Smart Imposter Syndrome

I have a friend. Let’s call her A.

A is an exceptional person; a philosophy graduate and young PhD candidate, a Fulbright scholar, a small business owner and a gifted writer and thinker. She read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus, for fun.

Objectively speaking, most would agree that A makes a strong case for being considered intelligent. It’s a trait-claim backed both by anecdote and evidence of achievement, with the only subjectivity being in the degree

But, whenever she enters a room full of people, especially smart people, she feels like an intellectual imposter. Some sort of fraud about to be found out at any moment. So she tends to observe much more than she speaks, and in many cases may even experience a repressive duality, seen by others as only being a half-version of herself, compounding the complex further through measured responses significantly less detailed than her thinking.

A has a subtype of what is commonly known as Imposter Syndrome. Specific to smarts, but also tied loosely to her own version of success.

On Louie CK. Louie grew up in a working class family, moving from Washington to Mexico City, to eventually settle down in suburban Boston when he was 7. His father left a few years later and he and his three older sisters were raised by his mother, Mary, who was a computer software engineer. He’s now considered one of the most popular and respected comedians in history, but for several years after gaining notoriety he suffered what he refers to as “poor person anxiety”; the more money he earned, the more he felt like he was going to screw up and lose it all, or worse, that it wasn’t even real to begin with.

Naturally, the first time he had more than $100,000 in the bank, he was petrified. So much so that he withdrew the entire sum in cash and piled it up in his apartment, in small denominations, just so he could believe that it belonged to him. He needed to see it in physical form to accept that it wasn’t an abstract fantasy, as had been the case for all previous thoughts he’d had about wealth. It lasted a year. Louie is now worth about 15 million dollars, and he uses an ATM card.

I have another friend. Let’s call him B.

B is an exceptional person; a legal academic with degrees in philosophy and law, who scored top marks at Australia’s leading law school and received a scholarship to study at Oxford. Throughout high school he consistently aced his classes, especially mathematics, music and creative writing, and he wrote regionally award-winning stage plays based around philosophical speculations and logical paradoxes. He’s always had a reputation for being smart and academic and humble, and yet, he rarely talks about intelligence (he thinks it’s weird I find geniuses so interesting).

B, like A, also makes a strong case for being considered intelligent. B is aware of this, just as A is in her own case, and yet B doesn’t feel any self-doubt (or conversely, any arrogance), in any sense, irrespective of the setting. He just feels, as it can only be described, normal.

On Terence Tao. Tao has a reputation as the most talented living mathematician in the world. He was able to multiply 4 digit numbers by 4 digit numbers in his head when he was just four years old, he has a Fields Medal (the math equivalent of a Noble prize), a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant, and he’s known by fellow mathematicians as the ‘Mozart of Math’. Basically, he’s a Good Will Hunting-level genius. The curious thing about Tao, though, is that when colleagues discuss his abilities and achievements in interviews, they almost always give equal attention to his personality, and most notably, how much humility he has. In spite of how supremely intelligent he his, he seems totally unimposing. Students find him endlessly helpful and humble and friendly, and if physical demeanour and body language are anything to add, he seems like one of the nicest people you could possibly meet.

On being a human. From what I can tell, there seems to be two primary operating systems available in our heads: the system of self, governed by the superego, and the system of purpose, governed by logic and intention. Things are more complex than that, obviously, but for the sake of understanding something like Imposter Syndrome, broad definitions can be useful.

Function-wise the two systems differ as much as an Xbox and a Macbook; two entirely separate outlooks, operated alternately, by the same user. The user, in this case, representing our consciousness of the present moment: an attention spread outward from the middle of our mind, that becomes awareness.

The difference is due to their differing priorities. In the system of self, for example, an increased value is placed on questions such as ‘Who am I?’ / ‘How am I perceived by other people?’ / ‘How tasty is this taco going to be?’ And then answers to those questions: ‘I am a smart person’ / ‘Other people see me as smart’ / ‘This taco tastes goddamn amazing.

Operating according to purpose, on the other hand, places attention in a mostly external context, with things being more MO-based: ‘What’s the best way to speak to this person so they feel valued and welcome?’ / ‘How can this thing be done more effectively?’ / ‘A letter to the editor on that climate change piece needs to be written’ / ‘Tacos for everyone, fuck yeah!’.

A purpose-based outlook is still concerned with who we are, only much more objectively. My friend B and Terence Tao (particularly Tao) are good examples of purpose-based thinking. Consider this question: How is it possible that the smartest mathematician on the planet lacks any intimidation or sense of entitlement, and in fact emboldens the confidence of the people he speaks to? There can only be two possibilities: 1) He’s projecting false modesty, controlling an impulse for the sake of having a good social perception; 2) He genuinely doesn’t think about being smart. Looking into Tao’s development and upbringing, it’s quite clearly the latter.

So, how is it possible to have a trait as profound as unparalleled intelligence, and not think about it?

The answer, I think, is in the verb difference between what we know to be true and what we are thinking to be true. Imagine your mind as a house with a storage space: A piece of knowledge is like a constructed ornament; once the materials of an idea form into the completed structure, a personally-known and evidence-based truth, it can be placed in your mind’s storage, ready for viewing or dissemination whenever necessary (if Tao were asked about his intelligence in an interview, for example).

The distinction between the experience of friend A and someone like Terence Tao, is that Tao places an awareness of himself in a compartment he places no priority or focus on; A, on the other hand, navigates her house while still carrying her smartness ornament with her.

In terms of the house analogy, Imposter Syndrome is the inherent and precarious fragility of an ornament being carried—a rejection of the idea means it can be easily dropped and broken. It has nothing to do with an absence of truth.

This is extremely common. Imposter Syndrome usually applies to success, but can equally target someone’s sense of attractiveness, their religious beliefs, even a feeling of likability. Smartness is a much envied and defining trait to have, so it’s no surprise that people with talented intellects find themselves more aware of their intelligence than others; consider the kind of feedback they receive from a young age and how that plays into their sense of self-worth as they mature. Unless constructively counterbalanced or locked into a focus-zone from an experience (such as that related to love or trauma), the maturing mind can’t help but think about the traits it knows about itself, especially those that become structural to its sense of self-value.

Thinking of ourselves as smart leaves us particularly open to vulnerability, especially for introverts. Consider these two forms of self-focus: ‘I am smart’ versus ‘I am muscular’. A conviction of physical muscularity finds supporting evidence in the mirror; it’s easy to match the belief with reality. Perhaps even more importantly, though, is that it provides a clear sense of a person’s relative stance in the population. A bodybuilder knows exactly how muscular the biggest lifters in the world are, and exactly how much smaller than them he is. He may walk around like a gorilla while wearing a singlet in the middle of winter, but it’s easy for him to be realistic—he’d never consider himself alongside the biggest.

Unlike traits such as physicality and attractiveness, smartness is pragmatically abstract. It sits in a cloud somewhere governing our weather, and in spite of all the tests available, everyone knows that it’s impossible to really measure properly. It’s something inside that other people sometimes notice if it’s visible enough, but to the smart person it becomes salient; felt and examined in every solved problem and witty one-liner and analytical deduction being made. It follows that the smarter someone is, the greater the regularity of internal validation they receive, the more compounded the condition becomes.

Smart Imposter Syndrome can also be justified. It’s entirely possible—and common—for people to have inflated views of their own intelligence. If we hold a false belief of ourselves that isn’t reflected externally, the balance of the conviction hinges mostly on our own assumption; an idea rather than a reality. Any conviction that balances on internal thinking alone, no matter how convincing it is, is a tenuous one. The superego then overcompensates by ramping up awareness and exaggerating any example that it finds.

The smart introvert, therefore, has a very unique challenge on their hands. Not only are they naturally inhibited from demonstrating enough of their intelligence to gain a confident perspective of themselves, but they are also smart enough to intuit relative truths without much real world application. They know they’re smart, they just have a hard time being confident about it. It’s the reason intelligent people with Imposter Syndrome tend to feel increasingly normal as they mature—real-world evidence accumulates through their living experience.

Someone genuinely smart can also overestimate themselves though. Similar to the flat-out delusional, you have to put yourself out there. The less we say out loud, the more we rely on information learnt within an unchallenged context, the smarter we will appear to ourselves.

How to fix it. The quickest way to feel more comfortable with externalising smart thinking publicly, is to change your operating system. Studying cognitive control and meditation and emotional intelligence, and learning how to shift an awareness away from personal traits to purely pragmatic activities. Being confident the ornament has been built and placing it safely in storage. Out of sight, out of mind, as it were.

It’s self-hypnosis. Engaging your higher mind to examine your thoughts, and being vigilant to any thinking centred around your intelligence. Becoming attuned to even the slightest glance at how smart you are and immediately looking in a different direction; keeping in mind that noticing how smart you are is actually counter-productive. Think about it: if you notice how well you’re writing something or analysing a situation, your mental resources are divided; your focus fractioned to 80% on the task at hand, 20% on ‘What a genius I am!’ And the potential for reaching a zone of super focus—the kind where you can smash out 1,200 essay words in an hour—all but eradicated.

Smartness may be enviable but it’s an incredibly stigmatic thing to talk about, and lacking self-confidence can be a legitimate problem for many people. Society is built by effective individuals working together, and by its nature the smartness trait enables a person to determine how effective in society they can potentially be. This creates pressure, then disappointment. They set an extremely high standard for themselves that they’re unlikely to meet without the benefit of experience. So they become tentative, never fully opening up, only expressing enough to sustain a half-baked belief in themselves.

Salient as smartness may be in the mind, there’s one thing that truly overwhelms any attention to it: a curiosity in something bigger than yourself, and the passion that comes from its inquiry. Back in 2007, Terence Tao posted an answer to a question on his blog, titled: Does one have to be a genius to do maths?

His response:

The answer is an emphatic NO. In order to make good and useful contributions to mathematics, one does need to work hard, learn one’s field well, learn other fields and tools, ask questions, talk to other mathematicians, and think about the “big picture”. And yes, a reasonable amount of intelligence, patience, and maturity is also required. But one does not need some sort of magic “genius gene” that spontaneously generates ex nihilo deep insights, unexpected solutions to problems, or other supernatural abilities.

The popular image of the lone (and possibly slightly mad) genius – who ignores the literature and other conventional wisdom and manages by some inexplicable inspiration (enhanced, perhaps, with a liberal dash of suffering) to come up with a breathtakingly original solution to a problem that confounded all the experts – is a charming and romantic image, but also a wildly inaccurate one, at least in the world of modern mathematics. We do have spectacular, deep and remarkable results and insights in this subject, of course, but they are the hard-won and cumulative achievement of years, decades, or even centuries of steady work and progress of many good and great mathematicians; the advance from one stage of understanding to the next can be highly non-trivial, and sometimes rather unexpected, but still builds upon the foundation of earlier work rather than starting totally anew…

Read the full post here

Tao’s language here is on fire, and a perfect example of a purpose-orientated mindset—he’s engaged with a reality infinitely more fulfilling than the idea of his own prowess. For Tao, and for every other talented yet normal-feeling individual, being smart is just the same as being able to walk, being able to eat, and being able to laugh; all enviable traits if they’re lacking, but when it comes to standard, the reality is, they don’t matter. Outside of effectiveness and attraction, they’re not supposed to; intelligence is just a proxy to thinking. The only thing that matters in the case of thinking, in the context of human value, is what we do with it.

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8 thoughts on “Smart Imposter Syndrome”

  1. Another great article and a thought provoking one. I have a trait of perfectionism and self doubt. But I know I have intelligence and I am good at my profession of tax. I get annoyed at normal intelligence so to speak when I feel people should be smarter or more progressed in their knowledge in the field they are in. I expect growth. This is extraordinarily tiring for my head and expectations. So I have had to retrain my head to not expect others to keep up with my speeding train thought proceeses and perfectionism and intelligence in some areas, and relax. But I also do not expound my intelligence enough. I have hidden it, deflated it, whilst at the same time as said become irritated. So I feel now that intelligence should be allowed to shine and be visable, but without ego and without adapting your language to proove a point. In other words your day to day actions, positive and giving attitude along with the occasional intelligent outburst when needed gives a balanced person. From direct experience there is something annoying about humble intelligence. A lot of us struggle to gain knowledge, it’s not a gift. And if hard won, then it is good to celebrate it. I expect people to enjoy their intelligence and not hide it under a stone of humility. But finally intelligence in its best form is when it is gifted to others through teaching, mentoring and support. That is then a shared intelligence, a celebrated intelligence and good for everyone.

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    1. Thanks for another great comment Judi! I think you should write about this stuff more, you’ve got some fantastic insight. The concept of intelligence is a topic definitely worth its own post. Any sustained self-focus, whether on how smart we are or how wealthy we might be, generally speaking, seems to come with some sort of sacrifice. It’s rarely the end of the world, but it sure makes life more difficult and fragmented than it needs to be. I love your points on intelligence, and especially your follow-up one on the differentiation of terms; this particular post takes a liberty between ‘smartness’ and ‘intelligence’ as most view the terms as interchangeable, and this kind of thing reads better using terms people are familiar with (which is a really bad excuse for not defending the value of correct language-use more).

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  2. Just one comment more…smartness and genius and intelligence are very different beasts. As is IQ. We muddle the definitions and sometimes give a person an all consuming identity which rests unwell with them, when actually they have one trait but lack the others. perhaps that is why some people hide it all and it’s easier just to be normal.

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    1. Just very lucky! I grew up with friend B, and have been lucky to meet/get to know friend A. Nothing exceptional about me I’m afraid!

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  3. Dwelling on intelligence is such a strange concept, for all of the reasons you’ve listed… The most genius individuals I’ve ever met are artists, because they are so highly focused on creating something that combines technique and concept on a topic that they as an individual are deeply passionate about. Listening to a skilled artist talk about their work is really inspiring, because you can just feel the genuine enthusiasm behind their words, and all of the thoughtful consideration they put into each, seemingly minuscule detail… And never once, while they’re working, when they’re in a true state of ‘flow’ are they thinking, ‘what will people think of me when they see this piece?’

    Ah, there it us. That state of creative ‘flow’. That is the only time I feel ‘genius’, probably because I feel like someone else entirely, then. The rest of the time I’m an imposter. 😳

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    1. Haha beautifully put! :) I’ve noticed one potential exception at the top level (I think): novelists. They’re super reclusive and self aware by nature and usually a bit narcissistic (especially postmodernists like Pynchon), so they seem to focus on themselves a lot more than musicians or painters, (but it’s probably just a trend thing).

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