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impostor syndrome

Do You Feel Inadequate? For Hard-Working Overachievers

I have not been a very diligent blog writer in the year of 2013. So on the last day of 2013, I decided to write a post. I thought about writing a post with the title of “Adieu 2013!” but then I changed my mind. So here is a more sensational title, “Do you feel inadequate?”

Inadequacy is an interesting feeling. While I often felt inadequate as a college and grad student in academia and sometimes as a librarian in the libraryland, I was also pretty convinced that I was quite smart and bright. (Don’t throw stones at me just yet; Look what I said is ‘was’!) So how do you feel smart and inadequate at the same time? The answer is actually quite simple. You feel inadequate because you are smart enough to know that there are smarter people than you. So feeling inadequate itself is not a bad thing. But being unable to set the goal for you to overcome that feeling is a problem. Being unable to be at peace with the fact that there will always be people who are more bright and talented than you is a problem.

I wish I realized this, much earlier in my life. But it should still count just the same. I do no longer believe that I am particularly bright nor that I am seriously inadequate. I am just OK. That’s really not bad at all. I think that actually, this is a great place to be – knowing that I am OK to be who I am. This may sound mundane to many. But I guarantee you that if you are one of those exceptionally bright and successful over-achievers with little experience in failure then this would be a particularly hard belief for you to subscribe to.

[ADDED: I also want to emphasize that smart or brilliant is not an innate quality. You have to work on it to become smart or brilliant. So if you do work on things you want to become smart about, you will become smart. Believe me and go for it. On the other hand, you also need to ‘actively decide’ on what boundary you will set up in pushing yourself towards smartness or brilliance because there will be certain things you want to preserve such as sanity and work-life balance. For example, are you willing to sacrifice your 2 hours at a gym everyday and spend that time instead for getting smarter? How about sleeping only 4 hours a day and use the rest of it on some project you love? It will work, but maybe that is or is not what you really want. (Also consider if it will be a long-term or a short-term thing.) And so, you will be less smart than those who take those measures. So you are just OK. But it is you who decide to be so! No hard feelings, right?]

(On the other hand, if you have had this belief that you are just OK in your entire career and have never been discontent with yourself, maybe that is a clear warning sign. Don’t be a seat-warmer and go find a challenge that excites your librarian heart!)

Back in January, 2013. I read this blog post by Miss July, “ego, thy name is librarianship”. Many librarians shared the angst of wanting to be recognized widely and quickly for their hard work and intelligence. But the thing is, a lot of times, what makes someone recognized is chance and luck more than anything. Sometimes, a project you put a lot of work into and is completely worthy of others’ acclaim will go unnoticed. At other times, something you haphazardly put together to meet a deadline may make you famous! When I was a babybrarian, one of my friends, Will, who was a few years senior to me in being a librarian, asked if I recognized someone’s name. I had zero idea who that person was. But during his LIS days, that person was beyond famous in the libraryland, I was told.

I am not saying that luck and chance are important to fame than hard work and intelligence to dismiss the famous ‘and’ brilliant ‘and’ hard-working people in the libraryland, whom I  admire. I just want to point out that hard work and brilliance is only a sufficient condition for being a good librarian and professional, not for gaining fame. If you are aiming at the former, your hard work and brilliance will be more than rewarded. If you are aiming at the latter, on the other hand, achieving that will be way trickier since it is mostly up to others. I am simply sharing this to help other bright librarians who are struggling with the work-life balance and the feeling of inadequacy in spite of hard work and many achievements.

I also want all LIS students and grads in the library job market to know that something similar applies to the hiring process. I used to believe that only the best candidate with the most achievements gets hired. (Just like the grades given on an absolute scale!) But this naive belief is simply not true. From serving on multiple search committees at academic libraries, I have learned that candidates’ applications, resume/CVs, and cover letters are evaluated on a relative, not an absolute scale. And each organization has different priorities, specific needs, and most of all, unique individuals on their search committees or as hiring officials at any given time. You need to be the right fit for a given position at a given time and at a specific place. Being that right fit requires a lot of luck and chance beyond your many achievements. I also saw many cases in which some candidates whom the search committee I belonged to rejected but who found jobs that are just as good as or even better than what we had to offer. So no need to fall into despair by a rejection letter. You just have to try a little longer until you get selected.

From Flickr Creative Commons by Mari Z

If I were wiser, perhaps I would have written “How to Overcome Your Feeling of Inadequacy in Five Easy Steps(!)” instead of “Do You Feel Inadequate?” Unfortunately, I don’t have such five easy steps. I can only say that it took very many years for me to understand that working on the stuff that seems to you most difficult and unenjoyable doesn’t make you the most brilliant and hard-working person (It is probably a rather poor investment of your time and brain and so please don’t do that.) and that being a good supporter and follower can make just as great a contribution to a project as being its leader. A good thing about becoming a mid-career professional and getting old is that you get to care less about stupid stuff like what others think about you and more about important stuff like what you can do to make yourself better at things you want to do because you think they matter. How smart I look to others or whether I can be famous becomes rather trivial compared to whether I can get this thing done or to work, I understand something correctly, and what I do makes me happy and proud. I also recommend great blog posts by Andromeda and Coral about how to overcome the feeling of inadequacy, particularly in library technology and coding. Like they recommend, go sit at the table and develop your own swagger!

The New Year’s Eve is a great moment for reflection. In Müdigkeitsgesellschaft (Fatigue Society) (Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2010), which I’ve read recently (not in German but in Korean translation), a Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes that driven by the goal of maximizing production, the contemporary society no longer disciplines people and instead makes all of us into individual entrepreneurs. He calls this new society ‘achievement society’ over-saturated with positivity and affirmation. All of us are now free to exploit ourselves, and there is no limit to how far we can go in our own free self-exploitation.  Doesn’t this sound familiar and similar to the mantra of managing oneself and the celebration of creativity?

Happy New Year to you all!