You often hear about impostor syndrome in academia.
Feeling like an impostor is definitely a feeling I’m familiar with: you feel like everything you’ve achieved is due to coincidence, luck, because someone felt sorry for you and had a generous day, or because the better person was sick that day. It’s difficult to take credit for your work. It feels like catastrophe will be upon you any time now and you will be revealed as – well – an impostor who is not actually good at what they are doing, who shouldn’t be there, who shouldn’t have the authority someone inexplicably granted them. I have had this feeling forever. Whenever I got a good grade, when my first conference paper was accepted, when my first article was accepted, whenever someone tells me I did well, when my book proposal was accepted, when I won an election, when I got a job.
Of course, if somebody else were to list their achievements, I would assume that they’re really, really good. But I am an impostor. I shouldn’t be doing this etc. etc.
(Nevermind that I have childhood-competition issues; I once won a gymnastics competition because the better kid wasn’t there. For real. Not impostor-syndrome speaking.)
I have heard that the impostor feeling is so crushing for some people that they stop being able to do anything altogether and freeze up.
When I feel a freeze-up coming on because of feeling like an impostor, it helps me to think or read about punk and DIY, and to focus away from feelings and focus on the project: is it worth doing? Do I want to do it or do I want to wait until somebody comes along who is supposedly more “qualified” to do it?
I’ve come to punk rock later than most people, I assume. It seems like such a teenage thing to be into. Looking at my teenage CD collection, I’m sure the seeds were planted then, but I really started to think about punk rock ethics when someone told me (jokingly, I thought), “You’re the most punk rock person I know.”
I didn’t know much about it then, so I thought it was just a joke. After all, I was just doing a PhD on an impossible, tenuous topic that nobody cares about and I was running and taking ballet class to counter-balance long hours at the desk. I don’t dress particularly edgy, I don’t dye my hair, I don’t live in somebody’s basement, my piercings are socially acceptable, I appreciate some financial security… Surely, I wasn’t punk rock.
But little by little, I was introduced to more of the music, to Henry Rollins’ writing and spoken word stuff, I watched rockumentaries, read up on DIY and zine culture, and got my hands on a copy of Michael Azzerad’s book “Our Band Could Be Your Life”. And while I still don’t feel immersed in that culture and wouldn’t necessarily self-identify as punk, there are some aspects that seem familiar or intuitive because they have been part of my (work) ethic, well, forever. The way Henry Rollins describes Black Flag’s work ethic – that was like putting in relentless hours towards passing my language exams or towards writing a PhD thesis (or book). Why? Not for financial gain, for sure! Because it was important! It was the right thing to do, ethically. It was important work, then, there – and if not me, then who?
Privilege and elite are factors that play into the making of the impostor feeling, I believe. “I’m not as good as X.” – “I don’t deserve this because I wasn’t educated at Z.” – “I wasn’t a child prodigy, so who am I to think I can ever get good enough at this to succeed?”
If these thoughts sound familiar – Minutemen; Black Flag; Rollins reading “Get in the Van” (it’s on YouTube); this article on punk and business – and considering whether the task or the project at hand is more important than an individual fear of failure or of being exposed as an impostor.
My approach to writing my PhD was very much like what Steve Albini is quoted as saying in the article linked to above:
“And if you have a week to get something done, then you get it done in a week. Because if it takes eight days, the band goes back to Belgium without their album.”
My PhD was a job to get done; I had four years’ of funding to do it – no excuses. That ethic is why writing the thing despite mild impostor tendencies wasn’t a problem for me. At the time I didn’t know it was an ethic associated with punk and DIY.
I also found the following quotation helpful when chanelling punk to get over being too scared to try something because of doubts as to whether I “deserved” to do it and whether I deserved to possibly succeed at it:
“They [indie bands] had to overcome a lifetime of training in order to get to the point where they could feel like a scruffy, bibulous indie band from Minneapolis with an album called Let It Be was just as valid as the band that first used the title.” (Azzerad, 10)
I have encountered quite a few judgmental persons who would raise eyebrows at representatives from lesser-known universities and I have heard way too many people go, “Oooh, Harvard-trained!” I think overcoming impostor-feelings could be related to overcoming that “lifetime of training” to believe in the elite and in entitlement.
That part of Azzerad’s book resonated with me because I grew up thinking until very recently that you had to have been a prodigy to deserve even doing something. Given my current situation as an “independent scholar” – i.e., someone without an academic job – I’ve been thinking about whether you need institutional backing to validate your output; what conclusions do people jump to when it says “Independent Scholar” on your conference name badge? That you couldn’t make it? That your output is of a lesser quality because you’re not surrounded by academic input in your professional life?
It doesn’t matter! A more constructive question to ponder is: Is the project worth doing and do you want to be the person to do it right now?