"You must forgive me my unworthiness." Bob Dylan
My decades in higher education have made me all-too familiar with the imposter syndrome, the niggling notion that one is not worthy and therefore a fraud. While this syndrome infects every profession, I suspect that it is most pervasive in academia in large part due to the meritocracy that is supposed to govern higher education. This meritocracy promises that excellence is the primary criterion for achievement and promotion and that this extraordinariness is demonstrated and measured through accomplishments. Thus, witnessing the abilities that one's peers display can be daunting and lead to feelings of deficiency and worthlessness. For faculty this sense of inferiority can start as early as graduate school.
That was my own first experience with the imposter syndrome. I would watch as my fellow graduate students performed seemingly effortless feats of intellect both in and out of class while I slogged along barely able to keep up. To make it worse, I even had a good friend who claimed to read two books of densely challenging literary criticism a day, and she was not lying! My eventual discovery that she seemed to have a peculiar ability to comprehend a whole page in a single glance did not lessen my feelings of inadequacy either. She was more brilliant and more productive than anyone I knew in graduate school, and I struggled to stay afloat in the fading vestige of her wake. If she was the real deal, I was certainly an imposter!
I was fortunate, though, to hear about the concept of the imposter syndrome at about the same time, which enabled me to grasp its pervasiveness and its implications. Even so, when finally ensconced as a faculty member (after a time on the academic job market, which can really dent your self-assurance!), I still felt the sting of others' seeming merit, a sting that accompanied me well into my decade as an administrator. After all, when you are surrounded by a bunch of smart overachievers who all answer to "doctor," having impressive letters after your name can seem a bit unspecial. In some ways and for the better, it was that very feeling of incapacity that helped propel me forward into becoming a dean. Nonetheless, eventually I came to realize that neither an administrator nor a faculty member could afford to indulge the imposter syndrome because it is, at its heart, a gross distortion of reality.
Among my peers, some succumbed to the syndrome and faded into a miasma of self-doubt masquerading as crippling humility. Because they were inadequate, they told themselves, they could never be effective as teachers and leaders and therefore need not try. Their conviction that they were forever feckless was the epitome of a fixed mindset. Others took the opposite tack and counterbalanced their sense of unfitness with an overly large dose of self-regard and, too often, arrogance. These folks were the preening peacocks of the faculty who promoted their own brand above all else and even denigrated and intimidated their peers. The worst practiced a sort of disciplinary snobbery and openly defamed other's academic fields, an act of craven anti-intellectualism that has no place in the academy. I had no patience for disciplinary snobs and marveled at how frequently they were among the least effective and most damaging teachers as well as the most inadequate researchers at their institutions.
Among administrators, particularly those with power, such countervailing arrogance had similarly predictable effects. Arrogance and self-regard bred contempt for colleagues and underlings alike. This contempt is a form of corruption that disallows a leader from seeing how their actions or inactions impact those around them. In the worst scenarios, it morphs into or becomes an excuse for an utter lack of empathy combined with a fatuous disregard for introspection, which results inevitably in a propensity to bully. For these administrators, their position or even just their title was the ultimate sign of their great merit. They were impervious to criticism and could only be challenged by those of higher rank, before whom they groveled and toadied.
Those who best managed their imposter syndrome were the ones who, as faculty or administrators, recognized the syndrome as a phantasm, a self-imposed criticism that fraudulently disguised itself as a judgment by others or by academia as a whole. In other words, they knew that the imposter syndrome was itself an imposter. These professionals realized that just about everyone was suffering from it, and the ones who appeared to have dispelled it by bloviating about their own accomplishments and superiority were usually the ones who were most tormented by the syndrome. The more well adjusted still felt like imposters from time to time, but they put those feelings in context and embraced their role as a faculty member or administrator first. Their goal was to do as well as they could without over-striving, bullying, or cowering. This lot was not perfect, but they did not beat themselves up for all their imperfections. Instead, they accepted that perfection is an impossible and unworthy goal (a matter I will discuss in a later post) and chose instead a growth mindset of constant self-review, adjustment, and improvement. Their efforts could be exhausting and certainly humbling, but they did the least harm.
I write here of higher education because it is the field I know best and the one, as I said, that may have the worse epidemic of imposter syndrome. I recognize and understand that not everyone in academia is affected by the syndrome and that it infects professional fields far and wide. I only hope that readers from every discipline can find something useful in this little essay and whatever hard-earned wisdom I can bring to it.
So if you feel inadequate, like you do not deserve what you have earned, remember that you are not alone. Many, perhaps most around you feel like imposters in their own skin. The best response is not to fix your mind on your own inadequacies. Nor is it to double down on your imposterism and pump yourself up beyond reason. The best mindset is one of recognition, acceptance, and growth. Let's face it. We are all imposters. Indeed, I feel like an imposter writing and posting this piece, but here we are. Imposters may rule the world, but we first need to rule ourselves.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.