Academic conferences and the imposter syndrome

When your abstract gets accepted for that prestigious conference you feel great – for a moment – and then you realise you have to go and present your research. And there will be all those big names there. Those people you’ve cited over the years. And what if they attend your session and ask questions – really tricky questions. Or worse, publicly dis-agree with everything you’ve done. Suddenly the doubts start to grow and you begin to have those imposter feelings. And when you get to the conference the imposter syndrome can kick in with full force.

Whitny Braun, PhD, Assistant Professor of Bioethics, Loma Linda University wrote a good piece about this recently in the HuffPost.

Whitny Braun’s post to the HuffPost.

“I always arrive at these gatherings with a strange knot in my stomach and fear that this is the year…this is the year that I am going to be exposed for the idiot that I am…the idiot who has been play acting at this job for the last decade. I go to the affinity groups (mixers for people who have similar research interests) and look around the room at the name tags that show institutional affiliation. An inferiority complex develops when you see people who have published way more than you and who appear way more successful than you and surely collect way bigger paychecks than you, mingling with one another.”

Read the full post here: The Imposter Syndrome: Fear and Loathing

 

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A billionaire imposter

You can be a billionaire and still feel like an imposter. Mike Cannon-Brookes, the CEO of tech company Atlassian and a self-made billionaire talked about this recently. Follow the link to the story on Australia’s ABC website.

Mike Cannon-Brookes story

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Explanatory Styles: Optimism and Pessimism

Martin Seligman

Martin Seligman is the father figure of positive psychology, but his early research was a bit less positive. He was looking at the concept of helplessness. What he did was create particular situations of helplessness, e.g. dogs got electric shocks that they could not escape from. There was nothing they could do to get away from the shocks. After a certain amount of time, most dogs just gave up trying. They became helpless or learned to be helpless.

Another researcher, Donald Hiroto, found that the same thing happened with people. With people, they didn’t use electric shocks (there have to be some limits). The researchers used inescapable noise (remind you of early parenthood?). And when people worked out that nothing they did could get rid of the noise, they just stopped trying.

But the really interesting thing with both the dogs and the people was that some didn’t give up. Some kept on trying despite their efforts seeming not to work. Why? What was different about this group that stopped them from learning to be helpless? The model Seligman and others proposed for this was based on what they called “your explanatory style”.

This is your way of making sense of bad events, and Seligman said your explanatory style “is a habit of thought learned in childhood and adolescence”. At its simplest, there are two extremes of explanatory style, pessimism and optimism.

 

In the pessimistic explanatory style, bad events are:

Permanent—the bad things are going to last for a long time, things are not going to get better.

The project I’m working on is not going well and it’s not going to get any better.

Pervasive—one bad thing affects everything. This is called being universal. One bad teacher means all teachers are bad. A bit like a bad smell, bad things spread around.

If this project fails it will affect my chances of getting a promotion, maybe my whole career.

Personalised—pessimists take bad things personally. They blame themselves. They take internal responsibility.

The project is going badly and it is all my fault. I should have been able to fix it.

 

In the optimistic explanatory style, bad events are:

Temporary—this is just one slip up. This will go away or change after a while.

The project is having a bit of a setback but I’m sure things will pick up.

Specific—this is a once off. The bad thing doesn’t spread around and affect other stuff.

Even though this project isn’t doing so well, others are going great. And even if this project doesn’t work out, it will be over soon and I’ll move on to better things.

Externalised—something else out there, something external, was responsible for this bad stuff.

The dog ate my homework. I did my best, we just didn’t have the right people on the team, it was the wrong time, the economy was bad at the time.

 

“The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe that defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to just one case. The optimists believe that defeat is not their fault.”

Martin Seligman, (1991), Learned Optimism, page 4

 

At this point those among you who might be called pessimists (you probably prefer the term realist) will be thinking—but you can’t just go around with your rose tinted glasses thinking everything is rather jolly when the reality shows you sometimes things are not rosy at all. And of course you are right.

However, the problem for the pessimists, sorry, realists, is that regardless of whether they are right or wrong, they feel worse than optimists. Pessimists are much more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. Optimists might be wrong sometimes but despite this, optimism is better for your mental health. And of course this can become self-fulfilling. Once you feel better you are more likely to perform better. And things will probably turn out better. All rosy.

So how does this relate to the imposter syndrome? Well, as you can imagine for pessimists, failure or mistakes are bad. Very bad. They are going to last forever, mess up everything else and they’re your fault too. So you don’t want to be making mistakes. That’s how you will be exposed.

Yet the difficulty is that you will make mistakes. We all make mistakes. So the imposter’s dilemma is, “I have this image that I need to be really good and get it all right. Yet I make mistakes. So I must be a fraud, right?”

The optimist explanatory style is a bit kinder. I made a mistake. Yeah we all make mistakes. It’s just this once. And it doesn’t affect other stuff and it was somebody else’s fault anyway. Let’s move on.

Extract from The Imposter Syndrome by Hugh Kearns.

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The public speaker

The No-talent police

Who hasn’t felt like an imposter when they think about standing up to give a public presentation? You might have to stand up in front of an audience, it could be a team meeting, a class seminar or a conference in front of one thousand people.

In those moments before they call out your name, you get that sick feeling in your stomach, your hands and knees shake, your heart pounds. You worry that you’re going to open your mouth and say something stupid (or worse, say nothing) and then they’re going to realise that you have no idea what you’re talking about. And there will be that horrible uncomfortable silence, or worse, they will laugh or ridicule you.

You are going to be in the glaring spotlight. Even putting yourself forward is a terrible risk.

– Who am I to think I could do this?

– Maybe they’ll ask a question I can’t answer.

– They’ll find out that I don’t know very much at all.

– The other presenters are so much better.

– Who am I to be standing up here in front of all these people?

You scan the room and feel all those eyes focused on you. It’s like being caught naked or exposed. What if they laugh? If they are bored? If they just think it’s silly?

 

It’s a bit like the emperor’s new clothes. You are standing up there hoping they will like what you say but worried that they’ll see right through you! At any point, someone could call out “You don’t know anything”.

As a result, many people avoid presentations. Or only do them when there is no way out and, therefore, don’t do enough of them to get good at it.

They miss out on the many opportunities that come from putting yourself forward.

Extract from The Imposter Syndrome by Hugh Kearns.

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Thinking Errors 2: Moving the goalposts

A common way to discount our achievements is to move the bar higher or change the goalposts. At the start of a project, we tell ourselves that if we could just do a good job we’d be happy. But when we do a good job we say, “But I could have done so much better”.

 

 

Before the exam we say, “If I just pass I’ll really happy”.

But when we do pass we aren’t happy. Instead we say, “If I was any good I’d have got a credit, or a distinction.”

Some examples are:

  • I gave a good talk but spent way too long preparing. I won’t be able to go on like this.
  • I did make the sale but it was only to a small customer. I wouldn’t be able to pull it off with our major customers.
  • I did OK in the interview but I was anxious when I was answering questions.

Groucho Marx had a famous line that captures how we can change the goalposts and make sure we can never win.

I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that had me as a member.

Groucho Marx, (1890-1977), US comedian

Extract from The Imposter Syndrome.

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Thinking errors 1: Black or white thinking

Most of us like to see ourselves as logical, rational people. We imagine that we look at the facts and draw sensible conclusions. But the reality is often different.

While a lot of the time you might think logically most of us have occasional ways of thinking that are not accurate.

These are called thinking errors (cognitive inaccuracies) and they can lead us to ignore evidence or facts and come to less sensible conclusions.

Black or white thinking

Black or white thinking (or all or nothing thinking) is where you see things as either 100% perfect or completely worthless. Either I’m perfect or I’m useless.

Let’s say you’re working on a project. It goes really well, but it took a bit longer than planned, one customer made a minor suggestion for improvement, or you could see how it could have been improved.

For the black and white thinker, these minor points completely undermine the project. It wasn’t perfect so it must go in the failure basket.

If you’ve given a presentation to 100 people and 99 are happy and one person looks bored or unhappy, you see it as a failure. Because if you were really good, the entire audience would be happy.

If you get 99% in a test it should have been 100%. You didn’t get it 100% right, it wasn’t perfect, therefore you’re a fraud. The missing 1% is your Achilles heel.

Shades of grey
The reality is that the world is rarely black or white. They are almost always shades of grey. Things are rarely completely perfect or 100% awful. So if you find yourself doing some black and white thinking, start looking for the shades of grey.

 

In fact, there’s a whole rainbow of colours out there.

 

 

 

 

Extract from The Imposter Syndrome.

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Real imposters

There are people who really are imposters. People who consciously pretend that they are something that they are not. Conmen, swindlers, people who claim qualifications or experience they do not have.

The sign language expert who wasn’t

JantieIn 2013, at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, Thamsanqa Jantjie stood beside Barack Obama and many of the world leaders and pretended to be translating their speeches. In reality, he was just waving his arms around and anyone who could understand sign language knew that he had no idea what he was doing

 

The man who sold the Eiffel Tower, twice

Eiffel2In 1925, a conman called Victor Lustig sold the Eiffel Tower to a scrap metal dealer called Andre Poisson. At the time there were reports in the newspapers about the exorbitant costs of maintaining the tower and Lustig decided to take advantage of this. He passed himself off as a government official and invited six scrap metal dealers to bid for the tower. He selected one, Andre Poisson, took the money and made his getaway.

Poisson didn’t report the scam because he was too embarrassed. Having got away with it once, Lustig decided to sell the Eiffel Tower a second time. He selected another six scrap metal dealers but this time one of them reported him to the police.

The pop singers who didn’t

milliIn 1990 the pop duo Milli Vanilli (Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus) won a Grammy Award for best new artists. However, later that year, during a live performance in Connecticut a tape recorder jammed and began to skip, and the truth came out. They were lip-synching. But there was more to it than that. In fact, Morvan and Pilatus hadn’t sung on any of their records. The vocals were by other artists.

The opening ceremony singer

lin-yang-460_789580cAt the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, a nine year old girl, Lin Miaoke, (on the left) impressed the world with her cuteness and beautiful singing voice. However, it turned out the voice we heard wasn’t hers. The real singer was a seven year old girl, Yang Peiyi, (on the right) but the officials decided that her crooked teeth meant she wasn’t pretty enough for the opening ceremony.

 

There are numerous other examples of frauds, spies, stock market schemers, criminals, liars. These are real imposters. They are claiming something that is not true.

Real imposter

A real imposter is a person who pretends or claims to be able to do something or have specific abilities despite not having the skills, background, or experience.

Imposter Syndrome

The imposter syndrome is completely different. The crucial thing about the imposter syndrome and imposter feelings is that there is clear cut evidence that you are not an imposter. You have the feeling that you are an imposter but there is evidence that you are not. That’s what makes it unique and so very interesting.

So are you an imposter?

Well it’s pretty easy to work out. Have you been lying? Have you fabricated your qualifications? What is the evidence? If you really did earn your achievements, then you are not an imposter.

But even though you are not an imposter you can still feel like one. Do you?

Extract from The Imposter Syndrome.
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Do I dare?

One of my favourite poems is The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot. Here’s an extract:

 lovesong

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These lines so accurately describe doubt. How in just one minute we decide something, then revise our decision and then reverse the whole thing again.

Should I apply for that job?

Should I ask that girl for a date?

Should I apply for that further education course?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The job hunter

I’ve coached many people who have stunted their careers because of an overdeveloped imposter syndrome.

wanted“I’ve reached the top of my level and would like to get a higher level job. People are encouraging me to apply for jobs. I saw a position advertised recently that looked good and that I’m probably qualified for but I wonder should I apply. Maybe people will think I’m above myself. They’ll think I have unrealistic opinions about myself. Who do I think I am? Maybe it’s better to wait a bit longer; to get more experience or more qualifications, because there is one aspect of the selection criteria that I’m a bit weak on.”

Kym, job hunter

These are people who have the ability to work at a higher level but cannot bring themselves to apply. And so they talk themselves out of applying. They say things like:

I think someone else is already lined up for that job.

If I do get the job I wonder will I be able to do it well? They’re going to expect me to be able to do all these things, to solve all the problems and perform at a really high level. I know my limitations.

It’s really busy here right now so I don’t think I have time to put together a really good application.

And even if they do apply and get the job the feelings remain. And so they can’t enjoy their success. In fact, success can make their imposter feelings worse because now the expectations are higher.

Extract from The Imposter Syndrome.

 

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Beginnings and transitions

Beginnings and transitions are a very common time to experience imposter feelings. It might be starting a new job or a new project, teaching a new topic, or learning a new skill. Naturally, at the start of any new project or job, there is a lot to learn.

“Entering general practice training as a junior registrar was a completely different story. With just you, the patient, and a supervising specialist GP watching your progress, you are completely exposed. And this, coupled with the fact that junior registrars are going to make mistakes, made for a very humbling experience. I couldn’t count the number of times I reached the conclusion that being a doctor was just not for me. I regularly thought about my “fallback” options, going back to research, perhaps teaching, or maybe stacking shelves at the supermarket.”

Dean, experienced GP

In most cases you don’t know everything about the new task. This lack of knowledge can lead to doubts and worries.

I’ll come across as stupid.

I’ll keep making silly mistakes.

I’ll ask really dumb questions.

They’ll think I’m an idiot.

It can be particularly hard when you are taking over a job from someone else, especially if they did a good job. You might be thinking “The previous person was so well liked and respected and knew all the networks. I don’t know anybody and don’t know who to go to when I need a favour.”

cvperfectionThese doubts can be especially strong when you start a new job because of course at the interview you told the panel how good you were, how well you handle challenges, how you are a self-starter and a quick learner.

So now they are going to expect great things from you. And here you are, the quick learner, asking really thick questions.

When you look at this logically it doesn’t make sense. It’s unrealistic to expect that you should be an expert from day one – this doesn’t allow for learning, or for the need to develop new skills. But what’s logic got to do with it? You feel like a fraud so it must be true. And the doubts can become self-fulfilling. If you don’t ask those stupid questions then you don’t get the answers and so you might make those silly mistakes.

Extract from The Imposter Syndrome.

 

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