Stoic advice: impostor syndrome

impostor syndrome[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, consider that I have a significant backlog, and I may not get to your question for some time, or at all.]

A. writes: I’m a researcher in Physics and a big fan of your work in philosophy of science and, more recently, Stoicism. I would like to ask you if you have any references on Stoic responses to two struggles that are dear to us in academia: i) frustration due to working hard and not achieving the desired outcome, and ii) feeling one doesn’t deserve what one has in life (“impostor syndrome”). I understand the basic premises to counter these feelings (we are not really in control of the outcome etc.), but I would like to know if you have more specific references, not necessarily to ancient Stoic thinkers.

Yes, I’m all too familiar with the two feelings you are referring to, both because of direct personal experience, and because I’ve talked to plenty of graduate students and young colleagues who have had them at one point or another during their career. They don’t seem to affect senior faculty much, possibly because of a combination of getting older and caring less, becoming wiser, and simply getting used to it.

You are correct, of course, that the first go-to for the Stoic is the dichotomy of control as expressed by Epictetus in Enchiridion I.1, and the beautiful metaphor of the archer attempting to hit a target, in Cicero’s De Finibus III.22. But you are familiar with them, so I will not repeat those quotes here.

Instead, I would like to shift the discussion to the other pillar of Stoic philosophy (other than the dichotomy of control): the idea that virtue is the chief good, because it is the only thing that can only benefit and never hurt us, as explained by Socrates in the Euthydemus. Everything else, as you know, is a preferred or dispreffered indifferent, which Cicero tells us should be chosen (or un-chosen), but not desired.

From that perspective, being emotionally attached to a particular outcome, say a grant proposal getting funded, or a paper being accepted for publication, is a mistake, because those outcomes do not improve our virtue. What does the latter, instead, is the way we handle the situation. Every obstacle, Marcus Aurelius would say, is simply a sparring opponent the universe throws our way during that continuous training exercise that we call life.

I have learned that lesson early on in my academic career, way before I turned to Stoicism as a philosophy of life. Please indulge me to briefly recount a personal anecdote. When I was in graduate school in biology, at the University of Connecticut, my advisor and I submitted what we thought was an important paper to the premier journal in evolutionary biology. It was reviewed very positively by two anonymous referees, but a third one slammed it. We asked the editor of the journal at that time to ignore the third referee, on the grounds that she obviously had an axe to grind (later on we found out who that person was, and our hypothesis was clearly confirmed).

The editor, however, acted conservatively and rejected the paper. At the time I thought this was a major blow to my career, and for weeks I went around alternating between the two feelings you describe: (i) Why did this not work, despite literally years of efforts that went into the research, and what I thought was a first rate paper resulting from that effort? (ii) Perhaps I was really not cut out for this job after all, maybe I should just quit and do something else.

Fortunately for me, my advisor had significant experience and accumulated wisdom. We talked it over while drinking a couple of beers and decided to send the paper, as it was, to the premier journal in an allied field, ecology. It was accepted immediately with only minor changes, a rare occurrence in science.

Not only that, complete vindication came many years later, when I was a full professor at the University of Tennessee. Out of the blue I received an email from the former editor of the journal that rejected our paper. It was a heartfelt apology, explaining that he had made a serious error of judgment, and that he was glad that his mistake had not negatively affected my career.

There are several lessons here. First off, while it is always a good idea to question one’s own work, and to be open to outside criticism, if you are a professional in a given field there probably are good reasons to think you know what you are doing, especially when your work gets repeatedly validated externally.

Second, I greatly admire the editor in question. Not because he came around to see that my advisor and I were right. But because he had the intellectual honesty and humility to admit his mistake, years later, and with absolutely nothing to gain from it. That is what I call a virtuous person, regardless of whether he practices Stoicism or not.

Third, my advisor and I turned an obstacle into a new path by deciding to send the paper to an equally prestigious journal in a similar field — as opposed to the thing that is often done, sending the paper to a lesser journal within the same field. As Marcus puts it:

“Our actions may be impeded … but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” (Meditations V.20)

Over the course of my career, spanning now more than three decades across two academic fields, I have had a few other episodes like the one reported above, and of course countless minor setbacks. But that particular incident did something to my psyche that has remained with me to this day: I have developed the ability of absolutely not caring an iota about what my colleagues think about the worth of my work, especially when their opinions are expressed anonymously. Again, please understand that I don’t mean to say that I refuse to learn from others, or that I think my work is always worthwhile and top notch. I just mean that I take failures as part and parcel of what an academic career, and more broadly a life, is made of. There is no sense in regretting mistakes, only in learning from them. And it isn’t very useful to second guess one’s own worth, so long as one honestly tries to do one’s best.

So take those failures, and those moments of doubt, as additional opportunities to exercise virtue and become a better human being:

“The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.” (Meditations, VII.61)

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7 thoughts on “Stoic advice: impostor syndrome

  1. Marc Vlecken

    Very sound advice, and not only for academics ! By the way, there’s an interesting similarity between the stoic advise not to get (too) attached to the outcome of one’s work, because we are not really in control, and the concept of ‘karma yoga’ in Hinduism (esp. also in Advaita Vedanta, one of its most philosophical branches): ‘karma yoga is the path of unselfish action, and teaches that a spiritual seeker should act according to dharma (ethical principles, mv), without being attached to the fruits or personal consequences’ (Wikipedia).

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Alessio Persichetti

    Thank you Massimo! As a PhD candidate in philosophy, I have really appreciated your advices for wannabe Stoics living in the academia. It is one of the little things which show us that we aren’t alone in certain experiences.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Jason Malfatto

    And it isn’t very useful to second guess one’s own worth, so long as one honestly tries to do one’s best.

    I get that, although part of me wants to argue that “trying one’s best” can be fraught with doubt, given open questions about how best to manage one’s time & energy and competing goals/interests/values, all things considered. Not exactly the same as second-guessing “one’s own worth”, I know, but for non-sages (i.e. most, if not all, of us) the feeling is likely familiar and shares some of the same discomfort.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. labnut

    and ii) feeling one doesn’t deserve what one has in life (“impostor syndrome”)

    This is a fascinating subject, treated well and accompanied by great advice. I would add the following:
    1) Be accepting.
    It is a fact that sometimes we are lucky and the ball bounces our way. Accept that with gratitude. You are not to blame. In fact it is often the case that good fortune falls to those who are well prepared, which brings to mind the Scout motto – Be Prepared.

    2) Be grateful.
    Gratitude brings out the best in our character. It opens us to sympathy and compassion for the plight of others. It diminishes our own pride or arrogance.

    3) Be worthy.
    See this as a challenge to become worthy of your good fortune.

    4) Be prepared.
    Because luck favours the prepared. Life is continual self-improvement.

    5) Be a mentor.
    Prepare others so that they can be ready to give the best of themselves and they will in turn be prepared.

    6) Be a giver.
    Pay forward your good fortune, so that they in turn may pay forward to others. Society is enriched by those who give more than they receive.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Chuchu

    Thanks for this Massimo…I also have similar frustrations with research publications! Some days I feel I spend so much more time pleasing those who will be per-reviewing my work rather than doing the work! I can’t go the extreme of ignoring publications either because of the simple fact that my work may be ended if I don’t publish!

    I’m feeling so much better after reading your article. External criticisms should generally be welcomed, because they constantly makes me question things such how will my work improve our society? where can it be applied? why I’m working on the topic? and if I hadn’t been working on it, what would I work on instead? and how would that end? etc. etc. etc…

    Situations like this constantly turns into chain Socratic questioning. As a student in Stoicism, Socratic questioning is most probably a good thing. In a sense, I should really be thanking those who are critical to me as they force me to question, which in turn forces me to become less ignorant, in a other word, less evil!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Matthew Schmidt

    One tool that can help in dealing with Imposter Syndrome is a 360-degree evaluation. This is used by companies as a process to include feedback from an employee’s subordinates, co-workers , and supervisor, as well as a self-evaluation by the employee themselves. It is used to measure worker performance and behavior.

    People can do an informal personal 360 interview themselves and with people they know. Great article on this by author Dorie Clark at nextavenue.org/reinvent-your-career-personal-360-interview/

    To do the greatest good you need to know yourself and you true strengths.

    Liked by 1 person

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