Go with a smile!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Imposter Syndrome

When my sis and I were teenagers (and it seems like yesterday, but it was actually eons ago) we once had a conversation. This was back in the day when we were still philosophically curious. I told her about the idea of “fake it till you make it”. You have to pretend and wear a mask and risk being called a fraud in the beginning. Only after that will you be able to make it. I think she disagreed. Perhaps she’s a person who has always struggled with imposter syndrome for a lot of her life, which is a great pity because she’s also a person of great substance, hardworking and smart.

So the question is: do you believe that you are great first, or do you achieve something great first? This is the classic deadlock problem: if you say that you are not allowed to believe in your own greatness before you have achieved it, then it becomes hard. When you work, there is no dream to drive you forward. Then when you sian jik puah, there’s no morale, how are you going to achieve good results? I struggled with depression when I was in Snowy Hill. I learnt the lesson that it is something that has to be carefully managed, and you have to be on your guard against being depressed. You have to manage your mood.

So the obvious answer is that you have to pretend that you have taken one small step forward. Try to imagine what it feels like to have done the next available job on your list. Then do it. Then see if the feeling meets your expectations. Then after you are encouraged by completing that next step, repeat it over and over again. The important thing is to understand that whenever good things happen, it is only because you have successfully set up a system.

There were a few times in life when I achieved some things that people didn’t necessarily think I could achieve. First significant one was my becoming a playwright. I never breathed a word to anybody. Actually, there was a friend, and I discussed things with him. I used to go wandering around the bookshops at malls after school and I would read everything on pop culture that wasn’t shrinkwrapped. (That was a few years before the internet). I wasn’t even thinking about writing drama, but I set it as my long term goal to be some kind of an artist – playwright, songwriter, whatever. And in many ways, back then I was better than now, because I was still in touch with my emotions. After all, isn’t it typical of a teenager to feel things more intensely than at any time in their lives?

I already had a reputation for being a smartass in the classroom, but not for producing a serious work of fiction. One year earlier, I had attended a June holiday program on creative arts, but I wasn’t one of those selected to be paired up with a mentor. Because of the amount of time I was spending outside of school, I had this reputation for being a lazy underachiever. But once I put the skeleton of the plot points together (I may still have the piece of paper I scribbled it down on) I knew it was a great story, and that I just had to write it. There was a deadline for a competition, and that was the last week. I stayed up for 2 nights in a row to get it written. I only told my friends just before I stayed up, and they were laughing at me for wasting my time, but I had already made up my mind. I suppose it was this self-belief that helped me. It wasn’t the primary driving force, but without the self belief, nothing would have been possible.

I suppose another thing was that in RI they pushed you to the hardest. I didn’t know what was in store for me when I signed up for my uniformed group, but one or two of the training camps were pretty tough. I was never really active but it got me used to the idea that you had to exert a great amount of effort to succeed at tasks. It was the long distance mentality.

Later on, I was in the army. In a way I had already been prepared for it physically because of my uniformed group. But I wasn’t prepared for the cultural gap between myself and the other soldiers. I knew my BMT PC didn’t like me, but I was surprised that he wrote that I was a tough guy. (Maybe he did that in order to get me posted into a tough unit, which I was.) That was the first time in a long while I felt like a fish out of water, and it really trained me to think about not giving a shit about what other people thought.

It would be even worse during my time in Snowy Hill, although in many ways that was a less harsh environment. But there were times when I just shut down from not wanting to face going out to see the Americans. It took a while for my skin to get thick enough to meet them every day, and even today I’m not especially good at it. But somehow the imposter syndrome didn’t really kick in for me. It felt that when things were not going well for me, it was because I didn’t work hard enough, rather than because I wasn’t smart enough. But at the same time, I was face to face with one question that I had never thought to ask throughout my relatively privileged childhood: “what does it mean to be a member of the upper class?” What does it mean to be somebody’s boss? What does it mean to have a higher social status than everybody else? What does it mean to be striving for greater heights all the time? Till this point in time, it was easy to take things for granted. You were on the fast track. You only had to pass your exams and gain admissions into good schools. But from then on, it would be much different.

To absolutely nobody’s surprise, I left Snowy Hill wondering what might have been. There is so much going on in there that it wouldn’t be possible to do everything you wanted, even if you were to stay awake 24 hours a day.

Then came my working life in the Factory. It wasn’t supposed to be a difficult undertaking. It was supposed to be a job that I was good at. I was in one or two ways as smart as anybody else there. And I was serving out my bond, which meant I was stuck with them, and they were stuck with me. Somehow, the first few years were astoundingly bad. Perhaps they just didn’t want me around. Perhaps they just took one look at my academic results and judged me based on that – rather unfair because I had gone through some of the toughest classes. The fact that later on in life, I gained admissions into a highly selective graduate program, puts a big question mark over how I was seen back then. Perhaps I wasn’t an immediate fit into that culture.

I suppose I persevered. I would have liked to say that I kept my head down and worked hard and strived to prove them wrong, but that’s not 100% true. Instead for one or two years I just hung around and grew resentful and made them resentful. Until after a while I decided that enough was enough and went back to working hard to prove them wrong. For one thing, there were real weaknesses. I was a liberal arts student. I had a great education in mathematics, but it wasn’t engineering. It didn’t force you to think in the most practical bent. It took a while for me to adjust, but luckily for me, I didn’t have to adjust in a place where I had to lose my job. I probably was a person whose weaknesses were rather more apparent than my strengths, and eventually things turned out all right. But a few of the guys never really trusted me, even till the end. I supposed, during the first few difficult years, I had to count myself lucky that I had a “buffer” of a healthy self esteem. I wouldn’t call it arrogance, but I had to be the sort of person who believed, even as he was cast as a maths student, that he could also do well in creative writing. I had to believe that I could go to a good school like Snowy Hill, just walk into any academic department and take any course. Maybe you could say I had high hopes, or high expectations of myself. Whatever it is, it kept me afloat during the dark years, until things took a turn for the better. And there was also the issue of the leadership of my department during my time at the Factory. I don’t think they were lazy, and I don’t think they were stupid. But some of them were maybe not accepting of different approaches as they could have been. After conferring with one or two of my colleagues, I eventually came to the conclusion that if you wanted to run a good work improvement team, you had to dig a little deeper into the data and not just assume that you have all the solutions. It’s interesting that there was a big overlap between my stay at the Factory, and the Dubya administration: they had the same weaknesses: inordinate faith that their solutions were the right ones, and a refusal to countenance alternatives. If I were put in charge, I don’t really know if I would have been a good manager. But I would have run things pretty differently from them.

Towards the end of my stay at the factory, things were getting quite comfortable, but I had to leave. I had been there for too long. I really wanted to leave during those nasty first years, but I adapted. I got too used to my life not really having a direction. I even had enough slack time to finish a marathon. Then I had to get myself back to graduate school. I don’t know if I should have started applying one year earlier than I did, but I didn’t really want to ask people more than once. Eventually I got into the university of Mexico, and I moved to where I am now. My master’s degree wasn’t as intense as the Snowy Hill days: during those days I was younger, maybe even hungrier. Now, I’m more experienced, more focused. And eventually instead of wanting to prove that I was the smartest guy around, I just wanted a job, and it turned out to be not the toughest thing in the world if you were an IT guy.

As usual, my immunity to the imposter syndrome would be severely tested. I may have entered Snowy Hill fully prepared, but I was a little out of my depth. Unlike a lot of my peers, I did not have a bachelor's in computer science. I had to do three things in relatively quick succession: 1, get up to speed with the demands of a computer science degree, 2, graduate, and 3, find a job. The last job, obviously, was the most crucial. But that said, it wasn't the most difficult. Yes, people who joined the company would be vetted thoroughly. But there was enough demand for computer science expertise that it wasn't really tough to do. Anyway, I had been criticised in the past, especially by people like sniper, for being one of the lucky bastards who didn't have to look for a job after graduation. It's nice to know that small minded people like him are no longer able to say that about me.


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