Friday, March 04, 2016

The How and Why of Impostor Syndrome

I'm a little worried about my new residency, I told Karl.

"Why?" said Karl. "It's a nice place, nice back yard, and it's in a good neighborhood. Plus, your kids seem to like it."

No, not my residence. My residency.

We were sitting in Santa Cruise, a Bolivian-themed bar whose owner was also a big Tom Cruise fan. We were there to watch the opening game of the Bolivian soccer league on satellite. The league champions, Sport Boys, were facing Cición that night.

"What, you mean like a doctor's residency? Kid, you can't even name the three bones in your arm, so there's no way you're a doctor."

First of all, yes, I can. There's the ulna, the humerus, and uh, Kevin.


Whatever. No, I mean my writing residency. I'm scheduled to go live in the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando for three months as the writer-in-residence, so I can work on my book and various short stories. I don't know if I can do it.

"What are you talking about?"

When I look at the résumés of the past writers, they all have MFAs, and get published in literary journals where they write heartfelt stories about serious topics. I make fart jokes on the Internet. I'm worried I accidentally tricked the Kerouac House board into letting me in.

Karl looked around to see if anyone was listening, then leaned in. "If you tell anyone I said this, I'll deny it, but I think you're a fine writer. You'll be great."

Aww, you think I'm a great writer! Thank you!

"No. No! I said you're a fine writer. You would be great. As in, you'll be in great health and great spirits. Not that, you know, you're better than me or anything."

Gee, thanks. You sure know how to pick a guy up, I said, draining the last of my beer. The game was well underway, and Sport Boys were pressing an attack in Cición's half of the field.

"Two Paceñas, por favor," said Karl, signaling to Simon the bartender. "Por favor" was the only Spanish he knew, and he liked to show off whenever he could. "Kid, what you have is a clear case of Impostor Syndrome."

What, like I'm Frank Abagnale?

"No, not an impostor. I don't think you can lie enough to pull that off."

You believed me when I said I liked your last book, I said. Karl flipped his middle finger at me and blew cigar smoke in my face.

He continued: "Impostor syndrome is something psychologists have been researching since the 1970s, the worry people have of being found out or exposed as a fraud. They think their achievements are a matter of luck or good timing, or that it's not really that big a deal."

Yeah, that all sounds familiar. I've thought all those things in the past. Hell, I thought all those things in the past week.

"It's actually perfectly normal," said Karl. "As many as 70% of people have worried about whether they're actually qualified to do the thing they're supposed to do. Psychologists originally thought only women had it, but a lot of men have from it too. They're just too ashamed to talk about it. Jodie Foster, Emma Watson, Neil Gaiman, and John Steinbeck have all said they feel like impostors."

But why would they have it? They're so accomplished.

"Impostor syndrome is usually associated with high achieving, successful people. And also you."

My jaw dropped, and I stared at Karl. He must have thought I was about to cry, because he put his hand on my shoulder. (I wasn't. Shut up!)

"I'm sorry, Kid. I was just messing with you. If you got in, you did because they liked your work enough to want to see more of it. You didn't trick anyone. You're supposed to be there."

Thanks, that makes me feel better. I finished the last of my beer. Do you have impostor syndrome? I asked.

"Oh, absolutely not. I know I'm great. I've published too many books and won too many awards to think this is just a matter of luck or fraud."

Well, you certainly don't lack for humility.

"Yeah, I'm great at humility!"

Right. Sounds like you've got that other thing. What's it called?

"The Dunning-Kruger Effect, also called the Lake Wobegone Effect. You know, where all the children are above average. That's when the person doesn't realize they don't know anything. They literally don't know that they don't know."

Oh, dear Lord, I said. I held my head in my hands. I just had a horrible thought. What if my Impostor syndrome is really masking my Dunning-Kruger effect?

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.


  1. Dunning-Kruger does make the Imposter Syndrome seem better. People pass the bar, to be a lawyer and get a license to be a doctor, nurse, hair dresser or teacher. Being a professional in other fields has more to do with, do you get paid to do that.
    How do I know that? I taught school for thirty something years. Whether I know something or not, I can think of an answer. Hmmm - Does that make me an imposter?

  2. I think being able to think on one's feet is the sign of a highly intelligent person.

    I do wonder if people who have to pass a test to be certified (CPAs, attorneys) suffer from Impostor Syndrome. They've at least proven they know enough to do what they say they can do.


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