Getting Away with It

Do you feel this phrase describes you as you go through your professional life? Do you feel as if you’re a fraud and whereas everyone else knows what they are doing or deserve the position they have attained, you don’t? And, on top of this, do you worry that you are about to be found out?  If you answered yes to one or both these questions you are probably suffering from Impostor Syndrome. An awful lot of us do, men and women.

Although these two aspects are frequently linked in the literature, personally I don’t feel that ‘getting away with it’ is quite the same thing as Impostor Syndrome. In part I think this is a temporal argument. Getting away with it implies you have done something with which to get away, whereas impostor syndrome creeps up on you beforehand, as you are about to undertake something new. So Impostor Syndrome comes first, the getting away with it bit may (or may not) be the consequence afterwards. However, the two clearly have the potential to go hand in hand.

I wrote about Impostor Syndrome a couple of years ago and provoked a great stream of fascinating comments on my blog. I also found myself being interviewed for Radio 4’s Something Understood by Felicity Finch, who wanted to focus entirely on the getting away with it aspect. (You can hear a snippet of that interview here).  I found it harder to put my own sense of being an impostor into the ‘getting away with it’ scenario, because of the distinction I feel between the two strands. Gaby Hinsliff also interviewed me as part of an article she wrote for the Daily Mail, a piece which I think came much closer to a portrayal of how I perceive Impostor Syndrome, citing many individual’s reaction to their success as being constantly accompanied by a feeling that they were merely frauds. Much more recently the Times Higher Education has got in on the act with a feature article in which an Australian academic, Ruth Barcan, wrote about what she termed ‘feelings of fraudulence’, although as far as I can see this is exactly the same as Impostor Syndrome. I’m not sure why she needed to coin a new phrase for the condition.

Her take on the problem was that Impostor Syndrome is particularly common in academia because of its competitiveness and the constant emphasis on critical thought which can turn inward, but the syndrome is neither new nor confined to academics. Nor, it appears, is it confined to women (see fellow OT blogger Stephen Curry recently facing up to his own worries here); it may be the case that women are more prepared to admit to the feeling, but it is clear that many men feel just the same. So, it would seem, for a substantial proportion of us we spend a lot of our time feeling inadequate, fraudulent and uncertain why we have ended up where we are.

However, most of us muddle through, just hoping that that moment of unmasking when someone says ‘oh it’s only you, I was expecting someone competent never actually transpires. (Although, if you read The Onion, you may realise it is just about to happen after all!) What matters, I suppose, is how we learn to cope with the feeling. If we don’t, we may end up so paralysed with fear of the unknown and the humiliation that might conceivably come with trying and failing that we never spread our wings at all. So it is well worth recognizing the mindset as a normal state for many people, however successful they may look from the outside, not something that’s unique to you indicating that you should just give up and walk away.

This is all very much on my mind because, next week, I am participating in a ‘conversation‘ with someone who is an expert on Impostor Syndrome, who indeed travels around giving seminars on the subject. This is Hugh Kearns, a self-declared public speaker, educator and researcher with expertise in self-management, positive psychology, work-life balance, learning and creativity. Based at Flinders University in Australia, he is currently spending some months in the UK and has already held workshops and seminars at other universities over here (see one write-up here).

Here is a nice irony. I, a complete non-expert on the topic, am to hold a public conversation with him thereby giving me a wonderful chance to demonstrate Impostor Syndrome in action. In fact, I am pleased to say, that is not how I feel about this particular situation.  No one is going to expect me to be an ‘expert’ in a scholastic sense, merely by experience – hence, remarkably, I feel less prone to fears than usual. Let it not be thought that I have mastered Impostor Syndrome. It still rises up and bites me with monotonous regularity. If, as I believe, it is a sensation most likely to hit you the first time you do something – although it may well continue in a dull, thudding kind of way as a background to one’s entire life if you’re unlucky – then I still have plenty of new challenges to trip me up and to remind me that I don’t know what I’m doing or why I’ve been asked to do it.

For instance, although I didn’t spell it out in my post on the subject, I found hosting the lunch for MP and Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna one such opportunity to feel ‘why me, what do I know, I’ll be found out as wanting in knowledge about industrial policy‘. In this case the feeling of being an impostor on that front was well-founded, but I was really wanted simply as a neutral chair in case views got heated, the person who could represent the University as a senior individual (specifically as a Deputy Vice Chancellor) not an expert. I could rationalise that and relax a little, although I remained somewhat apprehensive. And that I think is the advantage of being more experienced or, to be blunt, old. I am much more able to rationalise my fears because I have had to do so many bizarre things and on the whole I haven’t made a complete fool of myself. Much.  Very often. I think. And if I do, I am better able to laugh it off. As a youngster one is so much more prone to blush to the roots of one’s hair – with my colouring there is no hiding it – visibly shake or develop a tremor in one’s voice. Impostor Syndrome may not go away, but the ability to push it swiftly back in its place grows with time, if you allow yourself the chance.

As for ‘getting away with it’, perhaps that too becomes less scary with time. Like a petty criminal who has got away with pilfering regularly, the next attempt will seem more matter of fact, less daunting. So if you’ve stood in front of 400 first year students one year and survived without more than the customary amount of critical comment about one’s style of delivery/lecture notes and/or dress in the end of term questionnaires, the next year is less terrifying. If you’ve had to converse with a Minister of State for 20 minutes in a tense professional situation, it gives one confidence that you can hold your own in the future when confronted by politicians more generally.

So, if your knees are quaking at some new challenge, if you feel that you have achieved something by mere luck and not your innate cleverness, try to see things as others see it. I may be no academic expert on Impostor Syndrome but I do think realising that it is a common sensation even amongst those – regardless of gender and way beyond academia – that you admire as confident and successful individuals may in itself be helpful.  So read this and take heart.

Endnote Between drafting this post and posting it I came across another recent post which echoes much of what I write here, reinforcing my message that a good strategy to adopt in the face of one’s own feelings of inadequacy is to recognize how widespread this phenomenon is.

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13 Responses to Getting Away with It

  1. J.Anna says:

    Thank you for writing this! I am a master-student in Physics. Incidentally, tomorrow I will have to speak to a room full of researchers about the progress of my research project. I am nervous about that and strongly felt my impostor syndrome creeping up on me. It is always reassuring to hear that I am not the only one who thinks, she will be found out and exposed as a fraud.
    Sometimes it helps me to remind myself that I am not a fraud, that I do know things and have achieved things. I actually started keeping a little list of those achievements and especially of the times when (more senior) people have praised my performance. When the impostor syndrome is getting particularly bad, reminding myself of these seems to help.

  2. Rachel says:

    I got given a “prestigious” Hamilton prize for a report on my phd and my office mate turned round and said but your phd is rubbish…. He had a point…. Recently a more junior “coworker” told my boss I’d written customer advice that was riddled with errors, it wasn’t but a serious debate was had that I don’t have the demeanour or language of confidence…. Most in IT work by authority via opinion as fact…. So the getting away with it imposter syndrome demeanour may predestine you for problems… It doesn’t matter if you are competent you need people to believe it! Act the role….

  3. Ben says:

    This reminded me of something I read the other day about Dweck’s fixed and growth mindsets. Maybe we can cope with the feeling of being an undiscovered fraud better if we adopt a growth mindset, taking the view that with more experience and work we can earn the respect we don’t deserve now, or at least reduce the chance of being found out. Or maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about…

    • Meriel Chudleigh says:

      You seem to know what you are talking about, good enough for me! Thanks for the link, very timely, it took me 40 years to realise that success really is formed from attitude and persistence. It is a very liberating moment.

  4. Jo says:

    Thanks for this post, definitely food for thought. Trust, me it isn’t confined to academia, as a scientist working in industry I regularly feel like I’m about to be found out. I’ve found myself ‘looking over my shoulder’ in all sorts of situations, waiting for someone to come along and point at me and shout ‘ha ha’ (in the manner of Nelson on the Simpsons).

    In some ways, for me seniority/progression has made it worse – while I agree that getting away with it can reduce some of the anxiety, I find I feel I have further to fall, that the ‘fraud’ has become bigger the more expert I’m meant to be.

  5. Simon Mitton says:

    I once encountered an interesting variation of an imposter. A professor who spent all the time looking poster papers at large scientific meetings. This person was targeting posters with multiple authors who were doctoral students and/or postdocs. He’d engage properly and enthusiastically in conversation. Then he’d often offer to be a co-author on the final version of the paper. In this way the professor built up an impressively long list of publications from a global distribution of collaborators, but was sufficiently sensitive to be the last named author.

  6. cromercrox says:

    I think there is a disjunction between one’s image of oneself, and how others see one. Most people will see you (in particular) as belonging to a label which consistes of a long list of achievements, such as Master of a Cambridge College, Fellow of the Royal Society, Professor of Physics, Dame of the Realm and so on. But only you know what it’s like to be inside your own head, and to be prey to the perfectly normal worries which afflict every human being.

    I am struck by something said by Ian Paice, longtime drummer of the group Deep Purple, and the only consistent member of the group since their first album in 1967. ‘How does it feel to be a legend?’ he was asked in a recent interview. His reply was telling and could apply very much to any of us.

    ‘I’m not a ‘legend’ when I’m putting the trash out at home,’ he said. ‘When I go to the supermarket, I’m not a ‘legend’.’

  7. Meriel Chudleigh says:

    Thank you for another helpful post, it has helped me rationalise some self criticism and have some courage to continue with my professional and professional development. I also find the comments on your blog helpful and insightful.

  8. Tomorrow will be the day that I get found out! said Dame Anne Owers when she was Chief Inspector of Prisons. Read my article here.

    I am not a scientist, but I am a woman on a a mission to promote women of influence, power and expertise. I love your blogs. I didn’t know it was possible to write more than 500 words!! Christina

  9. Conventional Maverick says:

    I don’t often feel like a fraud, or that I will be found out but mostly I am made to feel inadequate in comparison with the fast thinking, loud talking academics one can come across. Quite often I have to remind myself that I have achieved things too and I have a skill set all of my own.
    I can associate with Cromercrox’s comment about Ian Paice being a legend who puts out the rubbish. A few years back I realised that ‘yesterday I had been at a quantum physics conference in Vienna, in the company of some of the brightest minds on the planet, and today I was washing cat pee out of a carpet’.. As an industrial researcher I felt that other people at that conference thought I was a fraud, because I was not an academic. This has been a constant feeling for many years. But I just felt inferior. Cleaning carpets just highlighted the incongruity of it all.

  10. Steve Eichhorn says:

    Thanks for this. A senior academic colleague once said to me “You’re only as good as your last paper!”. This continual need that I often feel to prove myself can be a big weight. I think we have such a binary system now of success and failure, especially at the level of grant funding in the UK, that imposter syndrome has a nasty habit of cropping up all to often. If only we could take the Kipling line and treat success and failure like imposters….just the same…

  11. Steve Eichhorn says:

    It’s actually “triumph and disaster” in the original….

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