Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

I’ve heard many people talk about imposter syndrome over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it summarised as neatly as The School of Life does in this video about it:

The root cause of the importer syndrome is a hugely unhelpful picture of what other people are really like.

This simple sentence sums up the entire problem. We look at people who are more successful than us, or who we admire, and we imagine their internal world to be completely different to ours.

“How can they possibly experience self-doubt?” we ask ourselves. They have millions of fans, or are well respected by their peers, or have won prestigious awards. “How can they ever feel as if their opinions stupid?” Everything they say is so insightful and clever. “How can they ever worry about how they look?” They’re always so well presented.

This may all be true. The people we admire have very likely reached a point in their careers or their lives where they are surrounded by evidence of their ability. Yet current success doesn’t guarantee future success. Many very successful people admit that they still worry about how their new work will be received. Rather than freeing them from doubt, success simply moves the bar which separates success from failure.

Self-doubt is a human trait, not a trait which only afflicts an unfortunate few, or which fades once a certain arbitrary point has been reached. The thing which separates people who succeed from this who don’t is the ability to persevere despite any feelings of doubt they might have, not the fact that they don’t have them.

When Do We Talk About Systems?

Seth Godin on the systems hiding behind the problems we face:

Your back hurts and you think you need surgery to help with the pain.

[When can we talk about the technique you use when you go running every day?]

Your employee shows up late regularly. How can you get them to care more?

[When can we talk about your hiring and leadership approaches?]

There’s racial injustice and unfairness all around us.

[Can we talk about persistent indoctrination around caste?]

We spend most of our time focused on problems because frankly, there are a lot of them. Problems are common and often immediate:

How do I pay this bill on time? What do I do about this pain I’m feeling? How do I resolve this argument with my spouse?

Because problems are sitting right in our faces, demanding that we solve them, we often give much less thought to the systems which generated (and will continue to generate) those problems).

Systems are the rails that guide our lives, problems are the fallen trees or mudslides that occasionally block them. Tackling immediate problems is, of course, necessary. But changing the tracks that our systems put us on is usually a better-though more demanding-use of our time.

"If we could see the whole truth of any situation, our only response would be one of compassion."
Daniel Dennett On Reductio Ad Absurdum

Reductio ad absurdum might sound like a spell from the Chamber of Secrets, but it actually refers to the practice of testing an argument by pushing it to its logical extremes.

Perhaps the most well known example is that favourite if parents everywhere: “if your friends all decided to jump off a cliff, would you do it too?”

But reductio ad absurdum does have more intellectual applications. in fact, as Daniel Dennett explains in this video, Galileo used reductio ad absurdum to demonstrate that light objects and heavy objects must fall at the same speed (accounting for air resistance) all the way back in the 15th Century:

Let’s suppose that heavier things do fall faster than light things. Now take a stone, (A), which is heavier than another stone, (B).

That means, if we tied B to A with a string, B should act as a drag on A when we drop it, because A will fall faster, B will fall slower, and so A tied to B (A+B) should fall slower than A by itself. But A tied to B is heavier than A by itself, so A+B should fall faster.

If lighter objects fall more slowly, A+B should fall both faster and slower than A by itself.

Honestly, if there wasn’t video evidence of a hammer and a feather falling at the same speed on the moon (where there’s no air resistance), I still wouldn’t be able to wrap my head around this…

The Lie That Was Told About Them

I’m always hesitant to include videos in my writing, especially if they’re longer than five minutes or so. Most of our attention spans have been so addled by TikTok and Instagram Stories, that anything longer than that just doesn’t seem worth paying attention to (my attention span can barely make it through an entire .gif). But the video above held my attention. In fact, I can confidently say that this video of Representative John J. Deberry Jr. of Memphis, Tennessee, speaking about racial equality and civil rights, is the most valuable ten minutes of attention that you’re going to pay today.

If you’ve grown tired of seeing politicians and celebrities and other public figures too afraid to say that violence and hatred, even if they come in response to racism, are poisonous, this will be a breath of fresh air. If you haven’t grown tired of it. If you believe that the violence we’re seeing is an inevitable or even necessary response to the racial problems we face, I beg you to take the time to listen to this speech. There’s no false outrage here. No moralising or victimising. Just a man with the courage to point out what is wrong.

He speaks with a passion born of the fact that he cares deeply about these issues. This is a man who has experienced the horrific injustices that many of the people rioting and supporting violence use to justify their actions. This is a man who was forced to sit at the back of the bus, who was denied access to white-only spaces and water fountains, who had to use the back doors when entering public buildings. He didn’t just read about these things, he lived them.

And yet, or perhaps because of that fact, he is able to say clearly what so many seem too frightened to admit; there is no justification for the violence we’re seeing. No amount of rage or hurt makes it ok, or anymore likely to solve these problems. This is a man who has seen, first hand, the power of dignity, compassion, and determined, peaceful protest to change the world. Perhaps we haven’t seen enough of that in recent years. Perhaps we’ve lost faith in that power. Perhaps we no longer believe that we can change the hearts and minds with kindness and compassion. But as Rep. Deberry himself puts it:

“I saw men and women stand with courage and integrity and class, and they changed the world. They changed the world because what the world could see in them, was the lie that was being told about them.”

That black people are violent, and lawless, and stupid, is the lie that is being told about us. It’s the lie that’s been told about us from the start. It’s the lie that justified the belief that we were good for nothing more than to be worked to death as slaves. It’s the lie that convinced generations that the black community’s struggles with crime and poverty were a result of laziness and weakness, not discrimination and the legacy of Jim Crow. It’s the lie that encourages policemen to put their knees on our necks and bullets in our backs.

It’s a lie that’s so often repeated, that some black people have even begun to believe it themselves. So they act it out on the streets, and on their neighbour’s businesses, and on anybody who dares to disagree with them. I believe we’re better than this, and clearly, Rep. Deberry does too. We have the right to be angry. We have the right to demand justice. We have the right to expect to be judged by the content of our character, but the way that we pursue those rights is a reflection of that character.

This struggle isn’t just about hearts and minds, it’s about our souls. It’s about how to build a society which we can be proud to leave to our children. The status quo is clearly not the answer, but neither is a world which is divisive and violent and fuelled by rage. That rage needs to be put aside, not for the sake of those who want to oppress us, but for the sake of the people who will follow in our footsteps.

When we look back at Rep. Deberry’s generation, we see men and women who we can be proud of. Men and women who we can aspire to be like. Men and women who maintained their dignity during hard times, so that they could pave the way for us to live in easier ones. We see men and women who exposed the lie that had been told about them. What will the next generation see when they look at us?

The Last True Hermit

The Last True Hermit tells the story of Christopher Knight, a man who spend twenty-seven years living in complete isolation in the woods of Central Marine.

Knight survived for all that time, through the harsh Maine winters, by stealing food, clothing and supplies from camps and houses nearby, a practice which eventually led to his capture when the local police chief rigged a nearby camp with a silent alarm.

The entire story is absolutely fascinating (do yourself a favour and read the whole thing), but the part that most caught my eye comes near the end. Michael Finkel, the report who wrote the piece, presses Christoper to share his insights; what did he learn after spending almost thirty years alone? Surely he must have gained some kind of unique perspective on the human condition after living for so long in a way that few other human beings have ever lived:

Chris became surprisingly introspective. “I did examine myself,” he said. “Solitude did increase my perception. But here’s the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.”

It’s surely impossible to imagine solitude on the scale that Christoper experienced it, but this description powerfully brought to mind my experiences of meditation. The feeling of “just being there, without the need to define myself,” is one I’ve experienced many times during meditation and which is difficult to maintain when in the presence of others.

Perhaps that’s what Christoper had been seeking when he’d decide to walk alone into the woods 27 years ago. A space where he could just be.

How Do We Live Without Meaning?

If life is truly meaningless, is committing suicide the only rational response? Camus’ answer ws an emphatic “No.” There may not be any explanation for our unjust world, but choosing to live regardless, is the deepest expression of out genuine freedom.

Life can seem pretty pointless sometimes. We’re born, we live our lies and we die, all within an infinitesimal sliver of time. Most of us won’t leave much of mark on the world, the world won’t remember our names even a hundred years from now, so what’s the point of it all?

This was the question that troubled many philosophers of the early 20th Century, particularly agains the backdrop of war and sickness that loomed over their lives.

But Albert Camus rejected the conclusion that life was meaningless. In fact, he believed that the very decision to go on living gives life meaning. To illustrate his point, he cites the myth of Sisyphus, the Greek king who was condemned by the Gods to roll a boulder up a hill, before letting it roll back down, repeating the process for all eternity.

Only when we accept the meaninglessness of our lives, can we face the absurd with our heads held high. When Sisyphus chooses to begin his relentless task once more, one must imagine him happy.

Making Anger Your Teacher

Norman Fischer from Ten Percent Happier on anger:

Now, in meditation circles, anger often gets a bad rap. We imagine that we aren’t supposed to ever get angry, or if we do, we’re bad at meditation.

But trying to never be angry won’t work. If you think about it, we can’t make anger go away any more than we intentionally produced it in the first place. So, when are angry we just have to be angry.

Instead of fighting with anger, we have to turn toward it, to experience it without affirming it and waving it around, and to investigate what it really is. It turns out, the closer you look, the more anger can teach us.

As Norman points out, anger is often seen as a failing in meditation circles, whilst happiness or sadness are not. But why is this? Do we choose to be happy or sad any more than we choose to be angry?

Emotions are unavoidable aspects of the human experience, and anger, in particular, indicates our desire for something to change.

Maybe it’s unreasonable for us to expect this change, in which case our anger can only cause us suffering. Learning to let go of needless, unproductive anger is perhaps the greatest gift that meditation and mindfulness has to offer us.

But maybe the changes we want are realistic, and anger motivates us to achieve them. Perhaps anger is the catalyst we need to go out and protest, or to start a difficult conversation, or to take a good look at ourselves.

Because above anything else, anger can teach us about what’s going on inside us. If we can examine the source of our anger, rather than helplessly reacting to it, anger can be a great source of insight into our beliefs, our values, and our fears.

Anger can be a great teacher, but it’s not an easy one. Learning its lessons requires patience, humility and wisdom. All of which should helps us to be angry less often.

The Habit Dip

A great piece on Leo Babauta on something he calls the “habit dip”:

This dip is something everyone faces when changing habits: we lose motivation, we get discouraged, we encounter difficulty, we lose focus because other things get in the way, we get sidetracked by life.

This is something I’ve found to be a challenge not just in building new habits, but in in creative and business ventures too. At some point your initial momentum starts to fade, the project still doesn’t have enough momentum to move under its own weight yet, and the temptation to stop pushing, or at least to stop pushing as hard, becomes increasingly difficult to resist.

As Leo points out, this is is also an important opportunity for learning and growth. Ultimately, dips are inevitable in life, no matter what we’re doing. Each time we face one, we teach ourselves to get better at overcoming them, or we each ourselves that giving up is the best option.

When things are going well, everything seems easy, and you just have to keep doing the same thing. There isn’t a lot of learning there.

But when things are hard, you have to face the difficulty if you want to keep going, if you want to avoid going to your usual pattern of discouraging yourself or quitting.

The dip is where the most learning can be found.

That’s not to say that we should never give up, but to say that the temptation to do so should be treated with suspicion. Sometimes the dip truly is because what we’re doing isn’t working, but sometimes, it’s a sign that another peak is just around the bend.

Is Democracy A Good Thing?

It’s easy to think of democracy as an unquestionable good in the world. It’s what we’ve all grown up with for one. But it’s also our only defence against tyrrany and elitism and corrupti…ok, it’s not working out too well on those fronts.

But it’s the best way to make sure that the will of the people is heard. I mean, it’s not like we’d ever be in a situation where the leader of the free world lost the popular vot…what’s that? Really? Oh.

Well look, all of that aside, at least can rely on people to vote ini their interests and to carefully consider complex issue and…ok, I’m done.

Winston Churchill once said that the best argument against Democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. And in these times of extreme political polarisation, it’s easy to see why he might say such a thing.

But today, I learned that one of the first critics of democracy was a leading light in the republic that founded it; Socrates.

Socrates’ concern with democracy was similar to Churchill’s. Namely that the average person isn’t well educated enough about the complexities of government to make good decisions about who should run it and why. He explained his concerns with an analogy:

If you were heading out on a journey by sea, who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone? Or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring? The latter, of course. So why then do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be the ruler of a country?

It’s a fair point. Donald Trump’s presidency, the political nightmare that is Brexit, the economic collapse of Argentina and Venezuela, all of these have occurred, at least in part, because of a populace who made decision based on little or no knowledge. In an ideal world, our politicians would be experts chosen for their competence and their trustworthiness, but today, they’re often elected despite their failings in both departments.

Of course, Socrates’ argument also leaves us with a problem. Corruption is ever so much more likely if the power to vote is left only in the hands of a few ‘elites’. And how would these elites be chosen? The system would obviously fall apart if people could judge themselves worthy. So who would judge? A test? Designed by whom?

Democracy is a flawed system. And we should remember that. As instrumental as it’s been in bringing freedom to the world, it has also stood helplessly by as some of the biggest and most catastrophic failures in human history have unfolded. In the end, perhaps another favourite quote of Winston Churchill’s best sums up the dilemma:

Democracy is the worst system, except for all the other systems

Who Am I?

There’s been a lot of talk about the nature of the self here, but perhaps none of it has been presented more beautifully than in this video from The School of Life. Do yourself a favour, make yourself comfortable, and hit play. Mind-blowingly good.