Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Values vs. Imposter Syndrome

Thanks to @RowGirl2012's twitter feed, I came across this old article from Ed Yong about how having students spend 15 minutes writing about two or three values that are important to them essentially closed the gender gap in performance in a college physics class.

I had heard of the earlier work with high school students cited in this article, but had forgotten about it. I am grateful for the reminder. I am already thinking about how I might use this exercise with my kids. More immediately, I think I need to do the exercise myself.

I am in a weird place right now. I am very excited about my new career direction, and having a great time with the projects I'm working on. I feel so fortunate to have this opportunity to try to build something new without forgoing the income to which my family has become accustomed. I am, quite simply, having a blast.

At the same time, I am fighting a massive case of imposter syndrome. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that I have no proof that I can succeed in this new venture, and no real feedback yet to give me confidence that I will succeed. As much as I tell myself that it doesn't actually matter if I succeed- the important thing is to try and learn, and trust myself that if this doesn't work out I'll take what I've learned and find something else great to do- there is apparently a large part of me that does not believe it.

The worst thing about imposter syndrome is the way that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. So far, I think I'm doing a fairly good job of ignoring the doubting voice inside my head and just following through on my plans. However, I also don't take it for granted that this will last.

So I'm going to do the exercise suggested in that article. I'm going to write about my values. And there is no time like the present!

I picked values that seem relevant to what I'm doing. They are in no particular order, and in fact there might be other values that matter to me more but that I'm not writing about. I didn't do a careful analysis of what matters most to me- I just wrote about the first three things that came to mind.

Value #1:  People and work both matter
Doing great work and being great to people should not be in conflict. Too many people think they are, and too many workplaces are set up to make employees choose. I didn't go with "people first," because too often I see that used to explain decisions to decrease work-related ambitions. If that's really what someone wants, that is fine, but I suspect that in many cases people really want to keep pursuing their ambitions but are forced to choose between ambition and family* because something is putting them in conflict. My firm belief is that they are only in conflict because we have set them up that way. The problem is, the systems that put work and family in conflict have been in place for so long that we've started to see this conflict as just the natural order of things. I don't think it has to be that way. I think we just haven't had the imagination and/or the will to design better systems yet. Changing this will probably take a lot of time and iterations. I'm aiming to contribute in some small way.

*I'm using "family" as a stand in for "the people who matter to you."

Value #2: Everyone should get a chance to reach for their full potential
I didn't have a term for my belief that our skills and abilities aren't fixed until I read Carol Dweck's Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Now I know that the term for this is "growth mindset." Regardless of the term, I really believe that everyone's capabilities can improve, and that we waste a lot of our human potential by depriving people of the chance to improve and grow. I think this starts in school, and continues into the work place. The fixed mindset that holds that people are just either "smart or not" is particularly pernicious when combined with stereotypes and biases, but it is harmful to everyone. I want to stamp out the fixed mindset. I want everyone to understand that our mental capabilities grow and improve with practice, just like our physical ones do. We should all marvel at the miracle of brain plasticity!

(I'd obviously love to stamp out stereotypes and biases, too - and actually, I think getting people to really understand brain plasticity and the way our environment effects our development might help with that... but that is waaaay too big a topic to tackle in this post.)

Value #3: Life should be enjoyed
This may be the most controversial of the values on my list, but it is my list, so it belongs here. I don't believe in reincarnation or an afterlife. I think this life is all we get, and so I want to find the joy, beauty, and meaning in it whenever I can, because these are the things that make me enjoy living. And I want everyone else to get to enjoy life, too. In fact, this is the value that is probably most responsible for my hatred our current situation of widening inequality. Too many people lack the bare minimum resources they need to have a chance at enjoying life. This is another thing that I think people assume is just the natural order of things but that is actually a result of how we've set up our systems. We could change it if we wanted. For instance, I'm seeing a lot of press about a universal minimum income. That is one idea for improving things. Who knows what other ideas we'd come up with if we decided this was a bona fide problem that needed a solution? I don't think we all should have the same level of resources, but I do think we should aim for a society in which everyone has enough resources that they can survive.

Incidentally, I also don't think that valuing enjoying life is necessarily in conflict with ambition to do great work. To the extent that it is, I think that is also an artifact of how we've chosen to arrange our work world. I still struggle to fully articulate my thoughts on what is wrong with our current work environment, but it boils down to something like this: we've largely set up work to be an all or nothing, no holds barred competition. I think we'd all be happier, healthier, and more productive if we found a way to make work more collaborative. Maybe eventually I'll get my thoughts to crystallize enough on this that I can write a manifesto of sorts. For now, I just want to note that things don't have to be the way they are.

So those are three values that are really important to me. Do you agree or disagree? What values would be on your list if you did this exercise? Tell me in the comments!


  1. I had read that stud too but never thought to put it into practice for myself - good idea.

    My values are excellence, perseverance, and loyalty.

  2. Sarah (@SarahHCarl)12:33 AM

    Hi Cloud,

    I don't know if you follow Athene Donald, but she's written a lot on imposter syndrome. When I saw your post, I thought it was serendipitous that her blog post yesterday was on the same topic: http://occamstypewriter.org/athenedonald/2014/09/15/who-isnt-an-impostor/ I particularly like her no-nonsense ending!

    I think your values are pretty great, because they come from a sincere place but also question the way things are... to me they sound like a scientist's (and also humanist's) values :). I'll have to think about what mine are...

  3. 5feet9 / VB1:02 AM

    this was a really thought-provoking piece, Cloud. I really like the values you identified and the way you explained why they matter to you.

    My values -- (i) be kind to people, and when I don't have the emotional energy to actively do so, at least help those that I can in however a detached manner I am able to. (ii) sincere effort: whatever I do, I must try to do sincerely, giving it my full attention. (iii) strength, physical, mental, and emotional. I try to find and maintain this in myself, and support my loved ones in doing the same. This is also problematic because it really frustrates me and leaves me feeling helpless when someone dsn't know or recognize their strengths.

  4. Anonymous10:01 AM

    I loved this post. Thanks for that. I like the idea of using this to fight imposter syndrome. On a related note, my husband and I found that defining the values we have for life and our family has really helped us co-parent more effectively. We came to that when we were trying to make a poster of 'household rules' (I'm sure you've seen them commercially or on pinterest). We liked the idea but didn't find any that spoke to us so we made our own and trying to distill our values to a dozen or so pithy phrases was both challenging and inspiring. My favorites are "pursue things that inspire you", "work hard, do your best", and "be grateful". It's a wonderful reminder of how we want to live our best life together. Our little is too little to contribute to our list but I think the idea of making a family poster could be a great way to involve your kids in this exercise and to keep it alive every day.

  5. Anonymous12:59 PM

    This post speaks very strongly to me right now. I'll start a new job in another city in a few months and I'm very excited and very scared at the same time. I'm finally leaving academia and I'll start as a software engineer going towards management. I've never really done software engineering. There are days I fear they'll just kick me out right away again, since I don't know what I'm doing. I guess I should do this writing exercise for me, too.
    I really like your values. I think mine would be:
    Sustainability. It is possible to live more sustainable, there are many things we can do to not overuse our ressources as badly as we are right now. Unfortunately, our system is rigged against our best interests here and inherently rewards the wrong behaviours. I want to contribute to a society that is doing better.
    That is the most important one for me right now.
    I'm sure you'll be fine in your new career.

  6. Thanks for the great comments, everyone. I love reading your values, and reading your thoughts about how to incorporate this exercise into daily life.

  7. What a great post, Cloud. I agree--your #3 should not be controversial at all, yet is weirdly controversial for many, it seems. I'd have to take the time to present my values coherently. . . But I think one of them is (1) Never stop learning. Stay curious. And another would be something about compassion, and recognizing that everyone has a story and that everyone--even those you think are on top of the world and have never suffered a day in their lives--have known pain. Acknowledging another person's pain doesn't negate your own.

    By the way, I second Sarah's recommendation for Athene Donald's posts! It seems that many many successful people have imposter syndrome!


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