Knowing Your Limits/Accepting or Mitigating Intellectual Failure
July 24, 2011 3:11 PM   Subscribe

I have a serious problem with being seen to be intellectually 'wrong'. I need ways to get over it

I consider myself to be an intelligent, popular guy. I'm a creative thinker, and currently studying for a PhD that I am proud of. I am the kind of person who revels in being right, being clever, understanding the world. As a teacher/tutor I also love to share knowledge with others, and believe that a good teacher is capable of learning from their students.

When I am surrounded by people I respect, in a conversational situation, I have no problems debating, sharing ideas, learning new things because of misunderstandings I've carried around. But in a public forum, confronted by people I don't know personally I suffer from a terrible fear of making a fool of myself.

This sounds run of the mill, right, everyone worries about how they are perceived by others? But it haunts me.

The other day I chaired a discussion between three academics. They were each delivering papers on the work of a specific author, who also happened to be in the audience. After they had delivered their papers it was my job to ask a question that united their work and opened up discussion to the rest of the audience. My question was valid, it felt that way, but I think I delivered it a bit chaotically. In many ways, and this is probably a big part of my problem, what I did was tried to ask a question I didn't have a complete tool-kit to put into words. So although in a conversational mode I could have phrased it right, promoted an interesting discussion, in this one-off situation I ended up tripping a bit. Perhaps I aimed above my ability.

Everyone does this. And I don't judge people who I see do this, but still the event haunts me. It's like I'm carrying it around like a rotten shadow that won't budge. Like a cloud.

This problem will only get more pronounced as I move into academia. I don't fear getting up in front of an audience, I don't fear putting my work out there, what I fear is people wondering "what they hell is he doing there?"

I hate the thought that clever people won't think I am clever.

I fear not being able to justify my words, my actions, my ideas. A lot of academic banter is instant, and has to be precise, articulate. I fear that my fear will only further erode my articulacy in front of others.

How do I get over this? How do I promote a modesty in my self-presentation? How do I assess where I sit in the food-chain of intelligence, and be happy to remain there? be happy to use my abilities without carrying this knot around in my stomach whenever I make a tiny error?

How do I accept that it's ok to not know/understand everything?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I saw a quote recently that read, "What other people think of you is none of your business."I kind of love it.
posted by sweetkid at 3:14 PM on July 24, 2011 [28 favorites]

Academia is a funny business. Frankly, most political issues, even questions at a research committee meeting, don't get very far. This is because there is so much else to do. These research committees are a break, essentially, for the people who come. They are a place to test ways to present ideas, that really all they are. I would be more aware of how you are in knowing your limits as a teacher than worry about what happens at research committee.
posted by parmanparman at 3:17 PM on July 24, 2011

How do I get over this? Practice.

How do I assess where I sit in the food-chain of intelligence? Practice with people above and below you, if you care.

How do I be happy to remain there? Be content. How depends on your worldview.

Be happy to use my abilities without carrying this knot around in my stomach whenever I make a tiny error? Practice.
posted by michaelh at 3:18 PM on July 24, 2011

This is such a cliche, but try therapy. As someone with major perfectionist issues, I can recommend the process of having someone help you untangle the reasons why you feel this way.

It's like I'm carrying it around like a rotten shadow that won't budge

You shouldn't have to feel this way (and oh, how I know what you mean). A therapist can help you figure out ways to handle making mistakes.
posted by corey flood at 3:25 PM on July 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

You will always remember those little mis-steps. Though I've been a teacher for eight years I still remember those moments where I remember looking and feeling utterly stupid. Literally, I can remember every single one of those moments. You know who doesn't remember those moments? Anyone else.

You can let them haunt you. Or you can foster an attitude that those mistakes don't define you - they are the path you had to take to get to where you want to go in your career. I don't make the same mistake twice. Neither will you. Hopefully, this will be all it takes for you remember to do all the preparation you need to in order to be successful in that kind of situation. You can't control how others see you, but you can control the amount of work you put in to your "public persona" in academia.

I also think that if you're anything like me, you probably are your own worst critic. The fact that you made it to this point means that you are smart enough and good enough. Don't let KFUCK radio play too loudly in your head.

I don't know what field you're in or what your experience level is in moderating discussions, but doing a good job moderating is one of the hardest things to do. It's not something people are just naturally good at - and most of us are never taught how to do it successfully. Don't beat yourself up over it. Honestly, you probably did much better than you think you did.
posted by guster4lovers at 3:26 PM on July 24, 2011 [7 favorites]

Imposter Syndrome

More likely than not, no one gave a shit about what you said at the panel anyway.
posted by k8t at 3:34 PM on July 24, 2011 [7 favorites]

I can tell you one thing: You'll be less concerned about such little glitches as time goes on. I used to suffer mightily when I performed imperfectly in public, but once I began to accept that I'm not always the smartest dude in the room, life improved a lot, and I relaxed more, and probably performed better. Academia is full of people like us, smart perfectionists, with high self-expectations, and only time and experience can create the kind of humility that ameliorates the problem. So just hang in there for another, oh, twenty, thirty years.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 3:50 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know, man... "the food-chain of intelligence" is kinda harsh, you know?

I could give you advice, but I fear it won't help. However, here it is, and it's simple: prepare. Say at that panel, say there's a next time: figure out what's expected of you beforehand, and either talk to the fellow panelists beforehand or get a grip on the subjects covered well enough that you can have a written set of notes/an outline for a question/some ideas. Make a practice of collecting and focusing on others' ideas rather than worrying about your own. This is something you doubtlessly do for school already, but really allow that to sink in: the important thing is understanding other people's ideas, synthesizing, analyzing, and paying attention to the ones that don't get enough.

The main issue you described isn't one of intelligence, it's of communication: you stumbled over presentation. Anyone can do that, it has nothing to do with intelligence. The solution to presentation mess-ups is preparation. It's all very basic.

However, the underlying problem is that it didn't occur to you that it was a simple presentation mess-up issue, and you saw it as a slam on your own intelli-value in the intelli-marketplace. I mean, yeah, academic is an intelli-marketplace of sorts, but only if one chooses to play that game. I presume you're an academic because you're interested in ideas, not (just?) the sound of your own voice. Therefore, the 'solution' to toning down the ego bruising is to simply focus outside of yourself, which is easy enough to do when you're studying other people's ideas in the first place.

Cleverness is so passe though, isn't it? It's hard to be both interesting and passionate and 'clever', to pay attention to others' points and to wow them with your brilliance while making them think it's all about them (no, really). Why bother?

What are you trying to get out of this, really? If you want to communicate your point(s) better, there are steps you can take, like writing more, thinking ahead more, waiting to speak till you know what you're going to say, etc. If you want to seem smart, all you have to do is know more than the other person, but why does that matter? In fact, most people will think you're 'really smart' if you understand them, rather than if they don't understand you (which is what actually happens when you really are smarter than others). So focus on listening and understanding others-- asking them questions in conversation, reading their articles, allowing them to feel clever, etc. The smarter someone feels, the smarter they think you are, and the more they'll become convinced that of course you're meant to be there, and in fact your indispensable.

Personally, I think it's a bit of a boring game, that's how easy it is to make others impressed. As soon as you figure it out, it becomes dreadfully boring. People are super easy-- and easily fooled. Even smart people. Maybe especially smart people.

I agree with k8t that it's likely no one cared about your presentation goof-up, 'cause most people are concerned with themselves and their own embarrassments and are pretty blind to the difficulties of others. No one is going to wonder what you're doing around them if you act self-confident, and it doesn't matter how smart/educated you are if you cannot communicate your ideas smoothly/confidently. That's why the whole idea of the intelligence food-chain is a bit ridiculous, even if it's true some of us are smarter than others. Success doesn't actually come to the ones technically smartest (even in academia), but the ones most able to leverage it and express it in the right way at the right time, usually with ass-kissing involved. Like I said, don't prove to people you're smart, prove that they're smart: that's the secret to fitting in, getting ahead, and making smart people like you.
posted by reenka at 4:02 PM on July 24, 2011 [18 favorites]

To me, being smart/clever doesn't mean knowing everything nor being eloquent. It means having a mind that is like an elite athlete: strong, nimble, naturally gifted, passionate about continuing to perfect his/her game, and with enviable muscle memory from years and years of practice and study.

The ability to be articulate on the spot is useful, but in my experience, does not directly correlate with the people I most admire intellectually or from whom I know I have the most to learn.

No one would have chosen you to moderate a panel of academics if they did not respect your brain, your subject matter knowledge, and your ability to be well-spoken in front of a highly intelligent audience.

You do not need to assess where you "sit in the food-chain of intelligence," and you should not use your own perception of your deftness as a public speaker as a marker on this food chain (if such a thing even existed).

Be proud of your brain, and recognize that all the people around you are continually trying to make their own brains smarter and smarter. The quest never ends, and it's a 100% solo game. We just get to play it near, and to learn from, lots of uniquely smart people, ALL of whom make mistakes, and NONE of whom know "everything."
posted by mauvest at 4:06 PM on July 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

It might help to spend a lot more time around those you see as "above you in the intelligence food chain" or whatever it is. Because you'll see they're quite human, flawed, prone to thinking dumb things or being wrong at times. Especially the more arrogant and haughtier they are. There's a reason that people say familiarity breeds contempt. Not that *contempt* is a great thing to be going for, but, flaws are a lot harder to see from farther away.
posted by Ashley801 at 4:10 PM on July 24, 2011

Remember that it's a near certainty that everyone else in the room either (1) isn't paying attention, (2) is paying attention but doesn't perceive that you've fallen short in any way, or (3) might find some slight fault with what you've said at the time, but will immediately forget about this. Meanwhile, you'll keep spending your time worrying about what other people thought about what you said, when the fact is they're not even thinking about it. They're much more likely to be worrying about how well they came across.

How do I assess where I sit in the food-chain of intelligence

Why is it necessary to do this at all?
posted by John Cohen at 4:18 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

no one knows/understands everything- that's ridiculous and would be quite boring besides.

I think the smartest people recognize that they are learning all the time as well. I'm not an academic, but in my world I do see that people that get attention for being smart are the ones that are the most arrogant, and in fact often of mediocre intelligence.

The trick of these things to me is that your perfectionist streak is probably a huge motivator for you, yet it causes you these intense pangs of doubt. Try to focus on the future and let go these trivial mistakes, as others have noted- your capabilities are clearly being recognized as you were chosen as moderator.
posted by abirdinthehand at 4:21 PM on July 24, 2011

Stop thinking that there are things like an intelligence food chain. Stop judging other people on how clever you think they are. Later, work on stopping judging yourself based on how clever you think you are.

This game you are playing, you will always lose. Someone always is actually going to be smarter and know more than you. (Cleverness itself is rather glib and not a particularly great indicator of creating valuable research, by the way, which is largely based on work and persistence.) More important, even if you are the smartest, cleverest, most thoughtful, most delightful person in the room, you will still lose by playing this game because you will wonder if people perceived you to be all of those things and if you could have been more all of those things.

You're largely asking the wrong questions. In order to get over this, you need to stop viewing the world through this prism.
posted by J. Wilson at 4:25 PM on July 24, 2011 [10 favorites]

Stop thinking that there are things like an intelligence food chain. Stop judging other people on how clever you think they are. Later, work on stopping judging yourself based on how clever you think you are.

Yep. I find the less time you spend judging other people, the less time you'll spend thinking about how they might be judging you.
posted by sweetkid at 4:30 PM on July 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't think judging is the problem here:

"Everyone does this. And I don't judge people who I see do this..."

Imposter Syndrome is nothing to be worried about. I think we all have it, every teacher, parent, business executive. Life is hard. The fact that you are self aware enough to ask this question shows you're ready to move past this.

Stay self aware, and show others you are aware of them too. We can't always be perfect; right; successful: but if everyone took a little time out to let other people know how much they are noticed; respected; valued, the world would have a lot fewer people in it who felt like imposters.
posted by 0bvious at 4:47 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think you should focus less on a free-form notion of intelligence, and more on actually producing something - whether that be a paper, a syllabus, an experiment, whatever. Once you are actually *using* your mind instead of just trying to impress people with it, you'll start to gain some real satisfaction, and you will worry less about what people think.
posted by yarly at 5:00 PM on July 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

How do I assess where I sit in the food-chain of intelligence?

Don't bother. Really. You're pitched where you're pitched; it's fixed and you can't change it. Additionally, even in academia, intellect is only one very small aspect of success. There are absolute scads of brilliant people who's screaming intellect never took them anywhere in particular. Being smart ultimately counts for shit. Working hard, being diligent, and communicating well (writing, speaking, coding or art-ing) will actually count much more in terms of professional regard and accomplishment.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:12 PM on July 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

I am a scientist and feel your pain, although I'm not in academia.

Have you ever thought that maybe this is normal and that you are just being stretched? I don't know, but in my line of work I tend to flip out about these same things and then when I actually pause and consider the situation I realize that it's normal and it's part of career growth.

Also: I don't know how you present yourself physically because this is an online forum, but speaking slower drastically helped me. It sounds dumb, but just that simple tweak helped because when I'm nervous I talk waaaaay too fast.
posted by floweredfish at 6:10 PM on July 24, 2011

I can relate your question in many ways. Last year I began teaching undergraduates and thus spent many nights curled up in the fetal position cringing over the day's horror reel of dumb things I said and did.

I'm still working on this, but what is helping me get through this is to focus on accepting the fact that for the nature of what this is, all of my foibles will be public ones. There's no other way. But there's comfort that EVERYBODY who has ever taught, chaired a committee, done karaoke, stand-up comedy or anything public whatsoever has had to gain their experiences on the stage, with an audience (and many audiences are much more unforgiving than the typical academic ones).

It'd be nice to hit it out of the ballpark, every time, with perfect ease. But can you imagine how shattering it would be to make your very first rookie mistakes years down the line, when you 'should know better'? So, at least there's that.

There's always this issue in academia...especially at the beginning or with a new, undefined project. How do you assess what people need to know and therefore how to explain to things to them in a way that makes sense? I'm just starting out myself and every time I explain my PhD topic, I do a post-explanation re-assess on what worked and what didn't. Over time, these build up to knowing what to say and do, given my audience of 1 or 20, mixed or not.

Also know that your institution is your safe-zone. It's your practice space for asking questions in seminars, handling Q&As, giving presentations. You're allowed to flail a little there. And you can even flail elsewhere (people probably won't notice anyway because they're 'outsiders' to you and your research and institution, etc. in many respects). But it's better to get it all out at home.

"what they hell is he doing there?"

Moving forward, make a point of starting out every paper, presentation, etc. with a sentence that addresses this in some way. It'll help frame whatever information you're putting out there so listeners will know what to expect, but more importantly, it'll get this pervasive thought out of your head. They can't even wonder what the hell you're doing, because, BAM, covered.
posted by iamkimiam at 6:25 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

This might not seem super related, but a helpful device when speaking to a group of people is to number your points before you make them, "We need to consider two major things here..." and then say "One...[xx point]" and "Two...[yy point]". It provides a structure, a beginning middle and end, if you will, to what you're going to say. Also, people will mentally make a note that they only have to listen to two things, so they're more likely to actually pay attention for even that short period of time. It sounds cynical, but it really works.
posted by sweetkid at 6:44 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm an academic too.

I'm experienced with these "performance issues".

Best trick in the world: when performing, learn to talk slower. Really. Not only does it have the effect of making you SEEM smarter, but the extra time allows more thought about what you're saying.

And never underestimate the power of a pause.


See what I mean?

: )
posted by Murray M at 7:19 PM on July 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Have you tried meditation? Simple mindfulness meditation works with acceptance of things exactly as they are, without trying to manipulate or change situations to suit the way you think they/you "should" be.

If it's not your thing, you might try listening to this talk by Tara Brach, Without Anxiety About Imperfection. Her talks are incredibly helpful to me.
posted by annabellee at 8:52 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing fivesavagepalms, especially: "Academia is full of people like us, smart perfectionists, with high self-expectations, and only time and experience can create the kind of humility that ameliorates the problem"

As well, I'd add that humility can be sought and developed intentionally as a beneficial trait of character.
posted by Anitanola at 10:04 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Speaking as a former graduate student, finish your dissertation as quickly as possible. It sounds like you're in a humanities department so, statistically, you probably won't be getting a tenured position. So finish up and move on.

Why the harsh advice? I was once like you. I had, simultaneously, an inflated sense of my own intellectual prowess along with the crushing self-doubt that only graduate school in the humanities can inculcate into you. You're surrounded by some very smart people and you're probably above average in intelligence yourself, so you're trying to figure out just how you can make it into the club. At the same time you are expected to act like a professional and produce high-caliber scholarship while being paid less than a Domino's pizza delivery guy.

tldr: Finish and get out. Graduate school is a soul-crushing, liminal existence at best. Once you finish it you'll be in the full sunshine of reality again, a reality where, frankly, people don't spend 1/10 as much time weighing their supposed "intellectual status" against others. Because honestly, that's what assholes do. And truly intelligent people don't worry either because they're confident in their actual intelligence, not trying to constantly pull the wool over other people's eyes using jargon and academic catch-phrases.
posted by bardic at 11:06 PM on July 24, 2011

"I used to care what people were thinking of me. Then I realized, they weren't."

- Someone
posted by armoir from antproof case at 11:27 PM on July 24, 2011

You might look into obsessive compulsive personality disorder (different from OCD). Not necessarily because you have it, but because 'being right' is a strong trait of OCPD and you might find examples and materials targeted to that particular flaw that will give you good insight. There's research that gifted kids are prone to developing OCPD, so it seems useful to describe negative aspects of the mentality that can hamstring the intellectually oriented.
posted by griselda at 10:14 AM on July 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

« Older Can you tell if I've tied one on?   |   Work baby shower ideas? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.