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Live stream: impostor syndrome and the Emacs community

Raw link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hy-QUCSHoWM

On Saturday 2021-10-30 at 13:00 +0300 I did a live stream. The video was recorded for future reference and is available on this page.

I talked about the impostor syndrome; of how we might seriously think of ourselves as frauds. My intention was to provide a philosophical outlook and to outline certain methods we may apply to cope with impostor syndrome and, perhaps, overcome it.

As you would expect from my other two live streams, much of the presentation was theoretical and targeted at a general audience. Though I also described some experiences from my participation in the Emacs community. Thes did not go into technicalities, but only served as examples from which we could draw insights about everyday life.

The text of the presentation is reproduced below. It is in Org notation.

After I concluded my talk, I joined the live chat to answer any questions and/or to comment on any remarks. Those were about the topic of the live stream and other subjects related to what I post on my website.


#+TITLE: Live: Impostor syndrome and the Emacs community
#+AUTHOR: Protesilaos Stavrou (https://protesilaos.com)
#+DATE: 2021-10-30

* Introduction

Hello everyone!  My name is Protesilaos, also known as "Prot".

In this video I want to talk to you about something that relates to
human relations and which I have discerned in tech-related communities,
such as that of Emacs.  This is about how some persons in those
communities may feel about themselves and their contributions.  What is
the self-image that they have and which are the associations or thought
processes that might relate to it.

I want to talk to you about the phenomenon of thinking that you are a
fraud, an infamous charlatan who does not really know anything about
the subject matter in question.  This is also known as the "impostor
syndrome".

I will approach this topic mostly at the theoretical level and gradually
include some more specific examples, such as references from my
participation in the Emacs community.

The intention is to share with you what the problem can be and discuss
some techniques we may use to ameliorate the pressure and, perhaps,
circumvent the obstacles that our mind puts in front of us.

The first part of this presentation is general, but then I will be a bit
more specific with examples about Emacs and related topics.

The reason I want to talk about this is because I have experienced it in
the past and have a sense that others may also struggle with it.

To be clear and unequivocal: *I am not a professional therapist and this
is not medical advice*.  I am just a lay person who is about to say lay
person things.

Recall that this is a live stream.  It is being recorded and will be
available for future review.  The show notes are on my website:
https://protesilaos.com/codelog/2021-10-29-live-stream-impostor-syndrome-emacs.

As always, I am taking questions from the live chat and will reply to
them once I conclude today's presentation.  The questions can be about
the current topic or anything else related to what I post on my website:
https://protesilaos.com.

* What does it mean to feel like a fraud?

This is about your perception.  How you think your disposition and your
contributions are interpreted by others.  You have this sense of
self-doubt that everything you do is scrutinised by those around you.
You get the idea that they are looking carefully at every single motion
and every single word of yours in search for something erroneous.  You
dread that because you believe that if you make a mistake it will expose
your little secret: the fact that you are a fraud.  And if that happens,
you fear your whole life will collapse.

Feeling like an impostor is all about what goes on in your mind.  People
don't really tell you that you are a fraud.  And you have never actually
confirmed that your peers are putting everything you do under the
microscope.  There might have been certain cases that made you think
that you may be a fraud, but those have been the exception to the norm.
Or you may have been the victim of abuse, which is no longer about
thikning of yourself as a fraud, but suffering from trauma, which is
different.  If this is just about believing that you are incompetent, it
may be that your mind is making a tiger out of a cat, a major problem
out of a minor one.

The triggers for those sentiments are not purely negative.  There is a
constructive aspect to them.  You are introspective, which is key to
identifying the areas where you can further improve yourself.  You are
self-conscious, which is of paramount importance in understanding
yourself in relation to others and, thus, in recognising the others.
And you are questioning yourself, which shows the capacity to avoid
becoming dogmatic about that which you cherish the most: your selfhood.

What is destructive, however, what can cause you harm and hamper your
contributions to the world is how far you take your introspection, your
self-consciousness, your self-doubt.  There has to be a balance, a
virtuous midpoint, otherwise you are approaching an extreme state of
affairs that is suboptimal.

As with everything that is not binary in nature, the difference between
poison and medicine is one of degree.  The right amount is benign.  An
excess supply, or a shortage, is detrimental to your health.  Think
about food: no food leads to starvation, too much food can cause death,
while the right amount of food keeps you going.

The same is true for what happens in our mind.  The total absence of
introspection, self-consciousness, self-doubt turns you into an
arrogant, foolish, sociopath.  But too much introspection makes you lose
touch with the world around you.  Too much self-consciousness renders
you self-centred and boosts your confidence about knowing yourself to a
fault.  While too much self-doubt forces you into submission, as you can
no longer make basic, practical choices that entail a degree of
uncertainty.

* Hubris: from perfectionism to defeatism

Here I want to introduce a term you either are not familiar with or may
have heard before but did not pay too much attention to.  The word is
"hubris", which comes from ancient Greek.  Hubris describes the human
condition that has gone past its limits; a condition that has drifted
away from the virtuous midpoint into an extreme state of affairs.

In mythology and ancient tragedy, hubris meant that the gods would
punish the human transgressor, for their excessive cockiness, their
extremism.  But we do not need the theological underpinnings of Greek
polytheism to appreciate the value of having a balanced approach to what
we do.  We do not have to subscribe to a specific school of thought in
order to recognise facts of life, such as the difference in degree
between poison and medicine.

For those who are struggling with the impostor syndrome, hubris
describes the extreme predicament they find themselves in.  And that
condition may be because of another quality that people have:
perfectionism or, else, conscientiousness.

To be a perfectionist, or to be conscientious, is to really care about
what you do to the point where you want to achieve the best results.
Again, this is a good thing to have, especially when considered together
with what we have already covered about being introspective,
self-conscious, and self-critical (self-doubt).  Though, as we said
before, when you take your perfectionism or conscientiousness to the
extreme, you start getting adverse results.  You commit hubris.

One such adverse result is defeatism and its concomitant sense of
nihilist self-deprecation.  This is how it goes: you set yourself up to
deliver on an ambitious project.  You put in every ounce of effort that
you can, expecting it to be a runaway success.  But as the project
develops, you realise that your work is not perfect.  So you keep
postponing the deadline you had set for yourself and eventually get
trapped in a cycle of postponements and reviews, where you always
dismiss what you have achieved as simply not being up to the standard
you had envisioned.  Because you had those lofty ambitions, those
unrealisable expectations, you conclude that what you do is in vein.

Instead of recognising your hubris, your excessive perfectionism, you
rationalise your condition as not being fit for the task.  So you tell
yourself that you will always fail no matter how hard you try.  That is
your defeatism being rationalised as your actuality.  And then you take
it a step further and tell yourself how everything you do is totally
useless.  That is your defeatism transmogrifying into nihilist
self-deprecation.  This is all hubris; hubris writ large.  Which calls
for a return to a more balanced approach to life.

* Challenge yourself: what's wrong with being a fraud?

The impostor syndrome can really harm you.  It can prove detrimental to
your productivity and it can become deleterious for your sanity.  So it
is not to be taken lightly.  There are, however, some techniques we may
employ to change the course of things so that we move away from the
extremes and back to a state of mind where we can find the virtuous
midpoint.

One such technique is to turn the accusation of you being a fraud on its
head.  Instead of apologising to yourself for being an impostor, take a
deep breath, drink some water, and turn that nihilism of yours
upside-down.  Ask yourself what will happen to the world if it actually
believes that I am a charlatan?  Let's say that you are writing some
Emacs Lisp code, or you are doing a presentation in a live stream.  Take
me, what will happen to me right now if someone watching this thinks
that I am not a philosopher or that I am not this or that?  Will the
thoughts of that person stop me from getting enjoyment out of what I do?
Will my body, my mind, my entire being suddenly find no amusement, no
food for the soul, so to speak, in whatever it is I am doing?

So calm down and ask yourself what can go wrong in the world if you
indeed are a fraud?  Let's say that I discover this right now: I am not
who I thought I was.  I truly am a fraud!  Did you watching this lose
something following this revelation?  Perhaps you lost your time, but
otherwise it is inconsequential.  Was I gaining something from you
before that realisation which will now be lost simply because something
flipped in my mind and I am now supposedly a fraud?  No.  The only thing
that has changed is a thought in my mind.  The world, however, does not
revolve around that thought.

Now you may be thinking about cases where something hinges on your
performance.  Let's say that you are a doctor and are saving lives out
there.  What happens if you think you are a fraud?  We are all doomed
because however bad you think you are, those of us who are not doctors
are definitely worse at what you are doing.  And the same principle for
every position where others depend on you.  For you to be in that
position, it clearly means that you are not as bad as you think you are.

And then we have activities that are of a more modest nature compared to
saving lives.  For example, you are writing Emacs Lisp code and you are
packaging it so that other people may use it as well.  Again, what can
possibly go wrong if someone, somewhere gets this idea that you are a
fraud.  So what?  Nothing happens.  But we will revisit this point a bit
later.

Use the nihilism that was contributing to your downfall against your
defeatism.  Use it in a constructive way to show the absurdity of
getting bogged down by extreme self-doubt; the absurdity of questioning
yourself to death, so to speak.

* Let the ideal be the guide of the good, not its enemy

Another technique that we can employ is to reconsider the relationship
between the ideal and the actual.  We said that the impostor syndrome
can be an inwardly corrupt perfectionism or a kind of conscientiousness
gone wrong.  And the reason behind that may be how we set ourselves up
for failure by misunderstanding what the ideal actually represents.

What we want is for the ideal to be our guide in life.  We wish to
approximate it and emulate it as much as possible, so that what we do
gets better and better.  What we should not do, though, is compare the
actual to the ideal only so that we may discard what we have.  Because
if we keep doing that, we will simply be left with nothing.  The ideal
is unattainable because it is a mental construct, an absolute that is
not instantiated in some particular case.  We can never attain the
absolute.  We can only ever do something that is within our means or,
generally, framed by the factors that govern the prevailing conditions
in our life.

Let's think about this situation by means of a thought experiment.  The
point is to not be so abstract all the time.  Suppose that there exist
two versions of Protesilaos in the world.  One is my current self right
here, and the other is a 20-year-old version of me.  Let's call the
latter "young Prot" and I am, in this case, "old Prot" (hey, I'm 33!).
So young Prot has been following old Prot's publications.  And young
Prot has all those ideas that he wants to write about and put them on a
personal website.  Young Prot wants to become old Prot and sets out to
produce those publications that will go into his new website.  But young
Prot is beset on all sides by this persistent doubt that he is not good
enough.  Imagine that we can read his mind.  It goes like this:

#+begin_quote
I want to set up a website and write about all those topics that
interest me.  This Protesilaos fellow is inspiring me to do so.  Maybe I
should even send him my works.  But who am I trying to deceive?  I am a
nobody with nothing to show for.  Whereas look at him: he has written
about all those subjects... plus, he has this luscious beard! [joke!]  I
better sit here and accept that I am incompetent.
#+end_quote

What do you think will happen to young Prot is he maintains that
attitude?  Will he ever grow up to become old Prot?  No, because he is
setting himself up for failure.  He is comparing his current state to a
desired state that he has misunderstood and he is misusing that ideal to
belittle himself.  What young Prot needs to do is simply give it a try
and play to the beat of his own being; follow his heart, as they say.
Ignore the comparisons.  Blot out everything that prevents the actual
from becoming good and the good from becoming better.  The ideal must be
our guide, the lodestar we look up to find our way in the wilderness.
It is not our enemy.

* Learn to accept counterpoints gracefully

The other technique that can help is to become more dialectical.  Don't
cling on to your position and try to win the argument.  I have written
about this issue at length, though here I want to put it in concrete
terms by using an example with Emacs. I will show some code, but even if
you don't understand it, please bear with me as the point is general.

[ The Dialectician's Ethos:
  https://protesilaos.com/books/2020-09-30-ethos-dialectic/ ]

A couple of days ago I was working on refining a user option in my
=modus-themes=.  What had to be done, was to compare the elements of two
lists in order to find the first match between them.  I did not know how
to do it in a clean way, so I wrote some ugly code which, nonetheless,
did return the values I was looking for.  The function was this:

#+begin_src emacs-lisp
(defun modus-themes--heading-weight (list)
  (let (weight)
    (setq weight
          (mapcar (lambda (elt)
                    (member elt modus-themes--heading-weights))
                  list))
    (setq weight (delq nil weight))
    (setq weight (caar weight))))
#+end_src

You would pass to it a list of symbols and it would compare it to
another list: the =modus-themes--heading-weights=.  So I committed that.
The person with whom we were discussing this new addition, Christian
Tietze, told me about a more efficient way to accomplish the same task
by simply using the =cl-intersection= function which compares two lists
directly.  So I went with Christian's suggestion.  Then Daniel Mendler
pointed out that this use of =cl-intersection= required its library at
runtime, so we could opt for another approach that would have no such
dependency.  The short version of the story is that I was wrong and
those folks showed me how to do it right.

My attitude was always cooperative and open-minded.  When someone
demonstrates that I am wrong, I am happy to concede the point and I am
eager to follow their thesis.  And that is because I believe that when
someone shows you the error of your ways, they are actually doing you a
service.  They are helping you free yourself from that falsehood, that
incorrect belief, that bad technique, etc.

If I had felt attacked by Christian and Daniel, if I was insecure by
picturing myself as a fraud, we wouldn't have the better code, plus I
would be feeling inadequate and a complete idiot.  Maybe I would want to
hide somewhere, instead of talking about it here.  It would be horrible.

* People don't judge you for trivialities

The truth of the matter is that we sometimes worry too much about what
others may think.  Our mind is magnifying the problem by weaving all
those imaginary scenaria together in one grand narrative that ultimately
functions against our sanity.

This is not to downplay the significance of the problem, nor to suggest
some simplistic and generic cliché of "get up and do it".  It does not
work that way.  What I am saying here is that everything can benefit
from a more refined technique.  Our thinking processes are no different.
If we apply the right method and are patient about it, we stand a better
chance of disentangling our thoughts, of putting them in order, and of
not falling into traps that we have set up for ourselves.

You may be thinking at this point a bit like young Prot in my thought
experiment earlier.  "Oh, but I am not strong enough".  My argument is
that you can improve yourself by changing your method.  It all is a
matter of attitude, of how you approach things.  As for not being
"strong enough", you may have heard about the ancient mathematician
called Archimedes.  He wanted to explain to his peers how leverage
works.  So he claimed that there is a certain point to which we can
apply sufficient pressure in order to move large objects.  And he
exaggerated by claiming that he can move the Earth, if the right point
exists, upon which to apply the appropriate leverage.  If we want to
draw the general insight from this claim and use it for our purposes
here, we can say that strength is a function of technique.  Archimedes
could move massive objects with the correct method, not with his sheer
power.  The same is true for us: we can do seemingly impossible things
by changing our disposition.

Finally, I wish to conclude this presentation with a few words about my
participation in the Emacs community.  As you may know, I have been
using Emacs since the summer of 2019.  I am not a programmer and had no
knowledge of Lisp when I started with Emacs.  But that did not stop me
from trying to get better.  I took baby steps and started learning my
way around.  Then I began writing my super simple Elisp tweaks.  Over
time I got better at it and am always looking forward to learn something
new.

During all this time, the Emacs community has been welcoming.  Was I
always good with Elisp?  No, absolutely not.  Was I always insightful
about how to use Emacs?  Again, the answer is firmly negative.  So a
defeatist back in 2019, let's call him "young Prot" once again, would
have stayed away from this milieu without even trying.  Because young
Prot would have imagined how hostile and elitist the Emacs community is,
with their niche program and all its weird methods.

But I tried.  And I learnt that people don't judge you for trivialities.

The video thumbnail is a tweak of the Levitating, Meditating, Flute-playing Gnu under the terms of the GNU General Public License: https://www.gnu.org/graphics/meditate.html.