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Imposter Syndrome (42floors.com)
90 points by jordanlee on Dec 15, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 16 comments

I am entirely in favor of this article's exhortation to resilience. But this post seems to confuse feeling inadequate (or feeling like an impostor) with impostor syndrome [1], an inability to properly recognize one's accomplishments.

The author describes feeling like an impostor when they were, by objective measure, behind their peers. People experiencing impostor syndrome, on the other hand, are by objective standards doing just fine, but still have strong feelings that they are a fraud.

It's an important distinction to me because the way you help people who are behind is different than the way you help people with impostor syndrome. Encouraging grit in those who are behind can be very helpful. But I don't think telling people with impostor syndrome to be tougher is a good idea; it just gives them another way to perceive themselves as not good enough.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome

From the perspective of an individual it's hard to say which is the case though. For instance, if one looks purely at the first anecdote in the article I'd argue that either could be true. If someone is truly afflicted with impostor syndrome they could describe things exactly that way even if they were the best in the room (I realize the rest of the article takes a different path, just an example).

If you were to ask me to describe my lot in life in my workplace it'd probably sound like your first bit - I'd describe myself as being the one holding things up, slow to understand, having the least amount of domain knowledge, etc. Yet, I know this isn't true, based on objective measures of the feedback I receive (even beyond verbal accolades) I know I'm doing better than "just fine". I have to work pretty hard to not picture myself as the worst person in the room at work, even though I know that's not the case.

It isn't clear that they were "behind." They were doing something different (and I guess it didn't match up with YC ideas of coolness - not that this really means anything).

But even if they were "behind," that wouldn't make them impostors who didn't deserve to be there.

I'll just post this quick note about resilience that the article talks about: often, the picture that we see is of a lonely scientist with long white hair thinking endlessly about a problem and the solution showing up after intense mental effort. While this might be true for some gifted individuals, for the rest of us mortals, perseverance comes more by just trying everyday to understand something, and trying different approaches and stuff. In short, not one burst of effort, but little attacks over a period of time, which slowly whittle away at the problem. The ability to maintain you enthusiasm through this process...that is what I personally think of as resilience. And a great way to maintain that enthusiasm is simply...to enjoy the process of attacking the problem as much as finding the solution :).

>just trying everyday to understand something, and trying different approaches and stuff.

How is this different from thinking endlessly about a problem until we arrive at a solution?

This is a great question, actually. And this is perhaps a completely anecdotal answer, apologies for that. But I've personally found that if I can't solve a problem in an hour, I'm just so frustrated that I stop, get up and do something else for a while. When doing the other activities, I'm still thinking of the problem, although obliquely. Often, new avenues of approach will present themselves via internal dialogue. This way, I'm thinking of the problem, even though I'm doing other "useful" stuff, and my value system is more comfortable with it, because I'm not "wasting" more time on the problem.

Like I said, this is completely anecdotal. But I read that Richard Hamming had the same thing to say about it, kind of,


Now again, emotional commitment is not enough. It is a necessary condition apparently. And I think I can tell you the reason why. Everybody who has studied creativity is driven finally to saying, ``creativity comes out of your subconscious.'' Somehow, suddenly, there it is. It just appears. Well, we know very little about the subconscious; but one thing you are pretty well aware of is that your dreams also come out of your subconscious. And you're aware your dreams are, to a fair extent, a reworking of the experiences of the day. If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up one morning, or on some afternoon, and there's the answer. For those who don't get committed to their current problem, the subconscious goofs off on other things and doesn't produce the big result. So the way to manage yourself is that when you have a real important problem you don't let anything else get the center of your attention - you keep your thoughts on the problem. Keep your subconscious starved so it has to work on your problem, so you can sleep peacefully and get the answer in the morning, free.

> for the rest of us mortals

Why do you begin with the assumption that you aren't gifted? Does 'gifted' imply innate talent?

That's what Brits call "being polite" :)

I can confirm that even the best of the gifted are still mortals.

Now, I'd be really worried if I got that wrong my whole life so far...

Maybe pm90 suffers from impostor syndrome.

I think this is something we need to work on at the cultural level, not just the individual level. I gave up a national merit scholarship and quit college to walk away from the really toxic shit that bright kids are drowning in. I am tempted to start a blog post about that, in response to this.

FWIW, I did dash something off and submit it: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8755549

Logging off now. Later folks.

I have a hunch that impostor syndrome is also a symptom of poor / unempathetic* management - while the implication that there might be something 'wrong' with the individual may or may not be true, I would not be surprised if impostor syndrome could be partially accounted for by a difference in how people process and express prosocial cues.

*unempathetic in the scientific sense; of not being able to fully comprehend how and why a person is thinking and feeling the way they do.

Also, it is probably more important to tell people that personality is malleable and can change - this seems to be one of the root causes of resiliency (C. Dweck et al., 2014).

Perhaps sometimes, but not always.

I've always had impostor syndrome in my professional life regardless of management. Even in situations where there's a pretty constant stream of affirmation it's hard to completely get rid of that feeling.

I'll agree that in workplaces where the management mood is more dour that it didn't help at all, but it was never the root cause of it.

An interesting stat to keep in mind about imposter syndrome: about 2/3 of people accepted at Stanford Business School feel they don't really deserve to be here. Source: "The Charisma Myth", Olivia Fox Cabane.

Interesting. For some, Dunning-Kruger is probably at play.


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