Monday, 31 October 2016

A cure for Imposter Syndrome

Most of you will probably be aware of Imposter Syndrome, even if you've never heard it called that. It's one of my specialist areas. It's that sense I have that I'm winging it, just about managing to maintain a facade of competence and knowledge, a gossamer thin veil being all that stands between my devastating ignorance and discovery. The conviction that everyone else knows what they're doing and all it would take is one wrong step, one mis-placed word, one stupid question to reveal that I am completely out of my depth, unqualified for the job I do, undeserving of my position.

I spend my life working with very, very intelligent people, the kind of people who say things like "well, as I recall, the thermal energy of an atom is about a fortieth of an eV, so we can approximate the mean free path as..." over lunch. The kind of people who assume that everyone works out the orbit of the moon from first principles. In their heads.

I don't spend my whole time tip-toeing around, waiting for the penny to drop amongst my colleagues, and for them to finally realise that the emperor has no clothes and that I am in truth just a rather bewildered muppet. But the thought is always lurking there, just under the surface, waiting to pounce. Always ready to whisper in my ear, "you're not good enough you know, and any minute now, everyone's going to see through you for the fraud that you are."

Just recently though, I've begun to feel a little less like an idiot. A little less as though my incompetence is hiding behind a thin veneer of technical jargon, flung around like confetti. 'What could possibly be the source of such a huge step forward?' I hear you cry. 'Has PhysicsBear experienced a profound metaphysical shift in self perception, suddenly allowing her to see her own abilities in a realistic light?' you might clamour. Not exactly. What's actually happened is that I've been attempting to train two new employees to undertake a few of the testing jobs that have traditionally fallen to me.

Back in the mists of time, my boss trained me to do these tasks. My boss possesses a terrifying intellect, and has a bewildering mix of enormous arrogance, and total lack of self-awareness that allows him to "know" that he's always right, while simultaneously assuming that he's no brighter than anyone else. His approach to training me rather reflected that view. He had me sit with him while he undertook the task in question, and thereafter I was in charge of all subsequent tests. If I had a problem, I could consult him, but received rather short shrift if the solution was something that I "should" have spotted. It was a bit of an extreme approach, but I swam instead of sinking, so I suppose one could say it worked.

Recently the task of passing on the wisdom earned through my years of experience fell to me. And being a little more generous than my boss, I spent a considerable amount of time explaining what to do, how to do it, why we were doing it and what could go wrong. I provided a powerpoint presentation on the subject. I handed over examples of test documentation guidelines that I'd written in the past. I ensured my trainees were equipped with lab books and pens, and I recommended they take notes of what we were doing.

And so we tested our first piece of equipment, together.

A month rolled past and another, identical, piece of equipment required testing. I handed the job over to my newly-trained engineers. And was greeted with blank looks. I suggested they refer back to their lab books. I was informed "I didn't write any notes. I thought I'd remember." I was somewhat vexed. I went through the tests again, though Firm Words Were Had on the importance of note-taking.

It was not long before another two, identical, pieces of equipment needed testing. Again, I encountered blank looks, a complete, overwhelming absence of understanding of what we were trying to do and why, randomly incorrect attempts at undertaking the tests and (finally) a failure to complete the test sheets, despite assuring me they'd been completed.

And I am simply left thinking... I was never this useless. I didn't require telling half a dozen times. I didn't expect to be spoon-fed every step of the way. I was capable of listening, absorbing information and learning from it, quickly. I am finally, completely and utterly convinced that I was never this useless.

So there you go. If you want to feel an enhanced sense of self-worth - employ people more useless than yourself. But be prepared to accept a significant rise in blood pressure as a consequence.


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