The imposter​ syndrome

Credits: wei/Adobe Stock

I have always suffered from this feeling that whatever I am doing is not enough and that I am an imposter who survives by mimicking others. After a while, everyone will recognize this and see what a loser I am.

I have had a chat with a lot of my friends about this and most of them think the same. There is this sense of inadequacy that makes you think about each and every step. That inner voice, that holds you and plays you a ‘failure reel’ whenever you are starting something.

One day, this question popped up in my mind whether people, who are at the top of their fields and have been there for a while, think the same. This was more of a consolation for me if they also went through the same thing (It has come to my notice that if you find that you are not alone in experiencing something, it makes that experience less painful).

I asked it on Quora and got a handful of responses. Here is the link if you want to see some of the answers.

https://www.quora.com/Are-the-established-professors-also-affected-by-the-imposter-syndrome

The answers were surprising and all of them agreed to be a victim of this even to this date. Most of them think that the people around are doing much better than them. Talking about research, one said that whenever they read a paper, they always thought that it was impossible for them to come up with that idea and the other person must have been really smart to pull that off.

Credits: girltalkhq

The answers also mentioned that after a while they realize that they are at the top for a reason. There is a reason other scientists are reading their work, appreciating and even citing them. Their contribution has not been lost in the sea but made a positive effect.

Also, we never think about what we are bringing to the table that the other person might not have. I think it is human nature to self-diminish one’s own skills.

This begs the question of whether this helps you in achieving something because you are afraid that you will be ratted out soon if you do not work hard or it constrains you in trying something risky which might have lead to better results.

It is always a good idea to look back a bit. You have not reached wherever you are by messing around. Do not let compliments to you go in vain. Do not let your achievements slide under the mat. Maybe this is a good way to fight that opposing inner voice.

A Rigged Game

Recently I read an answer on Quora that had an interesting statement.

“Don’t try to play a rigged game.”

Credits: Heroesofawesome

Here is some context. The answer talks about why as a Ph.D. student, one should not try to start with a field that is crowded. You want a high impact paper that separates you from the rest. If you work in a field that people have been working on since ages, with teams and researchers of much high caliber than you, it is a game that you are bound to lose. A game that you cannot win is rigged. This is even more essential to those who are not studying in elite colleges and have a point to prove.

I think this statement is really accurate for every career on the planet Earth. People keep on trying hard to make a name in an already known field. You see Sachin scoring hundreds, you want to be a cricketer and hit sixes like him. You see Steve Jobs killing it with innovative Apple products, you want to be an entrepreneur and develop state of the art smartphones. The point is that these are the fields where people have already made strides and are way ahead of you. You would be like a Lilliputian in front of Gullivers. Think about what happens if you start your own company with technology similar to Microsoft products. Will you be able to entice users to come on board, if you give them the exact same thing but with more financial risk?

Everyone is supposed to have dreams. I am not discouraging you to drop your dreams of becoming a successful entrepreneur or to become the next Rihanna. But you should know that no one became successful without bringing something new to the table. Einstein being a small patent clerk, would not have been famous without his path-breaking paper on relativity. Picasso would not have been such a huge sensation, had he kept on painting the boring portraits of rich wives (Both of their stories appear on a famous TV show Genius). Instead of playing the rigged game that everyone was playing, they rose above it. They created their own game, with their own set of rules.

Credits: Northwest Quarterly

This advice is most important for people entering into a new profession. Instead of going with the herd, choose something that no one has ever explored. Create a niche for yourself. Mind you, it isn’t going to be easy. But, at least you will have a shot at winning the game.

The fear of losing a loved one

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Credits: American Psychological Association

“No love can be endless because no life is endless!”
― Mehmet Murat Ildan

I don’t know if you have experienced this yet, but death rears its ugly head on everyone. And when it does so against the person you love, it is harsh.

The first time I experienced this was when my grandfather was ill. I was studying 800 km away from home. He had suddenly fallen ill with a heart attack. Many people survive a heart attack but his condition was really bad because of his age (84). Somehow his lungs were also giving up, owing to years of smoking in his adulthood. They were keeping him in the ICU for close inspection. I was told that if anything serious were to happen, I had to come to my hometown for taking part in his last rights.

There was a sense of sadness floating around in my head, but my grandfather was a strong man. He once went for a full body checkup. The nurse asked his age, before giving the reports back. Hearing “80 and counting!” turned various heads in the hospital. She was not able to believe how a person of this age can have a healthy heart, normal blood pressure and energy. This is what made me feel confident that he will beat this again.(He was admitted twice earlier and came back after spending few days in the hospital.)

I received a call from my mother late at night.

“Is this it? Is he dead?”, I mumbled in my head.

I took the call preparing myself, holding back my tears.

“Hello, Mummy. When did it happen?”

“When what happened?”

“Oh! How is Baba Ji?” (I used to call him Baba, instead of the more common Dada we use for grandfather in India.)

“He is still in ICU. The doctors haven’t said anything concretely.”

“Okay.”

Every call I received was filled with the suspicion that this will be his last moment. The impatience died day by day and somehow regret took its place. I and my grandfather had planned to go to Taj Mahal and click a picture together mimicking the one he had with my father. We had planned to go there in March and he was admitted in December. That’s the thing with farewells, you will regret almost everything that you did not do.

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Me and My grandfather in 2000.

Fast forward to March. I remember the day; It was an India-Pakistan match of Cricket World Cup.  I got a call from my mother, telling me that doctors are sure that he would not be able to make it. A sudden slap. A gush of emotions. I still do not know why I did not cry when I heard her. I booked a cab and left for my home at that right instant. This was the first time I missed my exam.

The journey without a ticket was itself a daunting one, but the flashbacks of good memories with my grandfather took over the driving seat. I reached the ICU and saw no one was crying. Doctors said that he is still fighting. My mind was so fucked up that I started crying after seeing him in the hospital. Somehow I could not withstand the pain he was experiencing since the last few days. The anxiety came back and my head felt heavier than usual. This time I prayed that he becomes free of this suffering. I did not want him back anymore, there was no sense of guilt. I wanted this to end.

I went back. I was called again when the doctors lost hope. The outcome was same. He hung in there, still fighting. The days spent in ICU were a record for that hospital, I think. I had to go back again, as I had to repeat those exams I had missed. This time although, there was no emotional outcry. My mind was blank.

After doing 2 trips back home, he died when I was fast asleep in my hostel bed. My mother was hesitant in calling me this time as she thought this might be a false alarm again. But he was gone and I was not there. Not even to say him a goodbye.

I haven’t experienced that kind of pain, anxiety, helplessness ever. This made me wonder whether the relationships we nurture through years are worth it or not. All we get is a never-ending pain and loss of an essential part of our life. Is this where all life-forms feel helplessness? The loss of a loved one or death itself!