Thursday, 11 September 2014

The "Yes! And?" of science.

I personally believe that the academic "brand" of Impostor Syndrome (IS) is particularly tricky to deal with because underlying it is a certain type of arrogance. It took me quite a lot of time with a coach (thanks to the wonderful SupporTED program I participate in through the TED Fellowship) to realise that I really was arrogant in my Impostor Syndrome: anyone could say what they like about me being talented, but I was holding onto the belief that I the only person qualified to make judgements about myself. So with a slight of hand, I can disregard your positive statement. Easy Peasy. My coach had to bring out the Logical Data Big Guns to deal with me, but she did so, wonderfully. She showed me this internally arrogant attitude was seriously flawed. My data analysis software, my ability to process external feedback, was broken. I realised that I was rejecting data points based on my faulty Bayesian prior, and then refusing to quote the prior when making statistical inference. I know! I know! Bayes would be rolling in his grave! I was shocked, and chose to rename the problem Self-Data Malfunction.

So, if you know that this part of yourself is faulty and you want to repair it, what can you do? Well this is all happening subconsciously to some degree, so it isn't a case of just hearing and accepting the opinions of others. If it were that easy, I would have done it already!

When talking about the issue with people, I often heard a phrase that I realise was intended to be helpful, but to me expressed exactly the wrong idea: "fake it ‘til you make it."

The idea is that even if you don't feel worthy to be in your job, position of authority or degree program, you just "fake it" and act like you are worthy until some time later you realise, hey - you are in fact the woman who deserves to be there! And there are lots of strategies online and in books to help you build up the skills to "fake it".

But this just hit right to the core of my Self-Data Malfunction. If I was "faking it" at all, surely there must be some truth in my "you don't belong here" Bayesian prior? So then maybe my self-data analysis software was right after all! Cue the spiral of non-productive thinking.

And then I remembered a wonderful thing I've learned from doing improvisational comedy (which, by the way, I highly recommend - it's like emotional version of walking in traffic: all the excitement, none of the physical harm). The improve technique is the principle of "Yes! And?"

Here is how it goes.

Say you’re doing an improv scene with someone on stage and they suggest something, like they are your long-lost sister, or the floor you are walking on just happens to be made of fire, rather than rejecting it outright for being crazy (as these improvised suggestions often are), you imagine and accept the universe they've just created. You say "Yes!" to the idea. And? Then you run with it!

The "And?" part means that you build on it and immerse yourself in it. That often involves justifying the suggestion they just made - making it work within the context of the scene and your established characters. And then, ‘hey presto!’, you're doing improv.

When I was thinking about the Self-Data Malfunction, I realised that rather than faking it 'til I make it, I can "Yes! And?" my life in academia. It is incredible what that subtle change in emphasis did for my outlook on academic life.

So, what happens when you find yourself on the shortlist for a job you didn't think you could possibly get? You say yes! And? Go give a great talk/interview! You now live in the reality where you are a viable and attractive candidate for the position. Yes! And?

What about when you think you aren't good enough at writing this code, doing this derivation, finishing this paper? You remember that yes, you already got here, and you have skills that will enable you to tackle the task. And... then you go and smash it!

What happens when you are invited to submit that review paper or chapter and you feel like they may have asked the wrong person by mistake? You remember that yes, you have interesting things to contribute. And you now live in the universe where people want to hear/read them.

And what happens when someone like me wants to write about impostor syndrome, but there have already been great posts by incredibly smart, talented and accomplished men and women (for example John John’s post, Amy Cuddy's post on body language and how it can change your life, Ed Bertschinger's post on his own struggle) on the subject? What if I don’t yet have a faculty post, and the authority that comes with that to be able to write about impostor syndrome without fear of the affect it may have on people’s perception of me?

I remember that yes, I think I have something new to add to the mix, and then I remember that as a graduate student and postdoc I would love to hear from someone who wasn’t so accomplished or high up the academic ladder to tell me about things they’ve learned and are dealing with. And so I write this here blog post!

Does it mean you will always then succeed at things? Definitely not. I imagine your rate of success may be exactly the same as before. But your rate of trying new things, and putting yourself out there and taking risks will definitely improve, and with more opportunities come more chances to do an awesome job and succeed. And as we all know, it's all about statistics really.

It isn't easy to do all the time. The "No, but" voices are much more skilled and generally shriek banshee-like in my head, but this feels to me like a much more holistic way of enabling me to live and grow into my career and my life. The change is slow, but what I find happens is that I start to really enjoy new challenges and scary things, not because I’m trying to prove myself, but because I enjoy taking that journey to the “and” part of myself and find that it isn’t so crazy a world in the first place.

So…. Yes! And?


  1. YES! You have a voice and people need to hear what you have to say AND you just smashed this blog post. I've been spending the past 15 minutes passing it to anyone and everyone I think would need it---and that's a lot of people! Thanks for taking a yes! and? approach to this post, and to your own life as a researcher. You rock.

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