I am generally considered to be a pretty smart guy.
Now to say this directly is to invite doubt and disaster. I know that. I feel it deep in my bones. It’s been drilled into me that, outside of certain domains (like rap and sports), it’s impolite to talk directly about one’s abilities. But I’m pushing through my instinctive discomfort to write this, as I think it might be worth it.
When I say I’m a “pretty smart guy”, immediately I feel compelled to clarify what I’m not saying. I’m not saying I’m the “smartest” (whatever that might mean), or that I’m made unique or special by my above-average intelligence. I’m just saying that it seems true that above-average intelligence is something I possess, and that, despite how I feel about it, probably it doesn’t function like a fearful bird, likely to fly off as soon as I glance in its direction.
The world’s provided me with a fair amount of feedback in support of this conclusion. My grades have been high since I was in prep school, staying high through my undergrad and postgrad studies. I seem to have fairly consistently placed in the top 10-20% of my cohort, depending how you draw the boundaries.
Of course, grades aren’t the only way we measure intelligence, there are lots of reasons why smart people might get bad grades, and it’s possible to get good grades and still be rather dull. Fine. But it’s not just grades that’ve led me to think this—I continue to be complimented on my creativity and my mental abilities in the working world, sometimes by people who have nothing to gain by doing so. And most of my friends (and even some of my enemies) hold me in similar regard: just the other night I hung out with someone who, after he left, thanked me for the unusually stimulating conversation.
I’m belabouring this point, awkward as it feels, because I’m hoping you’ll believe me when I say that despite my intelligence, I am, so often, so painfully stupid. Slow, dull, uninspired, and uninteresting—like a snail that, having decided to end it all, begins sliming towards salt, only to fall asleep halfway there. If you know me personally, this will not come as a surprise. When I was 13, my scout master called me “either the smartest dumb person or the dumbest smart person” he’d ever met; more than a decade later, I don’t really disagree.
Recently, when reflecting on how my intelligence and my idiocy coexist, I was struck by something simple: I am every bit “myself” when stupid as when smart. They’re both indispensable facets of my identity. I don’t think I’d want to rid myself of my idiot streak any more than I’d want to lose my intelligence.
I think this provides an unexpectedly elegant solution to the question “why do I always feel like an imposter, like my credentials are fake and my knowledge is hollow; like I am made of straw while my peers, cast in silver, shine?”. It’s because sometimes I’m silver, and sometimes I’m straw.
The hours of thought I’ve invested in writing this? Silver boi hours. The hours I spent on youtube, watching reviews of videogames I’ll probably never play, while gulping down fistfuls of cheddar, thereby forging new landmarks for the ants to explore? Hours of straw.
So here’s my working theory: everyone feels like an imposter some of the time, because everyone is an imposter some of the time, insofar as it is impossible for one to always be performing at the top of their game. Sometimes, we are impersonating the better versions of ourselves.
Like almost everything said in an intellectual register, this idea is not new. It found its way to me through a tweet by Rachael Meager, whose public grappling with inadequacy helped me immensely. And I’d assume a lot has been said on this in the formal literature on imposter syndrome as well—I don’t know, because, respectfully, I’m not gonna read all that now.
In the framing I’m presenting, “imposter syndrome” is the unpleasant feeling that flows from the tension between who you expect yourself to be, and who you actually are in the moment when you feel like an imposter. To function, it requires three things.
First, that you feel compelled to live up to a certain standard of performance—perhaps because your parents/culture/‘society’ demanded this of you, or because you internalised the standard at a young age and so have grown used to demanding perfection from yourself. Such standards are found across multiple domains—think beauty standards, academic standards, social standards. Although they vary in terms of what is required to live up to them, they are united by their demand for perfection.
Second, it requires that you do occasionally live up to those standards. Sometimes you are indeed beautiful, fashionable, the centre of trend. You are eloquent, incisive, interesting. Sonnets and sonatas fall out of you like loose change from your pocket. You are the model child, student, employee. Pretty close to perfect.
If this condition isn’t met, then I don’t think we’re talking about imposter syndrome. For example, I don’t feel like an imposter when it comes to cooking, because I’ve never been any good at it in the first place. I have no private convictions about my potential, and I feel no fear of falsity, because nobody has ever assumed I was a competent cook to begin with. I haven’t fooled anyone.
The third thing imposter syndrome requires to function is the belief that, whenever you fail to live up to the relevant standard, you are without value, or are undeserving of love, or are [whatever your self-hatred sounds like to you]. This is why imposter syndrome is so pernicious: it takes the very thing that fills you with pride, that you know you have the capacity to excel at, and then punishes you for ostensibly falling short of your potential. It makes your self-worth subordinate to your ability to perform to a standard that is, ultimately, impossible to meet at every moment.
No wonder so many people are having a bad time. Doing some searching while writing this, I discovered that everyone from Andre 3000 to Maya Angelou struggles with feelings of fraudulence. The problem is easiest to observe in creative domains—whenever someone preemptively apologises for sharing their work, I think it’s the fear of fraudulence that pushes the apology out; as if they have to say sorry for failing to live up to perfection.
I’ve noticed this in people my own age and in people older than me, though I find it most disconcerting when it comes from the youth. I recently visited my 14 year old cousin, who, before showing me his art, remarked several times that it was stupid and not very good. I was surprised to see that the demands of perfection had taken root so early, though I shouldn’t have been—by that age, they’d already infiltrated me too. So while I wanted to stamp out his self-doubt, I couldn’t; I can barely keep it at bay in myself.
[Related: the idea of the “insecure overachiever”, which the linked article explains well, and which I first encountered in “Talent”, by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross.]
Three examples of imposter syndrome in action:
- I often find myself awash with anxiety when choosing an outfit to wear on a night out. Cape Town is an aggressively trendy place, so I think what’s happening is that I’m holding myself to a certain standard of “cool”, and then despairing when I realise my wardrobe doesn’t have the depth to meet it. This never used to be a problem for me, perhaps because I felt less internal pressure to conform when I was younger (or perhaps because, growing up in Durban, a city which has been styling itself the same way since 2006, literally any deviation from the median dress style was sufficient to qualify as cool, at least in my own eyes). I don’t know—I only know that now is the era of Gen Z. Maybe this is just a part of getting older.
In any event, this is an issue that is like 90% just in my head—every time I become convinced I’ve committed some grave aesthetic faux pas, it turns out not to matter at all.
- I mentioned earlier that friends sometimes remark favourably on the quality of the conversations we have; and that they praise me for my eloquence. Those are times of silver. But when I’m straw, I find I have nothing particularly interesting to say; nothing valuable to contribute. Words plod out of me, inert as stone. Since I’m supposed to be fantastically articulate, I have failed myself—that’s how it feels.
Sometimes, when this happens, I text whoever I was with the next day, saying something that amounts to“hey sorry I was brain-dead last night, hope you still like me/we’re still friends😅”; to which they typically reply with something like “what? No, it’s fine, you’re fine, it was great to see you anyway!”. Shoutout to them.
- To feel like an imposter is to feel like you are not entitled to inhabit a certain role. Thus far, I’ve been focusing on roles that are creative, aesthetic, intellectual, or otherwise related to skill and talent. That’s because it’s in those roles that I feel most fraudulent. But imposter syndrome can extend further, to infect more fundamental roles—those that are defined by our relationships with other people (and particularly with friends and family).
The most vivid example I can think of here is one I’m borrowing, with permission, from a friend. Because of her dysfunctional relationship with her parents, who are abusive, she often feels like an imposter in family situations, even when they don’t involve her own family. She feels like she’s impersonating a “good” daughter, and that any second she’ll be found out. This is largely because her parents have, for years, chastised her for failing to live up to their regressive values. They seem to conceive of mental illness as inherently disrespectful, and have said things to her that no child should have to hear. They have caused her to internalise standards that run contrary to who she is.
This is not the place to unpack what lies behind this intergenerational trauma, and I’m pretty sure I’m not qualified to do so anyway; so suffice it to say that this form of imposter syndrome is particularly cruel, because it encroaches on parts of one’s identity that should exist near-unconditionally. It is born out of toxicity. This is not to suggest that one cannot in fact be a bad child (or a bad friend, or a bad partner)—plainly, the world is complicated enough for such cases to exist as well—but I think those cases lie beyond the scope of a discussion on imposter syndrome, so I won’t say more on them here.
What can we take away from these examples? Three things, I think.
First, it’s easy to be mistaken about when one is silver and when one is straw. One’s internal sense of this is often unmoored from reality. Second, one’s time as straw often feels as if it invalidates one’s time as silver, baselessly. And third, when one feels like a fraud in an interpersonal context, this might be because the social standards one feels compelled to conform to are themselves toxic or contrary to one’s own values.
Sometimes I feel like a show pony, only as valuable as my last trick. I’m not sure this accurately reflects how show ponies are valued, but nevertheless, the feeling persists. It’s a fairly common feeling among so-called overachievers—that your worth as an individual depends on the last impressive thing you did. Although as a matter of logic, I know this to be irrational, it’s still hard to shake, since it has apparently become so deeply internalised. Feelings don’t care about facts about feelings, or whatever Ben Shapiro said.
I often find myself thinking about this phenomenal video by author/poet Savannah Brown—“I could write my magnum opus, or I could simply go to bed”. You should watch it.
In the video, she shares an image which I often return to: that of a creative work as a work of embroidery, where the front is clean and tidy, while the back is riddled with knots and mistakes, invisible to everyone but the creator. If you’ve ever embroidered, or you’ve done something like obsess over the structure of a single sentence that seems to read just fine to everyone else, you’ll know what she means.
I think this image provides another way to describe the experience of imposter syndrome—because you can see the knots in your own work (whatever that work might be), and because everyone else’s work appears from the outside to be unblemished, you end up with the mistaken impression that everyone else’s stuff is flawless except for yours. But as I’ve tried to lay out here, as best I can tell everyone is oscillating between states of silver and straw all the time. To quote Rachael Meager once more, “the entire world is held together with duct tape and chewing gum”.
It just isn’t possible to perform at the edge of one’s ability all the time; or to perfectly play the parts we think are expected of us. It’s not a thing. What a relief.
Relief, because once you liberate yourself from the demands of perfection, you are free to do whatever appeals to you, just because. One area where this has been working out for me lately is music. I learnt to play piano as a child, spending five years rigidly memorising scales and classical pieces, to play at formal exams, to advance to the next grade. I learnt music as a science. But music is more like language, and for a long time, I couldn’t speak it.
Recently, after a decade away, in the solitude of lockdown, I started playing again. Playing, for the first time, for my own joy before anything else. And it’s been great! I’m not particularly good, of course—from the perspective of a classical musician, I’ve probably gotten worse than I was as a child—but I can now play with a fluidity which I never had before. I can jam. And I can do it safe in the knowledge that there’s no test to follow, no standard to meet. Ephemeral expression is the only end.
I think the main reason I was able to find the comfort with music that eluded me as a child is that I have given myself a licence to be bad. In a world where “perfect is the enemy of good”—where an insistence on perfection often prevents us from taking actions that would improve our lives—a licence to be bad is a powerful thing. It entitles you to do as you wish (so long as this doesn’t harm others) without having to conform to a certain standard of performance. Here, I’ll give you one now.
Pictured: A licence to be bad. It’s not very well-designed. This, friend, is the point.
If you find yourself confronted with the feeling that your life is a long con, that you have tricked everyone around you into believing in your competence when in fact you are a fool; take heart—they have tricked you too. Everyone is an imposter. The world still turns. If we are to have any fun on this burning orb, we have to be careful to not let the things that empower us, that we are uncommonly good at or that bring us deep joy, to not let these things become sources of burden, of obligation. As best I can tell, life’s too short.
Now, from straw have I come, so to straw I return.