Really. What could I possibly have to say about it? Nothing, obviously. Many people, smarter and better-researched, have written far better posts and probably books about imposter syndrome, than I ever could.
Although, I can tell you that academia is an excellent place to contract it. Brains are the name of the game, and it’s easy to feel like an idiot when you’re surrounded by smart people, with faster processing and/or better memories, who have read more and/or who just happened to have read that one crucial item that undermines your whole idea.
And in my experience, the vast majority of scholars are combative as all get-out. They’re dying to show that they know something you don’t, to challenge both the content of what you have to say and your right to say it. They’d much rather be right, than kind. Whether this stems from a terrier-like commitment to intellectual rigor, love of battle, competition fostered by a shrinking sector, plain old insecurity, or all of the above, is hard to say, but meeting the rare scholar who lifts rather than digs really highlights how keen everyone else is to put you in your intellectual place.
If you have even a skerrick of intellectual OE – that burning desire to know – this culture kicks you pretty regularly in what’s already a sore spot: the painful awareness that you will never learn all that you want to. That realisation, when I was about six, was my first true grief. Like any proper grief, the pain has never completely gone, so every time someone bopped me with something I didn’t know, it throbbed. That happens often enough, you start to wonder what, if anything, you do know, and what the hell you’re doing there. When my office-mate even challenged my sadness over a colleague’s death (“Did you really know him, though?”), I began to feel that perhaps my entire existence needed peer-reviewing to be legit. Okay, I didn’t really feel that. I just felt an enormous disconnect, a terrific sense that I was not a real academic. I did not belong there.
Of course, I knew that was imposter syndrome speaking, but everyone has that, don’t they? Heck, I even read an interview where Michelle Obama talked about it. She said, you get over imposter syndrome when you realise that those people aren’t that smart, after all. Hm, maybe — IF YOU’RE MICHELLE FREAKING OBAMA! I’m not that smart. Obviously.
But a funny thing happened after I left academia: Parenthood. I definitely knew nothing about that, so like a proper swot I researched my arse off, becoming more and more confused as book after book failed to describe anything remotely like what was going on in my house. Not how I saw the world, not my values, not how my kids behaved. (Free tip: don’t ever get me started on reward charts.)
Eventually, though, through reading, I found my way to teh gifted. (‘Back’ to teh gifted, I should say, since I was identified as a kid.) And these people! Oh, my goodness. Smart. Funny. Sensitive. Snarky. Passionate. Ambivalent. Crusading. And wrestling with the same issues: the screaming, the kids who’d happily die (DIE, I tell you!) before giving in to any authority they perceive as arbitrary, the anxiety, the perfectionism, the stubborn, the under-achievement, the big, tender hearts, the burning thirst for knowledge (STRICTLY on their own terms), the … imposter syndrome. Oh, yeah. I’d found my tribe.
I still don’t think I’m that smart. I’m pretty much always convinced that everyone is smarter than I am. Everyone has achieved more, done more, read more, and for sure, knows more about just about everything, than I do. I frequently wonder whether perhaps we’re not gifted, just, you know, really emotionally dysregulated, over-thinky, and a bit useless. There are 6yos out there who do calculus for fun, for goodness sake, while my kids at 11 and 13 spuriously insist they can’t tell time – and will hold their breath to prove it!
The lovely thing about the gifted/2e tribe is, they get that. There’s no pissing contest about whose kid is more gifted or whether you’ve read Silverman, Tolan or Merrill. We all know we are learning on a job where there’s no union, no OH&S, and no damn tea-breaks. We don’t really have a clue what’s going on (because these kids mix signals like nobody’s business) or if we do have a clue, we remember all too well the bruises from our own days of seeking.
So we tootle along, sharing, laughing, and crying, and when someone wobbles, wondering what the hell they’re doing there when their 13yo has read nothing but the same two book series over and over for the past TWO YEARS, they all just laugh, empathise, proffer gin and if you’re after it, advice. It’s that recognition that saves my sanity, every time. The knowing laughs when I complained about starting this very column two months early and twelve different times, the women offering the balm of their likeness, rather than a reference to fix that.
Sure, I have a long way to go to guru-dom. I should definitely read more University Press books, especially about giftedness, homeschooling, and being a good human, instead of books with curly embossed titles and drawings of teapots and frocks on the front. But I don’t, because my brain hurts from living it, and because I’ve come to realise that actually, that’s all the expertise I need, to write about what happens in my house. I do get us. And as long as I’m sharing something that might give you a glimmer of recognition, of connection, of feeling less alone in your confusion, then I’m on the right track. Perfectly entitled to my position and right to speak it.
Just don’t look to me as any sort of authority.