Kosslyn: Honesty will free us

Fraud. Impostor. Fake.

An acquaintance recently used those words to describe himself. We were in an economics lecture, skimming articles on our laptops while barely following the professor’s accented lecture. Then we started quietly discussing politics. The whispered conversation meandered around to our extracurricular experiences at Yale. My acquaintance is generally perceived as social, competent and successful. Yet here we sat in one of the most surreal conversations of my life, and I was hearing something surprising.

“I always feel like I’m faking it,” he said. “People seem to think I have my stuff in order, but that’s not how it ever feels. I’m just hanging on, really. But nobody notices.”

“Is that a good thing?” I asked.

“No. Because I can’t relax when everyone thinks I’m this amazing thing. If I slip, that’ll be it.”

His situation reminded me of something I’d seen in Dilbert cartoons: the Peter Principle. In brief, the Peter Principle states that competent workers in a company will be promoted until they acquire a job that they can no longer execute competently, at which point their careers will stall. So if competent people are promoted to the point of incompetence and incompetent people stay where they are, eventually the entire company will consist of people who are incompetent at their current levels.

Just so for my acquaintance. When he wanted respect, he projected an image of competence and ease. As he successfully demonstrated each level of actual competence, he kicked his projected competence up another notch. This process of striving-succeeding-increasing continued until he reached a point at which he was not entirely able to live up to his projected levels of competence. And there he stayed, unable to relax, unable to enjoy the fruits of his labor, trapped by his successes as much as his failures.

Why this ever-competitive attitude? In a section last week, my TA asked an interesting question: “Is academia a competition?” The universal response? “Yes. So is life — we compete for money, a good family, status and success.” When everything is a understood as a competition, small wonder many of us feel constant pressure to successfully compete.

Yale sometimes aggravates this tendency by reminding us that we are supposedly exceptional. I still remember the presentation during Bulldog Days about how amazing my classmates and I were supposed to be — sitting alone in the crowd, I wondered whether I was up to snuff. I wanted to seem more impressive so I could feel like I belonged. But a supernatural persona comes with too much anxiety about being found out.

I had no ready answer for my acquaintance that day and we soon lapsed back into silent Web browsing. But there must be a good way out from the impostor-producing competitive grind. At Monday’s panel on social class, Dean Gentry observed there is a modern middle-class American value of individual achievement that stands apart from traditional community-oriented values. I think he is right, and furthermore that individual achievement misses out on asymmetric relationships: friendships and relationships in which one side makes nontrivial and unreciprocated sacrifices for the other side.

The slice of Yale I know seems quite comfortable being on the receiving end of asymmetric relationships. We receive from our parents, who have supported us our entire lives. We receive from Yale, which provides so many opportunities; in fact, we are constantly asking Yale to give us more — reduced tuition, better food, more international opportunities — without many worries. And we receive from America, which has lain the framework for our meritocracy. Yet we seem reflexively averse to giving without immediate self-benefit. Some students do participate in DEMOS, tutor at Wilbur Cross and engage in other worthy projects, but by and large we just do not seem to know how to give. Even birthday parties often seem more about free refreshments for the guests than about thoughtful offerings for the birthday kid.

If we are not going to give our time and energy to others, at least we can learn to give our thanks. So as we end 12 straight weeks of classes and head off to Thanksgiving, let’s make the holiday live up to its name. And if we start paying more attention to other people, we can free ourselves from the competitive trap.

Justin Kosslyn is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.


  • John Graden

    What you are describing is the impostor syndrome. It's the feeling that you're not as smart as everyone thinks you are. It's like you've been faking it and could be found out soon.

    I have written a book on this subject and have an online test you can take in about 60-seconds at http://www.ImpostorQuiz.com

    You can learn about the book at http://www.JohnGraden.com

  • Recent Alum

    Nice story about your "acquaintance."

  • anon

    Yale--the institution, but more importantly the culture--really promotes this. I think we probably handle the feelings of competition and just-at-the-edge living a lot better than other top-flight schools, but we can work on it more from the bottom up and the top down.

  • Anonymous

    To Larry Gipson and the rest of the YDN, I believe that it was very inappropriate to make such news public. As a member of the YPMB panlist, I was under the impression that Mr. Duffy's message was to be internal and that he was going to address the problem after Thanksgiving break. It was not meant to be public. More controversy is being caused than necessary.