This post contains the following things:
- A description of my experience with impostor syndrome
- One of my favorite ways of fighting back: get a ton of honest feedback
- A list of some other things that help me
- The bulldozer strategy: Ignore the impostor syndrome and do the things
- Seriously think through the worst-case scenario (within the realm of plausibility)
- View looking silly as charity unto others
- Ask for sanity checks
- Talk to a friend or mentor
- Physical health
- Consider getting professional help
- Remind yourself that comparing yourself to other people is not necessary and that you might be caught in a false framework
- Assorted other things
- Ending notes and some resources
- I have no relevant expertise or credentials. I am discussing impostor phenomenon-y things somewhat indiscriminately, so some of this might be more relevant to being generally anxious.
- Context: I wrote this over half a year ago — before I started working on the Forum, before Luisa’s awesome post on a similar subject came out — and then sat on the post without publishing it. I’m finally posting it, but I haven’t significantly edited this since Luisa’s post, so some of the content might be redundant. Both our posts discuss what we’ve found helpful in combatting impostor syndrome. Luisa’s post focuses more on the real harms of impostor syndrome on your career and impact specifically.
What if someone told you:
I think I’m lazy, stupid, self-absorbed, and useless. Everyone around me is incredibly impressive; they have tons of ideas on how to improve the world, they’re brilliant— they can create systems that model complex structures, they have so much energy, they’re selfless and ambitious and awesome. I don’t know what I’m doing in the same place as these other people. I don’t know how I ended up here, and I’m just waiting for them to realize that I don’t fit.
But you know that the person saying this speaks three languages, graduated from a great university with two majors and a good GPA, got a competitive summer internship and did reasonably well in it, and quickly got hired into a respectable role.
You might say to this person, “You’ve got impostor syndrome!”
You’d probably be right. Moreover, the person you’d be saying that to is me, and I know I’ve got it. I also know that the whole situation is ridiculous.
Suffering from impostor syndrome is like having the awful feeling that something is on your face and that this something will reveal the dark truth about your soul to the world just as soon as the world sees it. This feeling does not allow itself to be wiped away with rational arguments. A friend coming up to you and telling you that you have nothing on your face just makes you feel like they’re lying to you, or that they haven’t seen it yet because they’re looking in the wrong place. The feeling is pervasive and has an answer to everything. (See the appendix-comment for how this feeling actually works.)
So what’s happening? Why doesn’t someone telling me you’re actually quite smart— you’ve just got impostor syndrome fix all my issues?
I'm new at my job, and I try to ask for lots of feedback. Every time I try to evaluate my work, I almost burst from anxiety. Here's what happens in my head, where two pretty distinct voices develop.
Pragmatic Voice: Well, I’ll estimate how well I did: what went wrong, what went well, where I helped, and the like.
A model of the situation forms; I messed up in two places and delayed one task, but that seems pretty much as expected. I also did a cool new thing that I'm excited about and finished a big project.
Pragmatic Voice concludes: All in all, a pretty good week.
Alarm bells start ringing in my head. Voice 2 wakes up.
Panic Voice: The words "pretty good" were uttered in the context of self-evaluation, and that is simply unacceptable because I know I suck. And it’s dangerous to have an inflated self-image. Clearly, those mess-ups were awful, and the delay caused loss and damage to the organization I work for. My supervisor will be extremely upset about that. The cool new thing is a distraction, and unoriginal, and not even that cool. The project was subpar and others would have finished it faster. Most importantly, there are probably many horrible ways I went wrong that I'm ignoring or missing.
The fact that my brain works like this is pretty fundamentally weird. I don’t know why it does, and I’m guessing few people do. This pattern is not helpful, and causes real harm — you can see a discussion of that harm in Luisa’s post.
The other weird thing is that my brain is not particularly unique in this. Many people suffer from this feeling or a version of it. This is also particularly common in certain communities, like the math community. Effective altruism also seems like such a community. (I’ve also seen evidence that both of these communities are fighting against these feelings, which is pretty wonderful.)
This is one message I hope you will get from this post. You are not alone, and you would be surprised at how many awesome people experience impostor syndrome, and the sorts of mental gymnastics they accomplish to believe it.
So here’s one of my favorite ways of countering it.
Get a ton of honest feedback (to combat impostor syndrome)
People will tell you that you should seek positive feedback that you can trust, like objective scores for things you’re good at, or comments on your work from someone senior in your field. This is good advice.
But I claim that all kinds of honest feedback are good for fighting impostor syndrome.
Why? In short, when my supervisor gives me feedback, I find it frequently matches my own understanding of how I did. This agreement helps me trust my reasoned self-assessment over the panic voice in my head that’s telling me that I suck.
Picture my performance in the job as a garden. The weeds my supervisor points out are where I expected them to be, as is that muddy patch, and my supervisor also seems to see the pretty purple flowers— they’re not a hallucination or a mirage I dreamt up to feel better about myself. This doesn’t surprise Pragmatic Voice from before, giving it a bit more confidence in its model of the world and of my own competence. But it does surprise Panic Voice. (Where are the monsters? The hologram unicorns I’ve put up to fool everyone into believing my garden is wonderful?) As the process repeats, my overall model looks a lot more reasonable— more like the one Pragmatic Voice puts out. I stop believing that there are monsters, and start acknowledging the weeds instead.
When feedback doesn’t match my model— when I’m surprised by what I hear, or when my supervisor points out that there’s a thorny bush that I had overlooked — I can update my model and look out for this sort of thing in the future. If, last week, my supervisor told me that I did things at the last minute and thus badly, with no time to fix my mistakes, I can notice this happening this week, and anticipate this feedback. It hurts to get negative feedback, but I still find it incredibly useful.
Note that this works even if I don’t use negative feedback in the more conventional (and maybe even more directly useful) way by improving the thing I did badly. Even if I make literally the same mistakes all over again, at least this time I know I’m making them (I can see the thorny bush) and the feedback doesn’t come as a surprise.
And now, repeat. Over and over again.
I still have a ton of impostor syndrome. But it’s weaker.
Some other things that have helped (in no particular order)
(1) The bulldozer strategy: Ignore the impostor syndrome and do the things
Sometimes just ignoring my feelings of impostorism (or blindly bulldozing) seems to help a lot. This is easiest (for me) when I have responsibility thrust on me in situations where I can’t (or won’t) refuse the responsibility. I have to organize something, or finish a project, or help a friend. Everything else takes a back seat.
The practical recommendation here is something vaguely resembling “just do stuff.”
And then take a moment to notice and appreciate that you did it. Ignore the voice explaining why you should discount this achievement, why it’s not that impressive — and look at the hard evidence that something happened and you made it happen.
Two good alternatives to doing the thing you’re avoiding doing:
- Go do something else you have more control over
- Maybe you’re feeling particularly impostory in a given situation or about a particular task. Say you need to put out a research paper, or write a report, or study for a midterm, and you just feel awful about it. Sometimes procrastinating a bit — in a particular way — helps.
- To get out of a bad pattern, I would sometimes go do something I’m much more confident in. The ideal activity is something that you have a lot of control over — something familiar and reassuring, which has a product of some kind that you can be proud of. My version of this was small-scale art. I’d often make paper cutouts or just doodle for a while. Paper-cutting is a great activity for this because it takes time and precision, but the cutouts themselves (at least in my interpretation of the task) tend to be small, and truly messing up is hard if you’re the kind of person who is fine with knives. I would also sometimes cook something I’m comfortable cooking, and I’ve more recently found that relatively intense physical activity (e.g. a workout) can help with this, too.
- I don’t know what this task is for you, but I bet you can think of something. (Some possibilities: playing a game, bouldering, knitting, etc.)
- Distract yourself
- Go watch a movie, take a walk outside, have an argument about time travel— I don’t know. Give your brain a break. Then come back, sit down at your computer, and hammer out that ugh-y thing as fast as you can. (If you want to edit or improve it, come back to it later. The first priority is just finishing a version of it.)
- You can also distract yourself while you’re working on the task. (This is also helpful for me when a relatively “easy” task has entered deep into an ugh field.) I’ll sometimes put on pretty loud music (in earbuds), maybe even the same song on endless repeat, and then just finish the thing I’ve been working on that I somehow couldn’t wrap up.
(2) Seriously think through the worst-case scenario (within the realm of plausibility)
Sometimes I need a reminder of my support system and my backup options. This looks like the following. Say I’m writing something, and I’m not sure if it’s stupid or revealing of my inner misconceptions and prejudices and whatnot, and I don’t know if people will hate it. So I’ll let myself imagine all of those worries being true. What would happen? Some people will develop a worse opinion of me. I’ll get negative karma on the Forum. If it’s awful enough, maybe people will remember it and I won’t get hired for a future job (this seems extremely unlikely though— the more likely worst case, if it’s that bad, is that I’ll need to delete it and people will realize I’m scared).
None of these are unrecoverable, and that reassures me a bit.
I also did this in college, e.g. when I was going through a rough math class. I’d imagine myself failing the midterm, revealing my complete ineptitude to the professors and flunking out of school entirely. But that’s still not the end of the world. I’d go home to my family, be vaguely embarrassed about it for a while, but my support system would survive, and so would I. I could go back to college later, or just find a job that doesn’t require a degree. In especially dark times, this sort of thinking was incredibly (and perhaps counterintuitively) reassuring. Failure is not the end of the world.
(3) View looking silly as charity unto others
This is a weird one, and especially applies in academic contexts, I think. The specific scenario I’m imagining is when someone sits in class, not totally following what’s going on, and refrains from asking clarifying questions due to a fear of being revealed to know nothing.
Based on my informal polling, this happens a lot, to a lot of people (at least in the math-o-sphere). Also from informal polling, literally nobody has ever minded if someone (in good faith) asks a lecturer to repeat or clarify something that was just explained. (Sometimes people are upset if a lecture is hijacked by some person asking questions that seem to have little to do with the subject at hand, but that is not the case I’m talking about.)
Moreover, I have often been in the situation where I’m grateful to someone for asking a question that I was sitting on, too nervous to ask. (And once again, from informal polling, many others have also experienced this.)
These considerations made me realize that asking questions in class can be viewed as charity to your classmates. I think there’s a broader principle here, too: making it acceptable to ask for clarification, publicly express confusion, etc., is helpful for whichever community you find yourself in.
(4) Ask for sanity checks
Are you terrified of posting something, or of putting out a project? Ask a friend or some other support system for a sanity check. Chances are, their feedback will also improve your work. (Reminder: there is a Facebook group for EA editing and reviewing. You can also ask me to give feedback on or to sanity-check your Forum post.) (After a while, you may gain some confidence and more rarely feel the need for sanity checks.)
(Meta note: I asked for sanity checks on this post!)
(5) Talk to a friend or mentor
If you’re feeling like an impostor, maybe you should tell a friend. Maybe you just failed a test, and feel like now everyone knows you suck. Or you messed up in some other way. While sometimes I just want to be somewhere private and zone out (or maybe take a dramatic walk in the rain— those are great), I’ve also found that if I’m spiraling, I can often tell a friend and they can pull me out of it.
I don’t know how it works, because my Panic Voice will still be telling me to disbelieve everything I hear, but sometimes it actually helps to hear a friend (or parent, mentor, sibling, peer, etc.) tell me:
“Sure, you did badly on that test, but you don’t actually suck. Look at all this reasonable evidence you’re pretty smart. Also, you have other nice qualities! Also, your value is not as a container for intelligence or usefulness.”
A friend’s presence can also just be a welcome distraction.
(6) Physical health
My impostor syndrome and anxiety act up when I’m not sleeping enough, eating things I probably shouldn’t, not exercising, not going outside, etc. I don’t know if this is a universal truth, but I’m guessing others might experience this, too. You probably hear all too often that physical health should be more of a priority than it is. But I think it’s true, so you’re hearing it again.
(7) Consider getting professional help
Maybe it’s right for you, and maybe it isn’t. If you think you may have issues like this but you just dismissed the idea of help, take another moment to consider whether you need help (and then move on if the answer is genuinely still no).
(8) Remind yourself that comparing yourself to other people is not necessary and that you might be caught in a false framework
...we often focus on the relative value of the different ways we could be helping others. We focus on particular charities being more effective than others, or particular jobs being more impactful than others. That makes a lot of sense: there are big differences in effectiveness between interventions, so satisficing could lead to us losing a lot of value. But at the end of the day what really matters isn’t relative: it’s the absolute value our actions bring about.
— Michelle Hutchinson, Keeping Absolutes in Mind (emphasis mine)
Occasionally, very rarely, it’s useful to compare yourself to other people. Maybe you want to arrange people by height for a group photo and need to know who’s taller — you or your friend. That’s fine.
Most of the time, we compare ourselves to each other unnecessarily. It’s quite rare that I actually have to be the best person I know at something, whether that’s math, typing speed, piano, efficiency, writing skills, laundry-folding-ability... you get the picture. I don’t have to be the best at drawing to be happy drawing or to make someone happier by drawing them a card.
Similarly, I don’t need to be the best person I know at writing (or research or Fermi estimates or event-planning or whatever) to bring significant amounts of value by doing these things. There is so much to do in this world— far more than can be done by the top, most brilliant, most capable people.
In other words: some people will be better than you at whatever it is you care about — some people will have a greater impact in their job, they’ll be better at math, they’ll write more fluently — and there’s nothing wrong with that. You can then let yourself focus on improving in the relevant areas, and happily admire those other people.
I probably over-identify with my intelligence (or possible lack thereof), but actually, I can just be me. (No one is as good at being me as I am.) I’m working on that. I also notice that my impostor syndrome often relies on the idea that the world can be neatly separated into “smart people” and “not-smart people” (or similar categories), and it can be useful to remind myself that wherever I draw that line, it will be arbitrary — the categories won’t be real.
Moreover, while I do care about making sure that what I spend my life on is useful, I also just care about my life by itself. And I hope you care about yours! Lives don’t actually need to be useful to be amazing.
Here’s what I’m left with: I want to help as much as I reasonably can. And I want to have a good life, for whatever that means. None of that involves comparing myself to others, checking what my Elo rating is, or classifying myself as “smart.”
(9) Assorted other things
- Exchange self-deprecating humor for self-aggrandizing humor ("I'm such a moron," after dropping a spoon becomes "I am in fact the king of juggling").
- I don’t know why this helps. Nor do I have strong evidence that it does. But I have an intuition.
- A personal maxim: Failure is expected and ok.
- Sometimes I mess up, and that’s normal. Messing up feels awful, but it’s also a necessary part of doing stuff.
- If I’m not messing up, it probably means I’m being overly cautious or not challenging myself enough.
- A couple of relevant threads on failure:
- Learn about impostor syndrome and talk about it with others who also experience it.
- Here’s the Wikipedia page. You can look up some TED talks and similar things on Youtube. Putting a word to the phenomenon I’m experiencing helps me. I’ve found that actually having a conversation about it (with a live human rather than via text) also helps— consider trying it.
- Read fiction.
- Adventure novels, sci-fi short stories — something that gives you some insight into other characters’ thinking.
- Deliberately notice when other people are doing something cool. Tell them explicitly that you think the thing they’re doing is cool. (“I really like the way you set up your desktop.” “Your comments are great.”)
- I have a pet theory that you’re secretly also telling this thing to yourself, and that this also helps you notice when you are the one doing the cool things.
- Don’t believe people when they tell you (or imply) that something was “trivial” or the like.
- In the Kantian spirit, give random genuine positive feedback (and hope that others will act the same way).
- Also give constructive feedback to people you think will benefit from it. (Please note that I’m not recommending that you give empty compliments or harsh criticisms out of nowhere, however.)
- Half-ass with everything you’ve got.
- If you’re really miserable doing something, consider stopping whatever you’re doing (e.g. by dropping out of graduate school). Do something else instead. In particular, you should always consider this before you consider doing anything more drastic.
- I know of someone who went from academia to operations and attributes a significant decrease in impostor syndrome and ugh-field prevalence to that shift. They discovered that they were great at operations. Similarly, my first significant decrease in impostor syndrome corresponded to feeling directly useful while working at Canada/USA Mathcamp.
- Below is an image I drew for myself after talking to someone about my worries about what graduate school might do to me— and once they pointed out that I seemed to be overlooking the option of simply dropping out.
I hope this post helps a bit, but my bigger hope is that we make more progress on this as a community. On that note, if you have other suggestions or thoughts on the topic, please leave a comment! And if you feel like you’re not qualified to do that, please let me assure you that you are.
- My experience with imposter syndrome — and how to (partly) overcome it (Luisa Rodriguez)
- Having a successful career with depression, anxiety, and imposter syndrome (Podcast episode on 80,000 Hours)
- Managing 'Imposters' (Michelle Hutchinson)
- Countering imposter syndrome (Julia Wise)
- Replacing Guilt (Nate Soares)
- Mentorship, Management, and Mysterious Old Wizards (Raemon) (Related: Hero Licensing)
- 'Ugh fields', or why you can't even bear to think about that task (Rob Wiblin)
- Keeping Absolutes in Mind (Michelle Hutchinson)
P.S. If you’re on the EA Forum— even if you sort of just wandered in by accident— I just want to tell you that you do in fact belong here. I know it’s not much, but maybe it will add up over time. Maybe we can pepper the world with messages like these and slowly lighten the feeling of impostorism hanging over it.
Thanks to Ollie Base, Jonathan Michel, Linch Zhang, Luisa Rodriguez, Aaron Gertler, and my brother for feedback and support.
“Impostor” can also be spelled “imposter,” and it’s sometimes called a “phenomenon,” not a “syndrome.”
First I kept telling myself that the post wasn’t very good. Then I was telling myself I might mess up my career path if I posted it. Then I was telling myself that I should update it given that Luisa’s is on a similar subject. Now I’m finally sharing (with encouragement from Luisa and others!).
Was when I first wrote the post. Still am.
Poorly written document
That cool extra thing I did well
Another dropped task, or a mistake
To use the dialog framing from before, the situation looks a bit like this:
Pragmatic Voice. I guess I’m going to deal with this problem.
Panic Voice. But what if I fail? I’m incapable of dealing with problems like this! And everyone will discover this.
Pragmatic Voice: The problem won’t go away by itself, and no one else is fixing it. Panic Voice is pretty convincing— it does indeed seem like I’ll fail— but I can’t not try. So I guess I’ll just act like I know how to deal with the problem.
Somehow, I find that Panic Voice shuts up for a while after that.
The more bizarre version of this was watching some kind of bad TV show while doing something I didn’t want to do. I haven’t done this in a while and don’t endorse it for most things because it can also be a trap that sucks you into binging a show without ever deciding to do that. Still, if it’s a repetitive show that you’ve already seen, maybe you can do relatively brainless tasks like packing for a trip or cleaning some data while re-watching it. (I think listening to a musical or a not-very-engaging podcast is generally better for this.)
Here’s a relevant tweet: “the universe doesn't care if you're the coolest monkey.”