Sunday, June 10, 2018

Impostor Syndrome

A couple of days ago I was trying to explain aging to my 13 year old daughter when I had a mild epiphany.  My erstwhile case of imposter syndrome has largely vanished.

TG mentioned that she thought it was remarkable that someone as old as I am (sigh…) admits publicly to liking Taylor Swift.  (For my money, “1989” is a brilliant pop album. I don’t care much for “Reputation,” though.) I told her that age happens step by step, but aging doesn’t.  It’s more subtle and abrupt. You feel basically the same age for a while, then BAM, you’re older. And it doesn’t necessarily happen evenly across parts of life, either.

Some aging is annoying, like the increasingly florid symphony my knees play whenever I stand up from a crouch.  Reading menus in poorly lit restaurants is a lot harder now than it used to be. And I miss my hair.

But experience, both professionally and just being on the planet, brings gifts of its own.  For example, in most contexts, it has silenced that nagging “impostor” voice that used to be so debilitating.  It hasn’t replaced it with delusions of grandeur, either, but more with a sense of where my lane is. Oddly enough, that leads to being much more productive, since I’m not channeling as much energy into jumpiness or self-doubt.  That frees up bandwidth to actually get stuff done.

I don’t recall getting a memo about it.  Over time, the self-doubt just sort of faded away.  I didn’t even notice, until I suddenly did. That’s how aging works.

Higher education is designed to encourage self-doubt.  The mix of a rigid prestige hierarchy with unclear and shifting rules, chronic and grinding austerity, and extremely free-flowing criticism allows self-doubt to fester.  (In administration, reciprocating is often characterized as “retaliation,” and is considered out of bounds. That doesn’t help.) I’m told that it’s even worse for folks who aren’t white and male, since they get additional pernicious messages about not really belonging.  That may sound abstract, but the effects are real and, in some ways, quantifiable.

To the extent that the shift is a product of the sedimentary accumulation of experience, or physiological changes in the brain, there isn’t much to be done about it.  But I have seen one measure that seems to help.

Spend time around people who seem impressive.  

In my own case, spending time around impressive people accomplished two things.  One was humanization; they’re just as flawed as I am. That’s true of everybody, but it’s worth seeing.  The second was acceptance. (I’m flashing back to Althusser’s notion of “hailing” from a previous life…) When people I consider impressive respond to me in kind, it makes a difference.  That only happens if you give it a chance to happen.

So my request of my age cohort, as we find ourselves suddenly and inexplicably not being the youngest in the room anymore: welcome talented people as equals.  Watch your own habits so you don’t interrupt, or dismiss, or pigeonhole. Respect is impostor syndrome’s kryptonite.

Now, about that “as old as you” line...