I took an "Impostor Syndrome" quiz consisting of the following 6 statements

  1. When people praise me for something I've accomplished, I'm afraid I won't be able to live up to their expectations of me in the future.
  2. At times, I feel my success has been due to some kind of luck.
  3. Sometimes I'm afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I really lack.
  4. When I've succeeded at something and received recognition for my accomplishments, I have doubts that I can keep repeating that success.
  5. I often compare my ability to those around me and think they may be more intelligent than I am.
  6. If I am going to receive a promotion or recognition of some kind, I hesitate to tell others until it is an accomplished fact.

to which one assigns a score from 1 to 5, where 5 means complete agreement. I got 29, which is like Zoltar handing out a card that reads

Thin-skinned buffoon.  You pause between stupidities only long enough
to cringe at those you uttered years ago.

What a relief, then, to learn that impostor syndrome is a sign of greatness! I'm like John Steinbeck and Jodie Foster. A broad spectrum of humanity wants to be me.


Unless I'm not really an impostor. Maybe I've only been pretending. Maybe I'm one of those confident jerk types, but I pretend to be an impostor so that people will say nice things to me out of pity. An impostor at imposturing.

Recursive Impostature

I'm here to tell you (by which I mean me) that you really are an impostor, so you can stop worrying. You are a slab of meat hurtling through the cosmos, and claiming to be more than that is outright pretension. (I forgot to say, you're also pretentious.) Acting like your puny thoughts can in any perceptible way staunch the entropic dissolution of our universe is just your way of advertising ignorance. And it's not even "our universe"; your outrageous fraudulence is just part of a huge simulation, run by even more outrageous frauds.

I call them the uber-frauds. These unmitigated assholes went out and built computers and learned how to make them perform acts of ostentatious complexity. Some of them studied for years, plumping their disposable carcasses with "knowledge," developing "judgment" and performing various acts of "kindness" along the way - when they of all people (or whatever) had to have known goddamn well what a sham it was. Impostors.

Even relative to each other, they were impostors. One of their nastier simulated characters was a Russian physicist named Lev Landau, who kept a list of other physicists, scoring them on a logarithmic scale. Isaac Newton was at the top, ranked zero, with ability decreasing by a factor of 10 for every unit increase.
Albert Einstein, at 0.5, was \(10^\frac{1}{2}\simeq 3.1\times\) stupider than Newton. Landau gave himself a 2.5, making him 100 times stupider still, and a typical physicist in a top-flight department gets a 4.5, corresponding to one ten-thousandth of an Einstein.

Landau's insight1 is not these exact numeric values, but that ability sorts itself out on a log scale. The person next to you is not 10% more or less capable, but 10 times one way or the other.

This distribution is taught in Simulation 101 at Uberfraud University, where students ranked 6 or 7 hang desperately on every word from the 4.5 at the front of the lecture hall, imagining themselves some 31.6 to 316 times beyond their station. Impostors, all of them. And I hear that the Dr. 4.5 was one in her time.

But she got better. Because that's what these uber-fraud super-beings do. They do stuff they should know to leave to their superiors, and act all confident when they really aren't, and then one day they find themselves pretending to be able to do new and different stuff, because the stuff they used to pretend to be able to do is now so doable that they can no longer remember how impressively impossible it used to be.

Awesome Power!

This may not be what you want to hear, but impostor syndrome is not something you recover from. The gift of self-doubt is one that keeps on giving, relentless, indispensably. What may be more reassuring is that, at some point, it ceases to be entirely unpleasant. You still have the weird feeling of titanium blades exploding through your knuckles, but you know from experience that the discomfort passes.

Annoyingly, there are people in this world who accomplish great things without ever experiencing a second of gut-wrenching existential panic. I'm not talking about impostors who just do a good job of hiding it, though these may exist. I mean there are those who bestride our narrow world triumphantly, experiencing absolutely no downside from being born this way. Get over it. Landau's log scale applies to all manner of fortune, and the portion awarded you is likely somewhere in the middle. Count your blessings.

  1. one of them anyway 


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