When you think of Albert Einstein, which descriptors come to mind? Genius? Luminary? Leader? World-changer?
When Albert Einstein thought of Albert Einstein, at least in later years, he reportedly thought: fraud.
He had done his best work at age twenty-five, and he spent much of his later life trying to come up with what he called a ‘unified field theory’ – a theory which would tie together existing knowledge about electromagnetism and gravity to explain the behaviour of all matter and energy. He died without achieving such a theory.
A piece in the New Yorker describes Einstein’s time at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he spent the last two decades of his life as a star resident scholar. Despite being a big name, he was plagued with self-doubt: “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler,” he told a friend (Holt, 2005).
He died in 1955, leaving his colleagues at the Institute to find a blackboard full of thwarted equations in his office – and no evidence of significant progress towards a unified theory.
To the outside observer, it is hardly a sin to have failed to unify all of physics, especially when you’ve already made arguably the biggest contributions to the field in a century. But from Einstein’s perspective, this failure plagued most of his life.
If Einstein felt like a fraud, then what hope do the rest of us have?
This feeling of being not as smart or successful or together as everybody else has a name: imposter syndrome.
You might have heard of it, because it is overwhelmingly pervasive in academia; particularly among postgraduate students.
Google doesn’t lie.
Imposter syndrome tells you that your skills, knowledge, and capabilities are lacking in comparison to other people’s. It tells you that you are the odd one out; that everyone else deserves their success, and you do not. It makes you worry that you’ll be ‘found out’ and lose everything.
It’s incredibly common. It’s also total nonsense.
It’s a bit like the intellectual equivalent of the depression you sometimes feel scrolling through social media. You see everybody else’s parties, and beach photos, and happy life events, and you think: everyone else has all this fun and I just work and do the dishes. You’re comparing your real life to everyone else’s highlights.
In the same way, comparing your own intellectual value to others’ is misleading, because what you see of others is just their highlight reel. If your colleagues give amazing conference presentations and get their papers published, that’s wonderful. But you only see their successes; you don’t see the failures and disappointments that probably far outnumber their moments of triumph.
Maybe imposter syndrome is so common for postgrad students because we are aiming so high. We are striving to achieve some of the most advanced degrees available in the entire educational system. The more prestigious your position, the more you have to live up to. This would explain something about Einstein’s self-doubt; after all, how could anyone feel qualified for the unofficial title of ‘greatest genius of the twentieth century’?
If you suffer from imposter syndrome, please know that you are not alone. Please also know that, just because your brain says you’re not good enough, doesn’t mean it’s true. Bright minds can be self-destructive. Just ask Einstein.
Holt, J. (2005). Time bandits: What were Einstein and Godel talking about? The New Yorker, February 28. Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/02/28/time-bandits-2