Athene Donald posted recently on imposter syndrome, that feeling that we’re doing something way beyond our capabilities, perhaps due to clerical error or overenthusiastic “brand management”*. As I’ve touched on before, working in an interdisciplinary team exacerbates that. I’ve heard a talented researcher say “but I haven’t studied maths since the nineties”, and mathematicians wondering out loud what the modifiable unit area problem is. Not that I really know myself…
Interdisciplinary work at its best forces people out of their silos and out of their comfort zones. For example, it’s not enough to be a great mathmo if you don’t gain some understanding of the problem you’re applying yourself to – relying on someone else to deal with the nitty-gritty is not a recipe for success. In this world, everyone should feel like an imposter to some degree.
Although expressed as an afterthought in this blogpost, I have recognised in the past a reverse-Dunning-Kruger type attitude in my behaviour. Dunning-Kruger is the tendency of people to overrate their abilities, reverse-Dunning-Kruger is the tendency for competent people to overestimate others’ abilities/underestimate their own**. I recognise the thought process:
“I’m a reasonably intelligent person, but I don’t possess a unique intellect – so anything which I’m good at can’t be too hard to get good at. That person over there – they’re really good at/knowledgable about things I find really hard, and they could probably get good at the things I do quite easily, if they had the time and inclination [note to self: perpetuate the myth that physics is REALLY TOUGH so they never develop the inclination]. Oh look, there’s another person who’s an expert in a whole different difficult field. And another. Gee whiz”.
If you find this yourself: welcome to interdisciplinary research. And if you’re not working in interdisciplinary research: welcome to academia. There are lots of smart, hardworking people here. And if you’re not working in academia: welcome to the world. There are lots of bright people doing cool things.
When you look at it that way, Imposter Syndrome doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. I liked writer Leila Johnston‘s response: “Imposter syndrome is pretty good, I think, because the alternative is a world in which everyone else is as mediocre as you are.” If the choice is between paranoia and mediocrity, let’s choose paranoia.
*(I don’t know how many academics lie on their CVs – I’m assuming very few – but that is almost certainly a problem in the world at large)
**self-identifying as suffering from reverse-Dunning-Kruger might indicate an overestimation of one’s own abilities, but let’s set that aside for the time being. I’m no expert on foward-reverse-Dunning-Kruger.