On feeling like a failure

We all have a voice in our head talking every moment of the day. We think that voice is ours, and we’re tempted to believe what it says. But neuroscience tells us otherwise, because it turns out that each thought originates in the brain milliseconds before we’re aware of it.

The implications of this are profound.

Consider what happens when you’re deciding what to have for dinner. Should you cook? Should you have leftovers? Should you order out? Every thought about what to have for dinner came from another part of your brain before you were aware of it. In a very real sense, you’re not deciding what to have for dinner. Another part of your brain is making the decision. You don’t control it.

Now consider the case of imposter syndrome, feeling like a failure no matter how good you are at something. Imposter syndrome works the same way as deciding what to have for dinner. The voice that tells you you’re a failure originated in your brain before you were aware of it. You can’t help but think you’re a failure.

This blog post from the author Neil Gaiman tells the story beautifully:

Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.

On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”

And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”

And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.

We can’t hope to control our thoughts of failure, but we can dance with them.

[More on free will]

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