Since May, I have:
- Started my own website
- Written over 100 articles on the website
- Applied for a Masters at the University of Sheffield (and been accepted)
- Applied for funding at the University of Sheffield (and received it)
- Been published in the university newspaper
- Performed at a spoken word event
- Written over 20 minutes of a screenplay
- Spoken on the radio about black identity
- Started coaching rugby at university
- Videoed and photographed a Christening
It is fair to say that I have not been idle since leaving teaching. And yet, often I feel like a fake, an imposter on the run, waiting for someone, anyone, to tap me on the shoulder and scream to the world that I am a fraud.
I sit in my seminars and listen to what my classmates say. They are intelligent, with an ability to think laterally, making connections that I simply do not see. I hear what they say and compare it to the notes I have written, which appear basic and uninformed in comparison.
After my seminars, I go and coach a rugby team. I have been coaching rugby on and off for 17 years. My teams have won more tournaments than I remember and players I have coached have gone on to play in the highest leagues in the country. And yet I cannot escape the suffocating feeling that I’m playing at being a coach in the same way that a child plays at being a doctor.
A former pupil emailed me earlier this year expressing the same fears. This student is one of the more exceptional I have taught, finished their first year with a first from a college at Oxford and is an international level sportsperson. At the time, I couldn’t understand how they would feel that way, but it is frighteningly clear to me now.
A review article, first published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, estimates that 70% of people suffer from imposter syndrome and there are many articles online that give advice on how to deal with it. I’m not interested in that. Instead, I want to focus on why I and others have this feeling.
Like any good analysis, I start with urbandictionary.com. Specifically I start with its definition of fronting:
A façade. Appearing one way, but really acting another. Misrepresenting yourself.
Everyone at some point is guilty of fronting. Think of the last time you applied for a job; how about the last time you met a group of new people and they asked you to say something about yourself. Heck, look at your social media profile. In all of those scenarios, it can be beneficial or even necessary to put up a front. There is a fear that if we present ourselves as we see ourselves, it won’t be enough. This makes sense, as we know the full, ugly truth about ourselves. Quick test: think of the worst thing you’ve ever done. How many of your friends and family know it? I wonder if this is where imposter syndrome starts, with a fear that we are the sum value of all the bad things we’ve ever done, all of our failures.
On that, the 1969 satire The Peter Principle, by Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull suggests that, in a hierarchy, people rise to their “level of incompetence”. That, to me, sounds exactly like imposter syndrome. The idea that I’m doing something that I’m fundamentally unqualified for is one I can readily empathise with. I had a thought the other day that went something like this:
What made me think that teaching Of Mice and Men and war poetry made me a suitable candidate for a Masters qualification?
This negative thought pattern is one that is easy to get into and a pain in the backside to get out of, especially because it has a kernel of truth in it.
The last thing I will point to as a reason for feeling like an imposter is success. I know it sounds odd, but my successes often make me feel like an imposter. I’ll illustrate my point with an example. At primary school, I was a decent goalkeeper in 5-a-side football (by virtue of being big enough to cover the whole goal – Ed). I preferred playing outfield though and so my teacher offered me a choice for a tournament that we went to: play in goal for the ‘a’ team or outfield for the ‘b’ team. Being the contrarian chap that I was, I chose the ‘b’ team, much to his chagrin. We were knocked out in the quarter-finals and went to support our ‘a’ team who had made the final. A spate of injuries meant that I was asked to play the last 30 seconds for the ‘a’ team and, when the match went to penalties, I was tasked with taking the last one to win the tournament. To hear others tell it, I swaggered up, coolly slotted it in the corner in the style of my hero Alessandro Del Piero and peeled away to celebrate with my teammates. Except that isn’t true. I was scared and scuffed my shot. That it went in was more to do with luck than judgement. As I was celebrating, a small part of me felt like a fraud. It’s the same part that feels a need to pipe up whenever I scored a try (lucky), took a wicket (it was the batsman’s error not your skill) or made a 3 in basketball (a broken clock is still right twice a day).
That voice, I think, wishes to paralyse me, to make me ineffective. What I will do is persevere. That voice has been there since I was 11 and is probably not going anywhere, but I am. I have a Masters to earn, a PhD to apply for and a life to live. If that voice is right, and I am a fraud, then the least I can do is be the best fraud that I can be.