The Impostor Heuristic and the Fantastic 2022
As I started my PhD in management, I built a heuristic, the impostor heuristic. In my previous job, I had been fired for failing to acknowledge that I was an impostor. I knew about impostor syndrome, so I thought all the time that I was insecure. Then I got fired.
As I started my PhD in management, I built an antidote for this problem. But as with all antidotes, it had side effects. The Impostor Heuristic assumes that anything one knows must be known by anyone in the field. This assumption worked relatively well as long as you are working with people close to your field. But it breaks apart as soon as you communicate with someone you have not met.
So let me explain. I would come upon a nice new idea. I do a literature review and build a solid foundation. Cool, huh? Well, not so for me. When I found something that was done around my idea, I would assume that what I wanted to do was trivial. And in a world where people are super vague with their words, I felt useless for a while.
I was lucky to focus on first principles while learning. I would read Weber and Arrow before whatever came in the latest AMR and ASQ. This is helpful as I could create a strong basement for my ideas. It helped me talk with older faculty as they are more used to older books than younger ones. It helped me quite a bit.
But it was a wrong heuristic. It led me to imagine that everything I do is trivial. That all my ideas need to be even better than they need to be. That I am not enough at any point. This heuristic thus leads to a huge amount of internalized insecurity and anxiety. Instead of feeling that I was getting closer and closer to finishing my PhD, for example, I felt closer and closer to people wanting to fire me for being useless.
The thing is that the impostor heuristic is not really an antidote to the syndrome, just a deflection mechanism. If anything good happened, I would trivialize it. I got invited to do seminars in Denmark during my PhD. Then it had to be some random mistake the people made. I got hired in Amsterdam during COVID. Well, it was because I am brown. My paper went to the Nth round at Org Science. Yeah, it is about experiments, and my coauthors do them well. I got a paper directly accepted by the Journal of Org Design. Duh! It was about AI. Everyone has an AI paper. A paper at ICC? Well, my advisor was part of the special issue.
Nothing good is because of me. All bad is my fault. “Of course you are happy, but deep down, you’re a little bit worried that they might eventually figure out that you’re not actually that good.” said June Huh as he won the Field's medal. Of course, I was happy with my accomplishments, but the anxiety won.
Today, the biggest problem I find with this heuristic is what it does to my empathy. I somehow have accepted the terror and trauma of the past. But I find it unacceptable how the impostor's heuristic makes me heartless. If I am honest, this year has beaten any of my expectations for my first year as faculty. My PhD has gained much more traction within journals than I had expected. If things continue as expected, I can see the chance of becoming tenured furniture. What is crazier is that 2023 looks just better. However, as 2022 went along, I felt bad at every point. I would get R&Rs, and I will freak out. It was too much good to handle. I burnt out in the summer as I finished teaching and had three reviews to send back to journals.
I was not even happy. I just felt that if this is happening to me, then it has to be not such a big thing. On the one hand, this feeling is a positive step for me; I do not see good things as mistakes anymore. But on the other hand, it is asshole behavior. I often ask if I would talk to a friend the way I talk to myself. Seldom is the answer, yes. If a friend had the year I had, I would be so happy for them. I would invite them for drinks and feel very warm in my heart. Their dreams are coming true. Warmth is not remotely how this year felt for me.
Not only do I not feel warm, I feel that the things that happened to me are not a big deal anymore. Acceptances, Assistant Professor positions, invited seminars? Just minor stuff says the asshole impostor in me. They are just what I need to do to stay in my job and bring food to my table. This might be true, but these are dreams I had, just as much as things that happened. I have accomplished so many of my dreams since the pandemic started. Ask me how much joy I got? Yeah, asshole!
As I think back about this year, I see the fear and anxiety. I also see the fantastic things that happened and I failed to experience. I am not angry or disappointed. I wish I could see joy more clearly in the few moments it comes to visit. I love my partner, myself, and my life. Here is to more compassion in 2023.
Cheers to 2022, a great year, and cheers to 2023, already meant to be the biggest in my life.