Published on Development Impact

Impostor Syndrome

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Josh Ritter is one of my favorite musicians. So, imagine my joy when I saw that he was doing an essay in the middle of PBS Newshour this past Thursday – what is normally a depressing hour these days, full of bad news from Flint, South Sudan, Republican primaries and debates, and much more. The essay started with footage of him (seemingly at the 9:30 Club in DC) singing Homecoming: great.

I have been writing songs and playing music for almost 20 years.

I began in my childhood bedroom, moved to open mics and then to opening for larger artists. And now I get to play my own shows in venues around the world. I’m not Rihanna, but I have always considered myself to have a healthy, growing career.

I get to make the music I want to make with the people I want to make it. I have sold out some theaters you have heard of. And my family and I are able to live a comfortable life. Enjoy this time, those close to me say. It’s all happening for you.

Strangely, I found myself relating to this personally. I have been in and around research in development economics for 20+ years. I am lucky to be surrounded with smart and self-motivated people who want to do good by conducting high quality, policy relevant research. I get to team up with people who are not only a joy to work with, but who have become great friends and partners in life. Together, we have published in journals you might follow, received coverage in the popular press. I might even have had a good idea or two, but I am a much more productive researcher when collaborating with like-minded individuals…

And yet, at the strangest moments, I find it impossible to do anything of the sort. In the middle of a show, sometimes in the middle of applause itself, I find myself certain that my wonderful audience will suddenly realize that I’m a fake and that my music has been terrible all along.

Will their collective come during the show itself, causing a slow hemorrhage of silhouettes passing through the exits never to return, or will people be kinder, stay dutifully to the end and then shake their heads softly with friends as they trail down the street?

What of my band? What of the people I work with? How long until they see that I’m a sham?

No, not Josh too… When people write about the impostor syndrome, one of the things that is said to help is the realization that those of us suffering from it are not alone. But, listening to him, I am not sure what I felt. It actually made how I have been feeling recently a lot more real: if even Ritter was feeling this way, there was no way to deny I had been experiencing a version of the same for some time…

Not exactly the same, to be sure. I find that when I am really interested in a topic, I get obsessive and the research question becomes a giant puzzle that I live with, traveling with me everywhere in my backpack: to work, to the woods, to gatherings, and even to bed. During those periods, I am too preoccupied to feel self-doubt: I just want answers or the realization that I don’t have the answer. I won’t stop (and won’t stop bugging those around me) until I get there…

But, I have also learned that a researcher is lucky to have those periods. Even though they’re stressful and tiring, they are better than the long stretches, during which there are no exciting puzzles. In those stretches, work feels rote – like a health professional following a checklist or a statistician diligently following a pre-analysis plan. I know that checklists save lives and money and pre-analysis plans are useful to help generate reliable evidence. But, they can also be quite boring: yes, I think I am writing technically competent papers, but are they really good? Do they matter?

Self-doubt is a very persistent and difficult feeling to overcome. Often, I find it impossible to write because of it. Nothing feels correct. Nothing feels new. Perhaps I don’t have anything to say, so I shouldn’t say anything at all.

Ugh, it’s all too familiar. Recently, I sit down to write, and, …nothing. It’s not that I don't have anything to say: the evidence is there, solid and analyzed. The previous literature is there: I know the evidence, the nuances, and the gaps. I have a decent idea what contribution the paper is likely to make to the field. But, somehow, it doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel fresh or worthy. Maybe it’s better that I don’t write it at all – feels fake to write it just because it’s my job. I know the new evidence will help others build on it and might even help design better policies. But it also feels vapid: what if I don’t have another good idea for the rest of my career?

It’s thoughts like these that rob joy from the very moments when joy is most abundant.

In those moments, when I fear that I’m losing joy to mediocrity, self-delusion and doubt, I’m trying to open up my heart to the future.

The publish or perish world of academia in economics was never a joyride: any one of the unnecessarily rude and unconstructive referee reports that I received over the years is enough to make me question why I am not starting an animal sanctuary like Jon Stewart and his wife, Tracey. Add to that a bunch of 21st century pressures: replications of old work that have researchers spending months responding (say, have you heard of Worm Wars?); reproducibility crises that have us wondering if we can believe anything we previously learned; pre-analysis plans that suck some of the joy out of being a curious researcher who loves exploring relationships in the data. These changes in the field represent progress – newer and better ways of doing science – and I embrace them as a researcher. But when I’m in the woes of self-doubt, wondering if I’ll have any more exciting ideas that matter, they don’t help pull me back in.

… So, here is how I’m trying to approach such thoughts these days. I’m trying to remember that, while I’m an artist, I am many other things as well. I’m a father and a partner, a brother, son and friend. These are all roles that I will fill, even if the bottom suddenly falls out of my career.

 I don’t know what will happen in my life. I have no idea what will become of the next album, the next show, the next song. All I know is that with the future comes the chance for many great and wonderful things to happen. It is that future to which I must turn. It’s hard work, but I’m trying hard.

I know I will publish more papers, start new projects. I hope that they can make even a tiny bit of difference to the lives of others, especially those less fortunate than I. But, I can’t wait for the joy to return – the joy of investigation, collaboration, and discovery. I wonder what interventions are effective in alleviating the impostor syndrome – ideas welcome…

This post is dedicated to Dizzy.



Berk Özler

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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