Readers of the Guardian may, over the years, have had reason to dip into Oliver Burkeman’s columns. As he hangs up his metaphorical boots, he summarised what he had personally learned from the exercise of writing these ‘self-help’ articles. In this last article he advises, for instance, something that will resonate with many an academic, harried even over the summer vacation by the endless to-do lists and the innumerable tasks that don’t ever get ticked off on those lists. His advice:
“There will always be too much to do – and this realisation is liberating.”
Whereas I accept the first part of that sentence from bitter experience, I’m not sure I have ever managed to reach the stage of being liberated. In my experience, there is nothing less liberating than waking at 2am remembering the urgent task on that list, however small, that you have neglected to do for the nth day running. It simply leads to the next day being less productive than it should have been – so even fewer tasks get completed – because of a lack of sleep. There will indeed, always be too much to do. The challenge is to sort the urgent from the important. Burkeman gives no advice on that.
However, his take on impostor syndrome is something that academics, aspiring and established, should definitely take to heart.
“Remember: the reason you can’t hear other people’s inner monologues of self-doubt isn’t that they don’t have them. It’s that you only have access to your own mind.”
I have always stressed that just because other people look confident, you should not be fooled. His words are a different version of the same belief. Most of us are capable actors, at least some of the time. Even if we don’t ooze bravado, we are often capable of hiding our fears behind a mask (an imaginary one not textile, of course, in this case). Often it is very necessary to do so. We, naturally, know that this is indeed a mask and the inner person is a shrinking violet, a nervous wreck or whatever other metaphor you choose to describe the internal turmoil that lies behind that mask. But the person you are talking to doesn’t know that. They see the swan gliding smoothly on, while they feel a muddle of jitters and insecurity and wonder how you manage to be so calm. Burkeman’s advice here is pertinent and worth remembering:
“It’s that you – unconfident, self-conscious, all-too-aware-of-your-flaws – potentially have as much to contribute to your field, or the world, as anyone else.”
Academia is not alone in being stuffed full of insecure individuals, but the nature of our sector means it is rife with competition and the knowledge of being constantly judged by that evil referee 3 (for grants and publications) as well as less anonymous folk – your supervisor, your departmental head even your peers – is ever-present. We know, whatever may be said to our face, others are forming their opinions every time we utter. It’s not surprising we can feel nervous if not downright scared. The inner impostor should not be allowed to win. As Burkeman also says
“The future will never provide the reassurance you seek from it.”
In other words, if you feel nervous today you will probably continue to feel nervous in the future, although not necessarily about the same things. In my experience, whatever stresses you face, other people telling you ‘you’ll be fine’ doesn’t necessarily get rid of the nerves. The best cure is simply doing something repeatedly – speaking in public, for instance – learning from what went wrong (better, what went right) and making sure you improve the next time. However, there will always be new challenges if you follow another of Burkeman’s suggestions: choose ‘enlargement’ over happiness.
I take this to mean, don’t rest on your laurels. Knowing you’ve achieved something well, may give you happiness in the moment. However, if you let that mark the end of your trajectory you won’t grow, which is how I translate ‘enlargement’. Complacency can go hand in hand with happiness, but will ultimately lead to boredom – and that most certainly is unlikely to equate with happiness. So, although I most definitely never had a career ‘plan’, I’ve consistently believed in the need to try new challenges. Some challenges are more welcome than others. Leading a Cambridge College during a pandemic is most certainly not something I would ever have wanted on any career plan or to-do list; but there it is.
Enlargement, trying out new things, never staying still, of course is a wonderful way to keep the inner impostor alive and well. If you’re trying out new things then, by definition, you will not be experienced in the new challenges. One’s training at the bench is not going to help with many of the skills needed as a faculty member. This, I believe, is often a problem for new group heads, who suddenly find themselves expected to be expert in everything from HR to costing grants, yet feel inadequate on all fronts. Sometimes, their inability to empathise with a struggling student, or even to see the mask of bravado a struggling student may adopt, can lead to misery all round. I well recall getting caught out in this way, fairly late in my supervisory career when I should have known better, when a student who was writing up their thesis, repeatedly assured me all was well. I believed them until, as the weeks passed, I finally managed to appreciate he really was fobbing me off. Once I’d broken through, so he felt safe admitting just how badly he was struggling, everything went better, both for him and for me.
Professors, however eminent, will – if they are seeking ‘enlargement’ – be just as likely to be doing something for the first time as a PhD student. I’ve written before about how wide-ranging a day can be, and nothing in my current life makes me feel I am stuck in some well-worn rut where the inner impostor is unlikely to get loose. The crucial thing is not to let that impostor get the better of you. There are many wise words to help you get beyond the instantaneous feeling that you can’t do something. whereas everyone else is an expert. Some of my favourites are
“Feel the fear and do it anyhow”
(not that I’ve read the book of that title, but the sentiment resonates with me); and
“Ever tried. Ever failed. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”
– a few useful sentences from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The important thing is to find your own route to suppressing that impostor that lurks within (nearly) all of us.