Do you know what impostor syndrome is? You can probably guess. It’s that feeling you get when you have every right to claim some level of authority on a subject (say, almost ten years of posting almost three thousand articles) and yet you can’t shake the nagging feeling that every time you say something, someone is going to pop up and say, “No, you’re wrong! You don’t know anything, what makes you think you have the right to talk about this subject?” Maybe you’ve spent your whole life surrounded by people who listen to you and say, “Wow, I didn’t know that,” and ask you questions about your chosen subject, to which you happily provide answers. All the while you’re thinking, “Surely they’re about to tell me that everything I’ve just said is wrong.”
I struggle with this like you wouldn’t believe. When I originally started this site I believed that I’d either (a) attract a group of people who knew about as much as I did about the subject, and we’d learn from each other, or (b) attract a group of people who didn’t know much, who would learn from me. What I got was (c) well-learned people who do Shakespeare for a living, who have been schooling me ever since.
But knowledge is a funny thing. One day you don’t have it. And you realize you don’t have it (you know what you don’t know) because someone gives it to you. Which US president visited Shakespeare’s birthplace and wrote in his letters that he felt the fee they charged was outrageous? Have no idea? Thomas Jefferson. Congratulations, now you know. If you didn’t really care, you’ll probably forget it after you finish reading this post. But if you’re interested in the subject and hear it repeatedly, you’ll realize that you actually remember it now. What’s the difference between what you know and what you remember? Not much. If you remember it, you know it. (I’m not talking about remembering an incorrect fact, of course. I’m talking about remembering information where previously there was none.)
I often forget what I know. I’ll stumble across a “new” fact, only to later discover that it was new to me three years ago when I first blogged about it. I hate that. Makes me feel like my knowledge of the subject is not growing, and will remain forever at its plateau. Which, in turn, makes me always think I know about as much as I knew ten years ago.
I had occasion recently to document what I know about Shakespeare. Open new document, create new list, start brain dumping. A few hundred bullet points later I start to think, “Dang, that’s a bigger list than I thought.” My confidence inches up just an eentsy bit. Who said plateau?
I think that the key to defeating impostor syndrome is to be aware of your own limitations. Someone can know more than you, without making your knowledge wrong. Don’t think of it as being corrected, think of it as becoming more informed on the subject. That’s what I’ve been doing for ten years now. Only now am I beginning to get comfortable with the idea that I can actually converse on this subject, and not just be the guy waiting for someone to tell me I don’t know anything.