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Impostor syndrome is quite common among people working in the AI safety field. 

It's quite a unique field. It's extremely important, its challenges are immensely complicated, and it attracts a lot of exceptionally smart and capable people, so the bar for everyone in the field is very high. Moreover, AI safety field experiences a surge of new talents, much more than it can to absorb, so it becomes even more competitive. 

I'm a psychotherapist helping people working on AI safety, and in this post I describe causes and manifestations of Impostor syndrome among people from AI safety community, as well as ideas on how to overcome it. This is a post in my series about mental health and AI safety.


The story of impostor syndrome of AI safety researcher

Meet Ezra.

He recently finished his masters degree in public policy. After ChatGPT release he became anxious about x-risks, and started feel that he must do something. He starts reading LessWrong, listening podcasts and he quickly realizes that most people in the field are exceptionally smart.

He asks himself "Am I good enough? Can I compete with these people?" He feels intimidated and hesitate to take action.

Finally he got accepted at fellowship in a major AI governance organization. Most of his peers graduated from top universities like Harvard or Cambridge, so he feels even more insecurity about his ability to keep up with them.

On his first day, Ezra attends a meeting about upcoming work. He has ideas, but afraid to look stupid or naive, so he remains silent just to avoid drawing attention.

He is assigned to do research on AI regulation in China. This is a new topic for him, so he has many questions, but he is afraid to ask them, fearing his supervisor will decide that he is underqualified.

Instead, he spends endless hours searching for answers online. He works 80 hours a week. He triple-checks everything. Before presenting his results, he can't stop correcting his slides to the last moment, and after presenting his work, he looks closely at his colleagues' facial expressions for approval or disapproval. Even when his supervisor says "Good job", Ezra believes that he is just polite.


Causes for Impostor syndrome

Ezra focuses all his attention on making sure that others approve him and his job. He believes that he is worse than others, and he is afraid to fail, but there is no way to be 100% sure that they will be satisfied, so there is always a chance that they won't. This means that there is always a room for improvement, and for him the result is never good enough.

The other cause for Impostor syndrome stems from childhood. For example, people with Impostor syndrome might have demanding parents, who showed care and approval only if the child achieves something impressive. Or, parents convinced the child that he is worse than others. 

The last problem is out of the scope of this post. I just want to mention, that this might be tricky to untangle alone, and professional mental health help is a good way to solve it.


How to overcome Impostor syndrome

Focusing on things that one can control

Erza focuses his attention on impressing others. He can influence them to some extent, but at end of the day, those are their impressions in their heads, and it's outside of Erza's control. If he instead focused his attention on something that is in his control, this might help reduce his anxiety.

Shat are examples of such goals?

Ezra can control his professional growth. Journaling is a great way to become more mindful about this. 

For example, while doing research he might notice that in a last month he has significantly improved his skill of catching low-quality research papers. Now he is way better at noticing poor statistical analysis, low sample size or potential conflicts of interest. That's a valuable improvement.

He also notices that in the last week he learned a lot about the regulations of nuclear weapons. It's a tricky topic, but his ability to find high-quality sources, and proactivity engaging the right experts helped him to grasp this topic way faster than he could imagine in the past. That's something worth celebrating.


Being mindful about present moment

The other way to be less anxious is be focused on the present moment, not the future events. Human brain works in such a way that it can either focus on the current task, or emotionally evaluate some other events, but it can't do both things at the same time. This means that if Ezra focuses on the reactions of others, he doesn't only feel stressed, he is also worse at doing his job.

It's easier to grasp this idea if you imagine a chess player playing a match who not just cares about their next move, but also anxious about their impression on the opponent and the viewers. This definitely wouldn't help.

So, mindfulness technics, like meditation, might make difference.


Changes take time and commitment

This all might look straightforward on paper, but it's not that easy to do in practice. If Ezra is anxious all the time about his impression on others, and he was like this for years, he can't stop caring about this in a week. It takes effort and time, so consistency and commitment is the key.

It's like losing weight. Everyone knows that they should eat less and exercise more, but they must restrict themselves now, and they will only notice changes in a month or two, so many people give up, but those who don't, get the result they want.





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