Maestro Syndrome

Impostor syndrome and its evil twin

April 7, 2021

I'm not sure I've got this one right. Please feel free to call me out if I'm way off-base.

If you hear a voice within you saying, “You are not a painter,” then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced — but only by working.

— Vincent van Gogh

I suspect the feelings we associate with “impostor syndrome” are fine. Useful, even.

In general, feelings aren’t bad. They’re signals. The way we cope with feelings can be dangerous or ineffective, though.

The word “impostor” is key to understanding how perfectly healthy emotions turn into a problem. Feelings of ignorance or inadequacy become maladaptive when they make you:

  • forget the expertise you do have
  • think you don’t belong
  • too afraid to expose your ignorance and learn
  • run yourself ragged when a rest would be more useful

…and so on.

If the strategy for coping with those feelings is shut down, shut up, and give up, that’s a problem. Similarly if the strategy is frantic and breathless urgency.

When I feel ignorant, that can be fuel for a slow burn to learn more. If I feel unprepared, it could be a signal to change the way I prepare. If I feel unprofessional, it’s also a chance to pause, imagine what I dream a professional would do in this situation, and do that. If the work feels impossible, it might be time to take a breather rather than a panic.

Impostor syndrome is bad because it makes you feel like a permanent outsider, and blinds you to how to fix that.

Often, I see people try to combat impostor syndrome by insisting, “Don’t worry, everyone feels this way, no one knows what they are doing!” and I’m not sure that’s the best resolution to the problem. For one, I want to know what I’m doing; having expertise is fun, and lets me help people! I’ve seen true experts at work, and while they may have self doubt, they’re not faking the expertise.

Maybe worse, imply ignoring or eliminating the emotions that lead to impostor syndrome can lead to an opposite affliction – a belief I’m an expert in fields I am not, or a belief that experts don’t exist at al. Call it “Maestro syndrome”. Self confidence becomes foolhardy (or blowhard-y) when it makes you believe that:

  • no one knows something just because you don’t know it
  • you can pick up a job in weeks when it has taken others years
  • you don’t need to test yourself and learn new things in your field of expertise

These strategies to build confidence are just as bad as impostor syndrome, if less instantly punishing, because they can lead to genuinely being an impostor.

It’s Scylla and Charybdis; neither blind confidence nor meek terror are virtues. Our responses to feelings of ignorance or of strength must always be temperate.

Whenever I think “Boy, I’ve got a lot to learn!” I also must think, “That’s ok; I’d better get started.”

Whenever I think “I’m great at this!” I also must think, “But I’ve still got plenty to improve.”

Finding the middle way is hard because each condition reinforces itself: the sort of person who suffers from impostor syndrome will be more likely to listen to advice that says “don’t get too confident”, and the overly-confident person will be more likely to listen to advice that says “stand tall; everyone’s faking it”.

Which way do you naturally lean, and when? How do you balance that natural tendency?

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