“But What If I’m Not Good Enough?”: The Imposter Syndrome and Academia

I’ve got a new post up over at Ethos: A Digital Review of Arts, Humanities, and Public Ethics, on the imposter syndrome and academia.

ethos capture

An excerpt that lays out the problem of the piece:

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s ancient treatise on moral philosophy, Aristotle set out for himself no less a task than to discover the purpose of human life. If we could figure out what we’re all ultimately striving for, Aristotle thought, philosophy might be able to tell us how we can get there. The answer Aristotle came up with – that what human beings want above all else is to be happy – hardly seems like the kind of conclusion you needed to be Aristotle to figure out. But happiness, for Aristotle, is a bit different from our American notions of feeling good; it’s about what the Greeks called eudemonia – a well-lived life. And Aristotle’s methods are instructive for those of us trying to find happiness in our own lives in the here and now.

Aristotle has us consider why we do any of the things we do. For example, if you asked me why I went to work today, I might answer that it’s because I need to make money. And if you asked me why I need to make money, I might tell you it’s because I need a place to live. The process goes on until, inevitably, one reaches an endpoint, and says, “I have no idea why I don’t want to end up desperate and alone with no place to live … I just want to behappy!” and Aristotle’s point is established: you do the stuff you do because it’s supposed to make your life go well. He then goes on to try to figure out what kinds of activities we should organize our life around, so that we can be happy in this way.

The answer Aristotle gives should look pretty good to most academics: the path to happiness is a life devoted to rational thought and intensive contemplation. But if this is right, something seems to have gone terribly wrong with the way we approach our work as academics in the modern world. Today, the imposter syndrome – a kind of academiceitis where one lives in constant fear of not measuring up – is “rampant in academia.” A recentChronicle of Higher Education piece describes the deep personal insecurity experienced by those suffering from the imposter syndrome, which arises out of the feeling that one must constantly prove oneself and one’s work worthy to others. According to researcher Valerie Young, this leads to the psychological state where academics become “convinced that other people’s praise and recognition of their accomplishments is undeserved.” At some point, it seems, we stopped engaging in contemplation for its own sake, and began to focus instead on proving our worth. We left Aristotle behind, and it’s making us miserable.

Check out the rest of the article  over at Ethos!



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Filed under On Being Human, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel, The Library Game

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