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Humility, Vainglory, and the Imposter Syndrome.

10 May 2012

There has been a lot of discussion of Imposter Syndrome in the science community on twitter lately. Examples are here, here, here, and the post that started it all. For readers of my blog before the move over here to WordPress, you may remember that I’ve written pretty extensively about it. I hope this isn’t too repetitive. For people new here, I figured I’d give it another go. Because I think that for me, it relates importantly to work that I do in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Alcoholics, like scientists, regularly suffer from a crippling sense of not fitting in, not being good enough, not rating well against their peers. I wonder sometimes if this is not, in fact, a universal phenomenon. This feeling of inadequacy is an existential disquiet that I attempted to treat with alcohol. Because I’m an addict. And when you’re an addict, alcohol becomes the one-size-fits-all solution to your problems. Don’t measure up? Down the hatch. Can’t solve the problem? Down the hatch.

And I do feel like an imposter in the science world. I feel like I drank a lot of my education. I don’t remember the finer points of some of the mathematics that should be second-nature. Some of it I could never really do. Just enough to get through the courses. Because I didn’t study the way you do when you are deeply serious about it. Because I drank. And I have a couple of papers in extremely marginal journals. And I am pushing 40 and I have only one serious grant to my name. And it’s not all that serious.

But then, and I’ve never heard scientists talk about this, or at least never talk about it as a problem, I will also have something flip in my head, and then I’ll feel like the greatest health care engineer that’s ever walked the earth. I’m a colossus, and everyone should be lucky to collaborate with me (people aren’t exactly beating down my door), and I feel like the best there’s ever been. I have a couple of papers in really good journals. I got the first federal grant I applied for, without revision. I get consistently excellent performance reviews.

The truth is, neither of these things is what I really am. I am not an imposter. I have earned my spot at the table in health care engineering. I know how to study delivery systems, make conclusions about them, and contribute to the field. I’m well-educated and I try to stay up on the latest developments in my field. And I produce some of the latest developments in my field. But there are other people doing great work, much of it better than me. I’m never going to be offered a position in a department of systems engineering: I’m not good enough at theory. I’m one of only a few people doing academically rigorous applied work in the area I’m in, but that won’t last long. Smart people are joining the field every day.

So I’m pretty good, but I’m never going to be great. I made a number of mistakes in my career that have held me back, mostly drinking myself into insensibility daily during grad school. I wasted a lot of years. So while I’m a new investigator, I’m not a young investigator. It’s time for me to produce some good work from the grant I won, and win a new grant or two, or I’ll need to leave the academic side of things and become a purely applied quality control engineer in health care. But I’m working hard at those things.

And this is where the program of AA helps me see my path. Being in AA has taught me about humility. For me, humility is about trying to understand where I fit in the system. What is my right size? I am a small part of a big machine. I have talents which I try to use to be useful. I am not useless, nor should I be. But I am not great. Nor should I be. I don’t do well when people start pumping me full of praise. I start to get egotistical, and then I start believing the hype. And then I end up making bad decisions.

AA does a very good job of teaching me humility. Because alcohol did such a good job of teaching me humiliation. I had allowed myself to be robbed of all of my dignity, wearing oversized red sweatpants for days at a time, wasting whole days doing nothing but drinking and reading awful entertainment novels. Hiding alcohol, being unable to look at myself in the mirror, or forcing myself to look too long, berating and excoriating what I saw.

In AA, I have learned a great deal about being right sized. Self esteem comes from accomplishment, at least for me. And in AA I have accomplished many important things. I have done all twelve steps. I have done the single most important thing that any of us in AA, indeed any alcoholic, can do: I have been continuously sober for more than four years, and I have no intention or desire to change that today. But there are still people in the program that I can admire from below. Who have been here longer and know more and have wisdom to share with me.

So, AA has allowed me to combat my imposter syndrome, and its reflection, the vanity of feeling like I’m the very best. I am neither. I’m just a man, walking through the world, who usually, but not always, tries to do his best. And that’s going to have to be good enough. Because I can’t do any better. I set intentions, and I usually, but not always, see them through. I set goals, and I often, but not always, reach them. Through all that, I constantly keep a check on my emotions and expectations. By working the program. By checking in with my sponsor, who can see things about me that I cannot. By seeking criticism not only of my work, but of my sobriety and my current condition.

I simply try to be what I can be, and not more. And I seek constant corrective guidance to know what that is. Because I recognize that I am not always good at determining where I belong, and what I am capable of. Often, others can see it better. But every day I spend sober is a day that I have achieved something important. Something crucial to my persistence. Something that has come to be at the core of my sense of self.

I am a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous. I am an engineer. I am a scientist. Sometimes I don’t feel good enough. Sometimes I feel too big. Those things can oscillate with terrifying rapidity. But by seeking humility, I can smooth the signal.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. furtheron permalink
    10 May 2012 09:26

    Great post – I suffer with this affliction a lot, however it is one that I too readily push away and think that it is only me suffering from it – one of the last bastions of my defects of character that I seem not as willing as perhaps I’d like to have removed from me

  2. 10 May 2012 23:23

    I also felt like an imposter in my field, especially when I became a department chair. I didn’t want to be the head of anything–it evolved that way. The director appointed me, but I would rather have continued on doing what I was good at–writing grants, analyzing data and submitting manuscripts. I worked on a lot of different projects and systems–feeling more like a jack of all trades and master of none. I know that I was not a rock star, but a steady performer who did okay in my field. I think that there are many people who feel insecure about their abilities and who have the grand swings from lofty heights to mediocrity.

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