Be kind


Dear Reader,

Last week I attended a lunchtime seminar on ‘Imposter Syndrome‘.

The specifications of the syndrome seem to be rather broadly drawn, but roughly speaking, it involves ‘successful people‘ who are ‘unable to internalise, or feel deserving of, their success‘.

The seminar leader had many good quotes, but somehow missed out the genre-defining Groucho Marx quote:


I should have felt more surprised that anyone turned up! But feeling persistent and unquenchable self-doubt is the ideal mental disposition for a person interested in precision metrology.

So it might not surprise you that the session was attended by some of the best scientists at NPL. At least, I think they are some of our best scientists. They might not feel the same way.


I came across the following tale from Neil Gaiman on Twitter.

“… Some years ago I was lucky enough to be 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 so…

It is clear that “Imposter Syndrome” is a common cognitive bias in which people whom most people would consider to be “successful”, are unable to feel the positivity which we imagine would accompany such a designation.

Like most cognitive biases, this is something we can become aware of and transcend.

I am aware that I am ‘successful’. Indeed I am more “successful” than I ever aspired to be.

It would be invidious to list my own ‘successes’. Indeed, I put ‘successes’ in quotation marks, because what I think other people might imagine to be ‘my successes’ feel to me either like ‘good fortune‘ or ‘a narrow escape from failure‘.

I know I ought to feel successful. But that is not what I actually feel.

What I learn from this.

At the height of his Nobel-prize winning powers, Bob Dylan wrote:

There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all

(Taken from the Book of Bob, Subterraneans, 19:65)

What I think his Bob’ness means by this is that the very idea of a person being “successful” is nonsense.

As we each travel the path from our birth to our death, to call people following one path ‘successful’ and people on other paths ‘failures’ would be bizarre.

Compassion for one’s fellow travellers should outweigh any illusion of success or failure.

And thinking of: my colleagues; acquaintances; the more senior and the more junior; the faster and the slower; women and men; even managers. And thinking of all their situations in life, and of how quickly our lives pass, I am reminded of another quotation:

Each person you meet is carrying a heavy load. Be kind. 

Perhaps this should read:

Each person you meet, even apparently successful people, may be carrying a heavy load. Be kind.

Wishing you every success.

With kind thoughts.


4 Responses to “Be kind”

  1. countcharlie Says:

    Hi Michael. Nice thoughts. I hope you are well.
    I think one benefit of getting older is that the silliness of the success / failure thing becomes ever more apparent.
    “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility” – TS Eliot said that…..

  2. edhui Says:

    I wrote a comment earlier which disappeared into the ether… but I love this post. Not least because it agrees with my current interest in pointing out that science education is poorly served by the idea that discoveries are made by ‘geniuses’. Students know they are not geniuses, so they are convinced that they have no future as successful scientists. It’s a circular argument that does nobody any good- geniuses make discoveries so all discoveries are made by geniuses.

    Nobody seems to believe the chorus of great scientists, even the ones that are most thought of as geniuses like Feynman and Einstein, when they say that they are just ordinary people who followed their curiosity with a passion.

    Discoveries make ordinary people into ‘geniuses’, not the other way round, and the value of the discovery is determined by society, and not some objective measure of scientific greatness.

    The cult of genius gives great anxiety to good scientists who haven’t yet become successful, and imposter syndrome to those who, like you, have.

    If you want to discourage students from science, teach them that they have to be geniuses to discover anything, and tell them to use a scientific method that no scientist ever has actually used to make a significant discovery.

    The image of scientists are equally weird. If you google for images of scientist, they are all wearing white coats and looking at test tubes and beakers of coloured water, in the way no discovery is ever made. If you google for images of famous scientists (ie people who have actually made significant discoveries), none of them are wearing white coats nor holding apparatus.

    The kids don’t have a chance.


  3. Karl-F. Osterhage Says:

    Interesting, I never heared about the ‘Imposter Syndrome’, but the described symptoms look very familiar to me.
    Yours, Karl-F. Osterhage

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