anotherlongshot (anotherlongshot) wrote,

The Imposter Syndrome and Other Stories

I just received a letter from the Faculty of Law about starting in Cambridge in October and I am so excited now. I've been so busy with writing that chapter and distracted by G and all these drama that I haven't even had the opportunity to think about Cambridge. I've only just paid my school fees and college fees in full, and that was pretty much the only time that my mind focused, however slightly, on what will be my reality for the next four years. It's not just my reality; it's my dream come fucking true. It's Cambridge, and I'm going to do a PhD. It's freaking INSANE!

I attended an interesting talk in NUS, organised by the LKY School of Public Policy, by the ex-Chief Administrative Officer of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Martha Choe, on women and the imposter syndrome. This page explains it way better than I ever can...oh wait, is that a manifestation of the imposter syndrome right there?!

Anyway, it apparently affects women more than men, and high achieving women are more likely to display signs of the imposter syndrome than other women. There are three signs of the syndrome:

1. Feeling like a fake: the belief that one does not deserve his or her success or professional position and that somehow other have been deceived into thinking otherwise. This goes together with a fear of being, "found out", discovered or "unmasked". People who feel this way would identify with statements such as: "I can give the impression that I am more competent than I really am." "I am often afraid that others will discover how much knowledge I really lack".

2. Attributing success to luck: Another aspect of the impostor syndrome is the tendency to attribute success to luck or to other external reasons and not to your own internal abilities. Someone with such feeling would refer to an achievement by saying, "I just got lucky this time" "it was a fluke" and with fear that they will not be able to succeed the next time.

3. Discounting Success: The third aspect is a tendency to downplay success and discount it. One with such feelings would discount an achievement by saying, "it is not a big deal," "it was not important." One example of this is discounting the fact that they made it here, which is really a big success. Or saying, "I did well because it is an easy class, etc." Or, you might have a hard time accepting compliments.

I found it really interesting because I think 3 definitely applies to me, 1 to some extent and 2 is the least applicable. I definitely tend to downplay success: I've lost count of the number of times I've told people, non-lawyers, that going to law school is not a big deal because it's not that difficult, and I have also voluntarily qualified the distinction for my LLM that I worked my ass off for and achieved by saying that I had an advantage over others because I've been trained in the British examination system and English is my first language. I've always thought that I was just being honest in saying these things, but that presupposes that I really believe that these achievements are not a big deal. What does that say about me?

As for feeling like a fake - this was pretty much my default modus operandi from junior college up till maybe when I found out that I got into Cambridge. I whined ad nauseum about not being good enough for an A1 in General Paper and whatever other nonsense, and I'm pretty sure that I had wondered a few times whether the admissions people made a mistake when they accepted me to law school and to the LSE's LLM programme. In fact, I seem to remember thinking that Cambridge must've made a mistake when I received the offer...then again, maybe that simply sounds like something that would occur to me - which actually reveals how deeply-seated this phenomenon is for me.

I generally believe that I'm an intellectually-inclined and intelligent person, but there are times when I feel like a fake, especially when I'm discussing something that's purportedly in my area and I realise that there are gaps in my knowledge. Still, I genuinely think that there are a lot that I don't know, because it's simply the truth; and I don't think that I don't deserve whatever success I've achieved so far.

This brings me to the the second point, attributing success to luck. I don't think I have ever attributed my recent successes to luck. I know that they are the product of my hard work. I put in the hours and the effort and slayed my LLM exams; I also put in the effort into my research proposal and by some miracle, got into Cambridge; and that would not have been remotely possible if I hadn't got a distinction for my LLM. Of course, university admissions always contain an element of luck, but even after taking that into account, I still believe that I got in on my own effort and ability.

That said, I have a sneaking feeling that I'm gonna start feeling like an imposter when I actually start in Cambridge and find myself surrounded by super intellectual people (what an exciting thought). Hopefully, when I'm there, I will remember this talk and remind myself that I deserve to be there, that I know what I'm doing, that I'm good at what I do and will do, and that Cambridge is the beginning of what I definitely hope will be a bright, meaningful and satisfying academic career.



Martha Choe also mentioned an interesting thing - two opposing mindsets, the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. The growth mindset orientates a person towards growth and helps him view challenges in a positive light; as she was describing this, I thought to myself, 'Hmm, yes, that sounds like me.'

But she started describing the fixed mindset: 'You believe that you are either good at something or you are not, that you either have the ability or you don't. You are afraid of failure and so when it comes to challenges, you don't even want to try. You don't want to do soemthing that you think you won't succeed in.'

That is me to a fucking T. Oh my god, that is so me. Somehow, though, I am getting out of this mindset lately. I don't know what triggered it but I'm so much more inclined to accept challenges now, and leave my comfort zone and explore new things. The fact that I toyed with playing the piano again says a lot; I gave it up on the basis that I simply didn't have the talent for playing the piano, and I didn't want to do something if I wasn't going to be good at it.

Maybe the point is to accept that it's impossible to be good at everything you try to do, and that the point is to enjoy it for its own sake. Of course, there will always be things that are so fundamentally important to my sense of who I am that I have to be good at them, or else (writing, my academic work); but there are things in between fundamental importance and complete irrelevance. Tennis, for one. Maybe the piano. I don't know. We will see.


Anyway. I just want to mention this last thing before I go to bed.

I drove to work for once and parked the car on campus. Just before I left, I received this message from my mom:

Don't forget to drive the car back.


She said that she sent that message because I'm always absent-minded, leaving things like my wallet and phone at home when I leave the house.

That's not untrue, but how in the world would I forget to drive the car home?!

...okay, to be fair, it's definitely a plausible scenario. I admit that. I admit to be absent-minded sometimes, especially when I'm mentally swamped or in a hurry or preoccupied with other things. There was this one time when I went out with G and forgot my wallet, and so many other times when I left for work and forgot my phone.

Still. It would be quite ridiculous if I were to be so absent-minded that I forget to drive the car home, right?!

Seriously, I think I need to surround myself with non-doctorate people when I do this PhD, just to maintain some form of sanity and some semblance to normalcy in my life. When I'm in the middle of writing, I become this anti-social creature. I don't want to talk to anyone, which is why I write in the library where no one knows me and where no one will interrupt me. I whisper the words as I write them, as if hearing them makes them more real, sometimes even talking out loud and I make angry faces when I'm stuck. I'm really not a nice person to be around when I'm in the zone, worse still when I'm trying to get in the zone.

On the subject of writing, I noticed that I've developed a little ritual which I must follow if I wish to have a productive session. I'd put my things down on one of my usual tables at the second floor of the library next to the law journals, and then I'd need to go to the toilet. I never just sit down and start; I need to go to the toilet, even if I don't particularly feel like peeing. Somehow, going to the toilet helps me think. Every time I am stuck, I go to the toilet and it's like pressing a reset button. It's pretty awesome.

That was too much info, and this entry has taken me way too long to write. I am so tired these days; I just want to sleep now!
Tags: cambridge, funny encounters, parents, phd, writing

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