have said near the end of his life: “the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler”
This feeling, often described as imposter syndrome, where a person is unable to internalise their own achievements despite evidence to the contrary is one which I perpetually feel, and I know I’m not alone in this. Those who suffer this syndrome believe that they are imposters; they have faked their way up to where they are, and are simply lucky that they’ve fooled everyone around them into thinking they have more ability than they really do, but also live in constant fear of being discovered. On an intellectual level, I understand that how I feel about things is nonsense, and I’m perfectly able to articulate why that is, and yet how I feel is stubbornly and persistently at odds with how things really are. It is my hope that sharing my experience will help others in a similar situation.
p.s. the aforementioned theoretical physicist was Albert Einstein.
Overcoming this condition is a difficult and long process, and involves a lot of positive self-talk and fake-it-until-you-make-it strategies. Luckily, my experience early in life with drama and theatre helps tremendously with my ability to carry on a “normal” life keeping up appearances and faking it very well (you’re all reading this website, after all). Of course, this is somewhat dangerous, since being able to fake it well is part of the whole problem. Luckily, I generally don’t concern myself too much with how others see me, so the demons I have to wrestle with are mostly in my own head. Being able to fake it in the eyes of other people is the easy part; the real trick is to convince myself, at least to the point where I’m comfortable enough to carry on with life with just enough of a feeling of self-worth to get myself out of bed without being paralysed by debilitating depression.
The tools which help me deal with this struggle in my own head are courtesy of another intellectual heavyweight and personal hero of mine – Alan Turing. Thanks to the recent Oscar-nominated film The Imitation Game, people are now at least on some intuitive level familiar with the concept of the Turing Test. The test is simple, a human sits at a computer console and attempts to have a conversation. The human subject doesn’t know if the other party in the conversation is a computer or another human. A computer is said to pass the test if the human cannot distinguish between it and a human. As of writing, no computer has come close to convincingly passing the test. (all you need to do is throw in some typos and slang, and even the most powerful computers shit the bed).
What on earth does all this have to do with overcoming imposter syndrome, I hear you think. In my previous blog post, I wrote about how being ready is a myth, and alluded to having some rather big mountains to climb and chasms to leap in my immediate future. Naturally, I consulted some very close friends about these potentially life-changing decisions. As one would expect from good friends, they gave me some very honest advice which was, at times, brutal and bad-tasting medicine. However, when it came to assessment of my abilities, they all said very nice things – too nice, and for reasons which should be obvious by now, I did not believe them. Of course, this put me in a dilemma – I hold these friends in very high regard – they are all much smarter than me, and are much more high-achieving. Surely their assessments have not been based on my ability to deceive them, since these friends also know me very well (one was a former flatmate, one a former school mate, and one was an ex (mate)). So this is how I short-circuited my brain’s own attempts to sabotage myself – I told myself that I had passed my own Turing test of sorts.
The ingenious part of this strategy is that the “judgement” aspect of this isn’t performed by myself. If it were, then I couldn’t possibly trust the assessment to be accurate. The assessment is performed by those who I hold to be much smarter than myself. So I’m forced to choose between their assessment of my abilities and my own – so naturally I chose theirs over mine. The kicker is that my own interpretation of reality doesn’t even matter! And before anyone tries to pin this ingenious breakthrough on me, it wasn’t even my idea (bonus points!). It grew out of something that one of my genius-friends said: “Daniel, maybe if [name withheld] thinks you’re good enough, and they’re one of the world’s leading authorities on this subject, then you are actually good enough despite what you think, since you are in fact not one of the world’s leading authorities on this subject”. Yup, I have some pretty smart friends who know me well enough to know how to short circuit my brain’s own strange wiring.
Because obviously I’m not good enough, but if people who really are think that I am, then I am, at least from the perspective of being outside my own head, indistinguishable from a person who is good enough.
And when a computer passes the Turing Test, I for one will welcome our new robot overlords…