I’m no longer so bothered by my own imposter syndrome most of the time, and tend mostly to regard it with interest (except those moments when I regard it with misery.) They say that you earn the MA when you understand how little you know and then earn the PhD when you begin to understand how near-impossible it is for humans to really know anything about anything. Every day I see a little more that I know diddly squat in the grand scheme of things, and that the enterprise of discovery is infinite. This is freeing: I can mostly just bang at my research and do my best to make a rigorous attempt at something like a decent contribution to what’s knowable, and keep learning as much as I can without the pressure of somehow understanding everything in my own subfields, much less everything in the field or the humanities or, God forbid, the world.
But I remain interested in the syndrome these days, for a variety of reasons: managing mine when it pops up, mentoring my grad students, and pondering psychological aspects of work. I’m especially fascinated when it turns up in senior scholars, writers, and artists. And since there is really nobody more senior than a Nobelist, I was fascinated by this excerpt from a December 2011 Vanity Fair piece by Michael Lewis on the very distinguished Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman is a 2002 Nobelist, Professor Emeritus at Princeton, co-author of five books and God knows how many articles. The article’s author conflates imposter syndrome and intellectual rigor/curiosity to some extent, but it’s an easy enough mistake for a non-academic to make, since both bear a resemblance to self-flagellation.
He was working on a book, he said. It would be both intellectual memoir and an attempt to teach people how to think. As he was the world’s leading authority on his subject, and a lot of people would pay hard cash to learn how to think, this sounded promising enough to me. He disagreed: he was certain his book would end in miserable failure. He wasn’t even sure that he should be writing a book, and it was probably just a vanity project for a washed-up old man, an unfinished task he would use to convince himself that he still had something to do, right up until the moment he died. Twenty minutes into meeting the world’s most distinguished living psychologist I found myself in the strange position of trying to buck up his spirits. But there was no point: his spirits did not want bucking up. Having spent maybe 15 minutes discussing just how bad his book was going to be, we moved on to a more depressing subject. He was working, equally unhappily, on a paper about human intuition—when people should trust their gut and when they should not—with a fellow scholar of human decision-making named Gary Klein. Klein, as it happened, was the leader of a school of thought that stressed the power of human intuition, and disagreed with the work of Kahneman and Tversky. Kahneman said that he did this as often as he could: seek out people who had attacked or criticized him and persuade them to collaborate with him. He not only tortured himself, in other words, but invited his enemies to help him to do it. “Most people after they win the Nobel Prize just want to go play golf,” said Eldar Shafir, a professor of psychology at Princeton and a disciple of Amos Tversky’s. “Danny’s busy trying to disprove his own theories that led to the prize. It’s beautiful, really.”