How Parents Can Ward Against "Imposter Syndrome"

Report card filled in with red letters A, elevated view
Report card filled in with red letters A, elevated view

Confidence and achievement have a complicated relationship. If Google Trends is any indication of our collective psyches, "Fake it 'til you make it," in which we muster confidence regardless of prior achievement, has given way to "Imposter Syndrome," in which we lack the confidence to acknowledge our real achievements. At least by calling it a "syndrome" we are admitting it's a problem, especially for women. This new year, let's resolve to kick the habit, first by rethinking our idea of "best."

Somehow I escaped the imposter feeling until very recently. I grew up in a traditional family with a stay-at-home mother and a working father who didn't finish high school. But I never considered not going to college, though, and once there, I was inspired by molecular biology. I went on to graduate school at Yale, post-doctoral studies at the University of Chicago, and faculty positions, spending 27 years at top universities.

But in November, I spent a day and a half with 19 highly accomplished women -- a physician and hospice director, a retired university chancellor, and the founder of a well-known non profit, to name a few. I found myself thinking my academic qualifications were inconsequential in light of the "real" achievements of these women, and I wondered how on earth I was selected to be a part of this group. Much to my surprise, many others felt the same.

How did I avoid this affliction during my training and early career? Unequivocally, I owe this success to a lesson that I learned early and often from my Dad.

On report card days, I could hardly wait for my father to come home from work to show him my good grades, hoping for some recognition of a job well done. But he would always say, "That's nice." This became a joke between us that was rolled out for every major achievement: making the dean's list every semester in college: "That's nice"; successfully defending my PhD thesis at Yale: "That's nice."

Even when I prodded for more praise, my dad would never comment on my grades directly; instead, he would simply ask, "Did you do your best"? The answer was always "yes", to which he would respond, "That's all that anyone can ever ask of you."

This routine, to be clear, drove me crazy at the time. My friends would tell me that if they had report cards like mine, their parents would have bought them a car (at the age of 10). Even the night before I left for college, my father, who must have been petrified, said to me, "College is different. We don't expect you do to as well as you did in high school. We only ask that you do your best."

Now, with decades of perspective, I appreciate the blessing, and sometimes curse, of what my dad gave to me: an internal benchmark for comparison. Although I sometimes forget, I now understand that the "best that I can do" is situational. Could I make a better dinner if I didn't have to write a grant? Absolutely. But, leftovers are the best that I can do today. Could I write more research papers if I didn't have a family? Probably -- I could certainly write them faster. But, my rate of publication is the best that I can do with the rest of the life that I've chosen.

We all have a best, and I suspect that no two "bests" look the same (mine certainly look different from day to day). When you are fulfilled by doing your best, you give yourself license to try the next thing. If instead of saying "I did my best" you say "I didn't do as well as her," you preempt success. Believing in our best is how we beat Imposter Syndrome.

To be sure, achievement is not solely the product of trying hard. Talent and ability are obviously essential components. But when we constantly rank and compare our bests to other bests, we limit our potential and the inspiration that we should derive from the bests of others.

Today in my interactions with college students and young scientists in training, I'm often struck by the limits that they are placing on their own potential by comparing their achievements to those of others. And, I fear that this perspective is being developed in our children at a young age with the emphasis on standardized tests and honor rolls. When I entered college, I had no idea what molecular biology was or what a scientist even did. I gained this knowledge because I followed my interests as they developed without being inhibited by the achievements of others.

I have no doubt that the world will continue to judge us relative to one another. But, we can control how much power that judgment holds over our own happiness and therefore our futures. Now, when my children bring home their report cards, I've modified my father's routine. I first ask them if they are happy with what they learned. I then ask them if they've done their best. Then, I make sure that they know that I'm proud of them for both.