In her book, Pushing Your Envelope: How Smart People Defeat Self Doubt And Live with Bold Enthusiasm, author Maureen Zappala describes the Impostor Syndrome, where it comes from, and how to overcome it. As she defines it, the Impostor Syndrome causes good people to “discount their success and second-guess their abilities. Haunted by a fear of being unmasked as a fake, they remain beneath self-imposed limits, afraid of both success and failure.”
As a former project engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Zappala explains, “some limits need to be pushed. Airplanes fly within limits called the operating envelope, the set of conditions where they are aerodynamically safe and stable. Sometimes they push the envelope and fly near and even beyond these limits.” These limits are imposed by the laws of nature, but the Imposter Syndrome is about irrational, self-imposed limits. According to the School of Life, thinking of ourselves as inferior is rooted in childhood, where we find out that “parents are really very different.” This gulf in status tells the child that “other people are not like us at all.”
The Nature of Complexity
This is the nature of things. Whether it is a rocket scientist exploring her relationship with gravity, or a child exploring his relationship with adults, it’s about people experiencing the reality of complex systems. As Zappala recently explained:
There’s a colossal amount of technical knowledge to learn and master. The pressure to stay on top of it can be overwhelming, and can make experts feel substandard, especially when they compare themselves to someone who appears to have more knowledge. And every day is different, unscripted and uncertain. Striving to impart calm can make even the best experts feel a bit unsure.
And in his essay The Use of Knowledge in Society, economist Friedrich Hayek has a similar explanation which he calls the knowledge problem:
The peculiar nature of the problem of rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all separate individuals possess.
Rational individuals respect complexity, and accordingly, they can only guarantee that there is no single answer under conditions of uncertainty. And for those experiencing chronic self-doubt, their inner voice declares: “They all think I’m smarter than I really am! I feel like such a fraud.”
As Hayek explains in The Road to Serfdom, “The higher the education and intelligence of individuals become, the more their views and tastes are differentiated and less likely they are to agree on a particular hierarchy of values.” This would describe genuine achievers.
The Audacity of Dopes
However, the clinical term “Impostor Syndrome” is confusing; technically, it describes accomplished people who think of themselves as frauds. But there are many more among us who are real frauds, and we all know what that personality looks like. While they have accomplished nothing meaningful, they have the audacity to force themselves on society as experts and visionaries with nothing more than a certificate. They are attracted to government power.
And most damaging, they consign others to inferior status for not submitting to their group think. Hayek explains,
If we wish to find a high degree of uniformity and similarity of outlook, we have to descend to the regions of lower moral and intellectual standards where the more primitive and common instincts and tastes prevail.
The irony is that the real imposters are totally immune from the chronic self-doubt inherent in the clinical definition of Imposter Syndrome. These intellectual frauds are what Nassim Taleb has defined as Fragilistas. In Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder he writes:
The fragilista defaults to thinking that what he doesn’t see is not there, or what he does not understand does not exist. At the core, he tends to mistake the unknown for the nonexistent. Fragilistas are naive rationalists.
For proof, consider their disregard for the complexity of systems like education, health care, housing, inequality, and economics – and their epic fails. One big clue should have been President Woodrow Wilson’s bombastic claim that the successful prosecution of World War I, The War to End All Wars, would lead to everlasting world peace and prosperity.
Healthy Self-Awareness is Essential to Civilization
To the jet pilot, the aircraft’s capabilities and the laws of physics are the operating envelope that must be respected. To the charlatan who ignores reality in their quest for control, there is no operating envelope – natural law is a mere nuisance. Hubris is their immune system from the artificial envelope created and “experienced by high achieving people who have difficulty internalizing their accomplishments.”
Externally, those experiencing the clinical version of Impostor Syndrome hold others in inordinately high regard. As The School of Life explains, “what we know of others is limited to what they show us and tell us. It is a far narrower and edited source of information. It is an unhelpful picture of what others are really like.” And it’s exacerbated by the media attention, adoring fans, and monuments that are lavished on the Fragilistas who have accomplished little else but acquire power and unearned wealth. This lack of a self-awareness spread among many Fragilistas is fundamental to decivilization.
Fortunately, as Zappala explains, for the smart people who have earned success and respect, and yet are constantly self-aware of their anxieties, there are proven methods that will help them “defeat this self-doubt and live with bold enthusiasm.” Confident individual achievers are essential to building civilizations.