Friday, February 22, 2013

Impostor Syndrome

Things I need to stop caring about:
1) What other people think
2) That voice in my head (some writers call it the Inner Editor)

You know that voice, yes? The one that tells you that you are not good enough? That no matter what you do you will always be deficient; that everyone else knows something that you don't, that you are incapable, somehow, of functioning in the real world among people.

Honest - XKCD

Impostor syndrome, says MIT quoting Wikipedia, is "a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments". For many girls, a cult of modesty and self-effacement exacerbates the problem. Talking about your achievements, or simply remaining unworried when your friends are freaking out about something, is perceived as being arrogant/aloof/incorrect.

The MIT article to which I have linked above emphasizes impostor syndrome in academic settings, but the concept applies to any situation where you compete, in/directly, with other people. There's always temptation to back down, to give up rather than risk being exposed as lacking. To say "I'm just not good at X" instead of continuing to bluff or, better yet, work hard at whatever X is and gradually improve.

Flip side: never saying, definitively, "I am good at Y". I think I do this one rather often. Instead of saying "I'm good at math"* I say, "I really like math."

*Typing that, I felt a stab of worry - "Do I sound like I'm bragging?" But you know what, forget that, I'm making a point. I was about to type the following: "I'm probably justified in saying 'I like' rather than 'I'm good at' in this case, because relative to many other people I am not 'good at math'. At a math competition I attended earlier this month, my team (we had some of the smartest kids at the school) got smoked by ten-year-olds."

Back to impostor syndrome. I've read (probably in a Jim Collins book) that successful people generally attribute their successes to luck and their failures to their own shortcomings. An attitude of accountability surely helps in life, as well as an honest assessment of your weaknesses. Yet surely it is not healthy to blame yourself for everything, and surely there is a line between useful and useless paranoia.

I have certain phrases and words to which I return over and over. If you've been reading this blog for a while you might have noticed some: dark waters of the mind/sink in is probably the most prominent. But I don't think I've spoken of one written on an index card on my wall:

Fear complacency.

Double-edged sword and all that - constantly chasing new accomplishments will lead to burnout. But as long as you're pursuing something with your full commitment, you stand a chance of doing something worthwhile and outrunning your fears that you're not good enough. If you do work that justifies you (I think I'm quoting someone there), then does it really matter how you feel while you're doing it?

Of course it does. But when your mind is full of something you're working on, there's no room for petty doubts and existential crises.

I realize that I'm swinging from one unhealthy extreme to another. Being humble is good; so is owning your successes; so is not getting too attached to them. As always, Aurelius must have the last word. I've distilled his philosophy into one word:


+Italian for "you will suffice".


What I've been listening to repeatedly this week:

Little Drop of Poison - Tom Waits

Friday, February 15, 2013


My band teacher occasionally says wise things in an alienating way.

"Discipline is not something that others can force on you. It's something that you have within yourself, that makes you bring your instrument home every day to practice without being told. I encourage you all to work on your own internal discipline...before I yell at you to stop talking in the middle of a rehearsal!"



It's been a rough week. I have not behaved myself in accordance with my principles, and I've fallen behind on various things I'm doing on my own - and in consequence, I feel dissatisfied. I almost didn't start writing this post, because I thought I should catch up. But it's a long weekend, plenty of time to do research, and the discipline of sitting down to write a post every week outweighs the external motivation of school. Not sure if that makes sense anywhere but in my head; I've just spent an hour making breakthroughs in my physics homework and I don't have much left in the way of mental faculties.


Discipline. In the fall, I was reading some philosophy books, and as Europe progressed the philosophy became more and more abstract and less and less applicable. Because everyone is reactionary in some way, I turned to the stalwart Aurelius to set me straight.

In connection with those readings, I started thinking about my personal philosophy, some weird amalgamation of Aurelius and Nietzsche and Goss. And I found a phrase, a refrain that surfaces every so often when my mind is in a lull:

The highest virtue is self-control.


I am not sure if I believe that completely. But it's something concrete that I can hold on to, that I can use to help me make decisions. When faced with two options, choose the one that you know is good for you but that you don't want to do. Like going to sleep instead of reading another list of 101.3 things to do with index cards, or abstaining from taking anything from your friend's lunch.

Lest I sound like I'm bragging, let me declare that I often do undisciplined, sometimes downright stupid, things. So I have not yet attained the highest virtue.

But I have noticed that whenever I make steps in that direction (i.e. do things that require discipline) I feel more stable. Discipline can be thought of as an endoskeleton, the thing inside of you that gives you your structure and allows you to get things done (in which case I suppose it is also the muscles...this image wants refining). External systems, what school calls discipline (punishment, consequences) is an exoskeleton, or padded armor, intended to stop you from hurting yourself or others.

Last year I had my school's hardest PE teacher. This year, though I exercise on a fairly regular basis for fencing, I know I have undergone atrophy. I think I should start working on getting back into shape, because when you are fit (the physical equivalent of being mentally disciplined, though there is overlap) it feels better. You're not fighting against your corpus.

Another way to state the "highest virtue" is that you must get and stay in shape in all areas of your life.

I do not mean that you must always be disciplined, never indulge yourself, &c. Constantly doing "the right thing" sounds like a fast route to burnout; as Goss says, "You have to treat yourself as though you were someone you loved."

Still, I don't think that principle cannot be unified with the one of discipline as the highest virtue. Had I perfect discipline, I'd keep a regular sleep schedule, which certainly would be taking better care of myself than I do now.

On that note, I must go. Discipline involves knowing when you have to stop, when you've passed your point of maximum efficiency and need to recharge. It is the 20-mile march all over. You can put something down, knowing that the next day you'll be back at it, working steadily to bring yourself closer, asymptotically, to your distant, highest ideal.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

XKCD Appreciation Post

The internet at my house is down, and I don't have much time left since I'm using a library computer. Did not do much writing this week, because of a distinct STEM focus (though I am working on a Python game pertaining to GW). Thus: XKCD. Have a good weekend.


Love the ocean.
And the sky.
Possibly the most romantic words anyone could say.
And the most inspirational.
This is also rather wonderful.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Let Go

Note: another somewhat personal post. Skip to Antonella's quote for the good advice.


At sixteen I am already encrusted in barnacles. I am interested in removing them.

Last week I wrote about what last year I called foci, with the essential message being to choose only one or two things on which to spend most of your time/effort. The implication: everything that is not one of the foci must go.

Okay, not everything. But choice implies subtraction (I feel as though I am paraphrasing someone there). Choose what's important and, by extension, less important.


On Saturday, I went to my first high school dance. We had a big group, about fifteen people. The least embarrassing way I can think of to put my situation honestly: I have for months been wondering if I like someone, and I had felt in the weeks leading up that one way or another, I'd figure out what I really felt after the dance. I did. My crush ended peaceably, and I feel much freer for it.

A few months ago, I bought a book from my library's book sale: The Book of Runes, by Ralph Blum. I intended it for research into magic systems, but because I am me I read it with an eye to application.

Throughout this week, whenever I've been feeling indecisive, I flip open a random page in a book and based on the page number consult the rune book. *

On Sunday I got 5, which corresponds to the rune Uruz. Says Blum:
Growth and change...involve passage into darkness...Prepare, then, for opportunity disguised as loss. It could involve the loss of someone or something to which there is an intense emotional bond, and through which you are living a part of your life, a part that must now be retrieved so you can live it out for yourself. (94)

For me, this week, that has meant letting go of my daydreams of the future or a nonexistent present. There is the dance business, and that bonny lad whom I have decided to think of as a friend (not "just" a friend, because a friend is an incredible thing in itself), and there is also the choking expectations I used to have for college. Yesterday I realized that I'm probably not going to get into my dream school (MIT) and that that is okay, that I will be fine wherever I go as long as I'm doing something I love.

I really can't say it better than this:

Spend time with yourself, decide who you are, what parts of you are your own. Drop the others. Find your center. Take control of your own serenity. Don’t put too much in other people’s hands. The only person who is always going to be there with you, every second of every day till your very last breath is yourself. So get to know you, be comfortable with who you are and start counting on yourself. Count on yourself for the little things and count on yourself to make you happy, count on yourself to be strong. Know that you can count on yourself for anything that may come your way. Count on yourself more than you count on anyone else. You are the only one who can give you a 100% chance of never disappointing yourself. And with that I don’t mean ‘never count on others’, no way. You should love, deeply. But don’t forget yourself, don’t put all your happiness in someone else’s hands. Love fiercely, but don’t lose yourself in the process.

Emphasis mine. Why put your happiness out of your own control? Why give up a portion of your power to others? You - yes, you, you with the face and the dreams - you suffice.

Have a good weekend.


*If anyone is seriously interested in the formula, I can append it.