It was 2006 and I was in my second year of my doctoral program and had been accepted to present at an international conference being held at Indiana University. It was my first big conference as a doctoral student and I was more than a little intimidated about presenting in front of a group of an international scholars. As I planned for the trip, one of my doctoral professors inquired about making the 500+ mile drive together. “It will be fun,” he said. “It will give us some time to get to know each other.”
Although I’m not using his real name here, Max is one of those disciplinary rock stars who is easily the smartest person in whatever room he enters. He’s published tons of research in high impact, peer-reviewed journals. I just did a quick Google Scholar search and his work has been cited over 6000 times in various publications. Max is one of those international scholars to which I was worried about presenting. And now I’d be sharing a car with him for nine hours.
Besides being wickedly smart, Max is also pretty humble and reflective and a great conversationalist. In our nine-hour car ride, we talked about our families, our teaching backgrounds and our views of the world. While his scholarship record was intimidating, he was not. He was a regular guy who passed the time talking about music, children and his love for soccer. The hours (and miles) seemed to fly by as we talked. And then he asked about the upcoming conference.
“How are you feeling about your presentation?”
Maybe it was the hours we spent together that caused me to lower my guard. Or maybe I was feeling particularly forthcoming. Regardless, I told him the truth.
“I’m absolutely terrified.”
To this day, I don’t know why I shared that. I could have lied and tried to hide my anxiety behind a wall of faux confidence. But I didn’t. I told him the truth. Looking back, I don’t know which I’m more surprised by. My honesty. Or his response.
“Tell me more about that,” Max said.
That sentence opened the flood gates of my lack of confidence, my self doubt and how worried I was that someone would expose me as the fraud I was. Here I was, a student, presenting at some international conference. Clearly, I didn’t have any business at this conference. Or even being in a PhD program.
“My greatest fear,” I explained, “is that someone is going to stand up in the middle of my presentation, call me incompetent, and then the whole group is going to storm out.”
We sat in silence for a mile or two, and then he said it.
“Ollie, I feel that way all the time.”
I’m sharing this story because the topic of the “imposter syndrome” has come up in a variety of places over the last few weeks. A colleague shared a TED video about the imposter syndrome that sparked a lively discussion on social media. The New York Times recently published an op-ed about a parent who experienced “motherhood imposter syndrome.” At the gym this morning, I saw that Good Morning America was discussing it, too. So, what is the imposter syndrome?
In a 2008 article, the Harvard Business Review defined imposter syndrome as “the feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. Imposters suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.” Basically, it’s what Max (and I) expressed to one another in our road trip. We felt like frauds, despite any evidence to support it.
I’d like to say that thirteen years later that I feel any different, but that wouldn’t be completely true. Sure, I’ve been successful, but I still experience lots of self doubt. For example, I still have semi-regular nightmares that my dissertation committee is going to find some mistake in my final draft and they’re going to rescind my PhD. Despite being promoted to full professor this summer, I still worry that someone is going to send me an email that starts with “After closer examination, the promotion committee regrets to inform you..” They’re baseless fears, but that’s how the imposter syndrome works.
I guess the point of this whole post is that (almost?) everyone feels this way. If Max the super successful, rock star academic can, anyone can. Realizing this, the bigger question becomes: What does one do with the emotions born out of the imposter syndrome? I don’t necessarily have the answers, but I think recognizing that others are also sharing this long, emotional road trip is one way to quell some of those feelings. It might not make the trip any shorter or easier, but it’s good to know that others are along for the ride, too.