I'm a fraud — get me out of here!

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I try to stay in touch with ex-students. Sometimes they ask me for advice. Sometimes it can get quite personal. The following conversation may be of interest.

I took a call from an ex-student; call him Hans. He was a stunner: clever, dedicated, and respectful. Worse, he was tall, muscular, good-looking, and girls adored him. It wasn’t like that for me at uni. Sigh.

He got excellent marks in his undergraduate degree at my university and went on to start a PhD in a prestigious university in another country.

So we spoke on the phone. We spoke for an hour, for far too long, and I was mentally casting about for excuses to escape when Hans finally plucked the courage to get to was evidently his real point. It came out all in a rush:

Jamie—​I feel like a fraud. I don’t belong here. I’m not that clever. I don’t even know why they let me in to do this PhD. I have nightmares that they’re going to find me out and expel me, and perhaps they should.

Then he burst out crying.

Oh, for goodness sake! I thought of all the stupid arrogant slobs I know who sail through life untroubled by self doubt, while this splendid young man, whom every admissions tutor on the planet (and girl, and a few boys) would jump at given half a chance, was tormented by it. It’s not fair. I hate him I hate him I hate him.

But this was not new to me. It is not unusual for the more talented students to have serious crises of confidence. In fact, I would venture to suggest that this is common. So, here is what I told him:

  1. First, Hans was new and alone in a foreign country. That’s depressing. But, he’d get used to his new home.

  2. Second, Hans’s undergraduate life had structure—courses, exams, and so forth—whereas his new PhD student’s life had virtually none. So Hans had to look into himself to give his life meaning. It’s like a mid-life crisis, but for 24-year-olds. That can be disconcerting (some PhD students never get over it).

  3. Third, there is upbringing. I don’t know how Hans’s parents treated him, but if you’re not praised as a child then the adult can be incapable of accepting praise. I mean that literally: I have met people who cannot even hear praise, because their parents never told them they were great. It’s like a colour that they had never seen, and must try to learn about as an adult.

Besides that, did you know that accepting praise constructively is at least as difficult as accepting critisism constructively? You have to hear praise, and also learn from it; do not squander a compliment on quick self-satisfaction, and do not forget it either so that you can store it away for when the dark times come. This is a skill, and it needs to be cultivated and practiced just like anything else.

  1. Fourth, self-doubt is a good sign. The really clever ones are often troubled by this. The world is full of comedians who don’t think they are funny, dancers who don’t think they can dance, and mathematicians who wish they could think more penetratingly. People with real talent often cannot see how good they are, since talent means doing naturally (and so taking for granted) what others may do only with great difficulty, if at all. And of course: students who are insensitive to their own shortcomings stagnate, whereas the more sensitive ones may try harder and progress. Self-doubt is the price of self-awareness. That’s just how it is. Trust me, the alternative is worse: going through life condemned to repeat mistakes and blame it on everybody else. I’ve done it, I’ve seen it, and it’s not pretty.

But in fact, it doesn’t matter whether Hans feels like a fraud or not. His opinion is irrelevant. This is for other people to decide. He’s not the best and the brightest; there is always somebody better. But it’s not a competition and the world is vast. His job is simply to love the material and enjoy every moment he has the privilege of being paid to think about it. If somebody decides one day that he’s not good enough, then so be it.

But I knew that would never happen. Good luck, Hans.