Friday Takeaway: Making it or faking it?

  • Naomi Shulman is shown May 31, 2017 in her Northampton home.

For the Gazette
Thursday, August 15, 2019

I’ve been contributing to the Friday Takeaway for a couple years now, so I guess it’s time to level with you: I have no idea what I’m doing. Each time my deadline rolls around, I have a moment of mild panic. Will I be able to think of anything worth saying? Will anyone want to read it? Most times when I sit down to write, I have the overwhelming sense that I’m just faking it. Then I go ahead and write anyway. 

Case in point: I was out for coffee the other day with my writer friends Caitlin and Jane (names changed to protect the insecure). One of them has a book launching this month — a nonfiction guidebook that draws on years of her experience in a specific line of work. Having written a book on the topic, she has now positioned herself as an expert in the field — and she’s finding the word “expert” an uncomfortable fit.

“Here I am — I literally ‘wrote the book’ — and yet anytime anyone asks me a question on the topic, I still feel unsure for a second,” Jane said. “Like, why are they asking me? You know what I mean?”

Boy, do I. But it’s easy for me to see what the problem is when it involves someone else.  “It’s imposter syndrome,” I said reassuringly. “It’s the feeling that you’re a fraud. We’ve all got it. I do, anyway.”

“I don’t,” said Caitlin. Jane and I looked at her. “I mean, I don’t suffer from any syndrome,” Caitlin went on. “I know I’m a fraud.”

Hold on. All three of us are published authors, but Caitlin is, by pretty much any metric, the most successful. Caitlin’s work has been praised in the New York Times. Caitlin’s book has been translated into multiple languages. Caitlin’s writing has landed her in multiple highly selective writer’s residencies. And yet, of the three of us, she is the least convinced of her skill and talent. 

So here’s the thing: The more we know, the more we realize what we don’t know. It seems that the more expert we become in any particular area, the less confident some of us are we actually have it nailed. It makes perfect sense, then, that Caitlin, the writer among us with the most accolades and the longest experience, feels the least sure of herself. 

I used to think this was a particularly female phenomenon, but research shows it isn’t. A paper published in the September 2018 issue of  “Personality and Individual Differences” looked at how men and women rated their work and measured how anxious they felt about it, and then researchers ranked where they fell on an “Imposter Phenomenon Scale.” Women did indeed report feeling like frauds more often than men did, but men actually rated higher on the scale. In other words, men feel like imposters at least as often as women do; they’re just not as willing to admit it.

For men and women alike, this is unfortunate news. Psychologists suggest that imposter syndrome is more prevalent today than ever, thanks to modern scourges like social media and Photoshop. 

However, there’s a flip side to all this. It turns out in many cases, the less we know about a topic, the more confident we are in our opinions about it. This is the Dunning-Kruger effect, and I would hazard a guess we’ve all seen it in action. It’s so much easier to have a firm, black-and-white take on a subject when we don’t see the gray.

While experts have a full understanding of just how big and messy their fields are and how much they have yet to learn, neophytes literally don’t know what they don’t know. 

This could have something to do with beginner’s luck. When you’re wandering into something new, confidence never hurts. I think back to when I was thinking about having kids, and I was quite sure I knew exactly how I’d raise mine (correctly) compared to the ways so many other parents were raising theirs (incorrectly).

In that sense, I was a much better parent before I became an actual parent — and thank god, because if I’d had any sense at all of just how hard, relentless, and thankless parenting would often be, I’d never have signed up for it.

Now that I’ve been doing this gig for two decades, I’m about to watch my eldest head out the door to college — and I'm crossing my fingers that she has a solid foundation, that I didn’t mess up too much. I take comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one. I may not always know what I’m doing, but neither does anyone else (especially the people who think they’re doing it perfectly!). Even if we’re just faking it till we make it, we still make it in the end. Mostly.

The good news is I came home from that coffee with Caitlin and Jane knowing what my next column would be. “Okay, I’ve decided what I’m writing about this time,” I told my daughter. “I’m going to write about imposter syndrome.”

After a moment’s pause, she said, smiling, “Are you sure you’re qualified?”

Naomi Shulman’s work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Yankee Magazine, as well as on NEPR and WBUR. Follow her on Twitter: @naomishulman.