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Three Cheers for Impostor Syndrome

A few weeks back, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a feature on Duke University Dean Valerie Sheares Ashby and how she overcame her sense of "impostor syndrome." (If you don't know, impostor syndrome is the fear that you'll be found out at any moment as an impostor who doesn't belong in your job or can't do an important task. The American Psychological Association terms it a "very real and specific form of self-doubt.") Here's the funny thing: While the piece was a celebration of how Ashby triumphed over her angst and anguish, I kept thinking just how good and healthy impostor syndrome can actually be for those of us in the world of academe, research, and policy. And I say that as someone who has lived with impostor syndrome throughout my professional life.

After all, when you think about what academics, researchers, and policy types do—which is tell other people how the world works, how we think it should work, and how to change it—it's clear that a dose of humility is in order. Truth is, I'd love to see more of us show less certainty when it comes to the analyses and prescriptions we so confidently offer. And, since authentic humility seems to be in pretty short supply these days, I'll happily accept impostor syndrome as a useful facsimile.

For my own part, as I noted earlier this year in Letters to a Young Education Reformer:

Once upon a time, I thought that experts were people who understood the world better than the rest of us. Nowadays, I think that they're people who know a lot about particular things, and that their narrow expertise is not always helpful.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a huge fan of expertise when it involves using specific mastery to perform a specific task. I'm very happy to defer to cardiovascular surgeons, electricians, or speech pathologists when it comes to their specialty.

When talking about broad reforms to health care, energy policy, or education, however, it's a different story. Meanwhile, I've found that experts often forget that their expertise represents just a tiny sliver of the world, and thus overestimate how much they know and what it can tell us. And that can cause problems.

I'll put it this way. As a kid, I revered expertise. When I was a teen, my dad promised me that, if I gave my old bike to my little brother, I could have his beat-up Honda Civic. The catch was that the Civic no longer ran. My dad (a pretty fair bootstrap mechanic) and I were going to fix it. I recall the Saturday we popped the hood to reveal an indecipherable spaghetti bowl of hoses, molded steel, and wiring. One thought ran through my mind: no way. I felt like I could've studied that engine for a month and it wouldn't help.

There's no happy redemption story here, no triumphant tale of "growth mindset." I threw in the towel and bought an old Plymouth Duster for $900. I remember the incident because it captures how totally perplexing I always found the world. Throughout my youth, I could only imagine what people needed to know in order to make sense of things.

As a high schooler and college student, when I read about new technologies, social policies, or arms control negotiations, I was intimidated just thinking about how much the people doing this stuff must know and how smart they must be. I'd sometimes wonder where these experts even came from.

As a college senior, I recall waiting to take the GRE in political science. Listening to the knowing chatter of the students around me, I was filled with self-doubt. The room seemed full of budding experts. I wondered how they could know so much and how I would ever keep up.

Imagine my surprise when my GRE scores arrived and I realized I must've outperformed just about everyone in that room. When I was admitted to the doctoral program in politics at Harvard, I was once again daunted by the smarts, drive, and worldliness of my colleagues. Then, once more, I did just fine.

When I finished graduate school, I managed to land at the University of Virginia. I started to publish books, give speeches, and get quoted by journalists. Along the way, I'd begun to notice that the experts I encountered weren't obviously smarter or more knowledgeable than I was. Indeed, I soon realized that I had somehow become one of the "experts." This was a problem, because I wasn't sure that I had much more business offering wisdom on American schools than I did trying to fix a car.

As I put it in Letters, "I figured there were only two explanations for my newfound status. One was that I was a poseur who would be found out in due time. The second was that I was actually an expert. If it was the second, though, I thought that most of my peers should be a helluva lot more modest about their expertise, too."

So, it makes for a swell story that Dean Ashby overcame her doubts. And I certainly see the professional advantages of overcoming it; one is a much more impressive candidate for a Duke deanship, a major award, or a big foundation grant if they can project that imposing air of utter certitude and self-assuredness. But I couldn't help thinking that Ashby was a lot more likable when she was confessing to impostor syndrome than when she put on her infomercial hat and started offering up her ten-step cure. And that we'd all be better served, our debates more measured, and our self-assuredness less extravagantly destructive if more of us embraced our own impostor syndrome.

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