In (partial) praise of ‘Impostor Syndrome’

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“Impostor syndrome” is regularly decried as a very bad thing: the idea that you are a fraud, that you have only got where you have because of some dreadful error, that your success is undeserved, the result of some lucky or unlucky accident. It is supposed differentially to afflict minority groups of all kinds, and it regularly features, for example, on lists of what we want to eliminate from universities. You all got here because you deserved it, is the correct and reassuring message we want to get over. This place does not just belong to those who think they have a hereditary right to be here.

Up to a point, that is true. “Impostor Syndrome” is certainly real. When I was a student, I don’t think I knew anyone who didn’t have it. We all imagined that there had been some mistake in marking our A levels, or that we only did well in the “entrance exam” (as it then was) because one of the passages for translation had come from our O-level set book, or whatever. And so it is now, with my own students.

Just occasionally, one finds apparent proof of it, too. I still remember, after I got my first job, I went a couple of weeks later to the admin office at the university to do the post-appointment formalities. I went in and said that I had come to sign the contract for the Classics job. “Oh welcome Dr X”, they said, naming one of the other candidates for the job. “Oh blimey”, I thought, “it really was a mistake, they rang up the wrong person.” (Actually, it was the office’s mistake, heaven knows how … though I do still sometimes wonder!)

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am sure there are some students at “elite” universities who have never doubted that they were in their rightful place. And if I ever catch any of them making others feel not “at home”, I will (metaphorically) wring their necks. But I strongly suspect that there are far fewer of these super-confident characters that is often imagined. And I am fairly sure too that (offensive and off-putting though it is to those around them) some of those who seem so confident are using that kind of display to conceal their own anxieties. Most of the rituals of Cambridge are to start with unfamiliar and unsettling to almost (almost) all new students. And, counterintuitively, there may be a “levelling” point there.

But the bottom line, for me, is this. No, I don’t want particular groups to be made unhappy, to feel excluded or to underperform because of “Impostor Syndrome”, and I hope, over the past few decades, I have done my bit to counter that. On the other hand, do I want to live, work and teach in a university in which everyone is confident that they fully deserve to be there? No, I don’t. I want at least a little bit of self-doubt. (For a start, the dividing line between “getting in” and “not getting in” is a very fragile one.) A modified version of “Impostor Syndrome” in moderation may really be quite a good thing.

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