11 September 2017

Are You An Evil Genius? I Am

Recently there's been a lot of people talking about Impostor Syndrome. The first time I ever heard of the condition it was from Neil Gaiman, who has experienced it. Now it is a phenomenon widespread enough to warrant multiple feature articles. Or, possibly, it is just another angle on picking apart the lives of the famous and their business cousins, the successful.

I have never experienced success, fame or impostor syndrome. Actually, that can't quite be true, I have experienced success in securing employment on multiple occasions. However, I have never felt, in any of these positions, like I was about to be exposed as a fraud. Sometimes I have felt like I'm doing fine, and other times...

The way that I put it to myself is that I felt like all my potential wasn't being accessed. It used to be a feeling that I got from work situations alone. All this talk about impostors though has lead to me re-evaluating this stance. Fact is that there are many areas of my working life, as a coder and a writer, where I feel like I've been unfairly overlooked. How awkward and un-British an attitude to have.

So awkward and un-British in fact, that I got a list of 10 common features of the syndrome from this article. I thought I might consider these just to check I'm not going astray here.

1. You tend to admire and overrate the abilities of others and underrate your own ability.

Nope. I do admire, and have overrated, the abilities of others. I admire them all the time. I admire my colleagues at work right now. Where I go wrong with overrating people is more trusting them to do something I thought would be obvious and then finding they have not, in fact, done that thing leaving us in an awkward position. I have never underrated my own ability. I have, on occasion slightly overrated it but compensated as time went on by making guarantees rather than promises.

2. Others may see you as competent, but you still see yourself as incompetent.

I don't even know what to say to this. As a kick back to thinking I owned the bloody joint in my late teens I have realised that in the "real" world a person waits for certainty that their action is appropriate. I think that I might actually have a relative of this where I don't do things because I believe I am not "allowed" to do them because it would appear as if I'm trying to take over the world. Only occasionally do I get admonished by people saying: "You could have just done x, you know, that would have been fine." This tends to suggest I am cautious and mindful of my own hubristic tendencies.
3. You have a hard time acknowledging objective measures of your competency.

I don't have any objective measures of my competency, as either a coder or a writer. Both disciplines are highly subjective. In the case of writing this is fine for everyone. People involved in systems development get a bit more bunched about that.

There are many pseudo-objective ways to work out whether someone will be a good coder and I have fallen foul of some of these when job interviews have ended in rejection because the prospective employers believe me not to be the "right kind of coder", I tend to brush this off as cold feet about having someone as brash and confident as me in the office.

When it does come to writing I have spent three decades developing the traditional writer's "thick skin" when it comes to criticism. I submitted a story to an excellent short story collection once upon a time. My story received a couple of kind reviews and one review, that I cherish, by somebody who just didn't get my story at all, the whole thing weirded them out to the level of complete rejection. It is one of my favourite reviews of my work because you can feel the visceral confusion from the words, I mean, come on, that's a reaction!

Anyhow, people have consistently been either kind or, in writer's circles, keen to point out my shortcomings in writing. It's really hard to get a measure of what kind of writer you are because people are not often known to stage interventions for people who can't write telling them to just give up.

One thing I do know is that most low-selling authors I come across aren't actually bad writers at all, whatsoever. They may, possibly, edge into mediocrity, but often from the top end, so their writing is only just better than average. Some low-selling authors I have encountered are actually really good. The problem tends to turn out to be that the story they are telling is just not compelling for large amounts of people.

For example, there are not many people who have an enthusiasm for "Star Wars Underwater" stories. There is probably some kind of niche market there but usually people just don't respond to that mise en scene. No idea why, just is. So if you're a writer with a passion for soggy space opera you have the problem that most people have other stories to read that rate higher on their casual-interest-ometer. Their aquatic laser battle is not necessarily bad, just not compelling.

On the flip side of this writers like Stephen King (yeah, that guy again) do the exact opposite of that. They involve people in genres they would not otherwise have ever read. There are many people who don't like horror books that I've met who still enjoy King's work.

Is Stephen King a better actual writer for that? Well, as it happens he's such a good writer he's useless for comparisons like this. Stephen King's writing is on a level of natural, in-born talent that it is no good for the basis of comparison. So let's shift slightly.

Iain M. Banks was a fantastic writer, sadly no longer with us, who wrote compelling, weird SF epics, space opera in the grand tradition of literary space epics, with a smattering of liberal political satire in there. I love Iain M. Banks (and his contemporary fiction alter-ego Iain Banks).

But was he a good writer? Yes, he was a fine, serviceable, solid writer.

Is he a better writer than some less successful writers I've read? No. Not at all.

His novels could be wilfully bizarre to the point of breaking the narrative. He allowed huge swathes of tangential detail to obscure the plot progression. His novels occasionally felt like their structure was only just achieving coherency. Sometimes his novels were peopled entirely with characters that it was impossible to like. This made his novels, on occasion, hard to finish.

Iain M. Banks "got away with" things far more than Stephen King (and that guy gets away with plenty). So, in the end, some authors who sell far more modestly than these two are doing stuff way better.

What I'm saying is, at some level, it's random. At some level what I am passionate to tell a story about you may not be passionate to hear one about. At another level sometimes people are stupidly famous and wealthy because what they want to say and what loads of people want to hear intersect.

So how can I call myself incompetent? I believe I just tell stories no one really cares about beyond a select audience consisting of me and my wife. Fair enough.

4. You have a hard time accepting compliments for your accomplishments

Nope. Love compliments. They make me feel warm and fuzzy.

5. You discount the value of your abilities and talents.

Nope, I try very hard not to overestimate them, actually.

I have come to a point in my life where I remind myself daily how stupid most people are compared to me. If you are a friend of mine, don't worry about me secretly looking down on you. You too are just as or even more intelligent than, I would estimate about 75% of the general population because my friendship is snobby like that. It's rare I can stand the company of people far less intelligent than me.

But all you have to do is join an anti-Brexit group on Facebook and that will quickly lead you to people who are willing to wallow in the stupidity of others. We live in a Western world currently claimed and run by rich nincompoops. Stupid is the new black.

One thing I know is that these idiots with their hands on the levers have effectively (probably at the behest of someone who is intelligent) convinced a bunch of intelligent people that they're worth far less than they are. All those graphs of real-terms wages sinking like stones since the 70s are proof positive that clever people are being devalued because they're willing to stand in the same place as not-clever people who are also being devalued.

I think that all the people are worth more, but it is the clever people who should really be raising a proper stink about it. We are a bargain and we find ourselves too often in a place where our income is constricted or even removed by people who couldn't even do half of the crossword we did at lunch for fun. We should be fighting for ourselves so we have the resources to fight for people too dumb to be able to, because they're getting sold short as well.

So, no. I know how much my talents and abilities ought to be worth. I also feel they're not being given a fair price.

6. You believe that everyone is capable of doing what you do, if only they tried.

No. Not everything, and certainly not the writing. I am super happy with some moments in my writing and firmly believe they are the product of my talent and are super good (not every precious word, you understand, just moments). I think I can do a lot of things that a lot of people just couldn't do. I have met a lot of developers, however, who could fix all the bugs and add all the features I can add just as well. Let's not over-estimate here.

However, that pool of development talent is, itself, a relatively small amount of the population of the country. The number of otherwise intelligent people I meet who describe themselves as "not technical" and then go on to literally dazzle me with how far the words "not technical" can take you into the realms of techno-phobia tells me that I am still part of a kind of technical elite. It's just the others in here with me are far more visible.

7. Despite repeated successes, you view each new challenge as your undoing. You believe you will be found out.

Not at all. Actually I believe I have only rarely been challenged enough. No one has ever asked of me something tough, or at least not very often. The last time someone asked me to do something complicated that may have been beyond my talents it kind of was and it did come back to bite me. My only solace was that it was tough because no one else around me had ever succeeded properly in doing the very same thing. So I am just the latest in a massively long line of failures.

I am a fast learner, and a good student, but I cannot learn if I don't have an instructor. In that case I couldn't even teach myself to do the thing I had been asked to do. Although, now I think about it, I didn't actually try that hard. So I failed because a) I had no model for success and b) I didn't even try to teach myself how to succeed in the endeavour. So, no surprise there then.

Other than that I guess I'm still waiting for the big challenge.

8. You attribute your successes to luck or “fluke”

Ha. No. Every success I have had was well earned. I have failed at things for good reason sometimes but I have also failed at things because of the reverse of "fluke", or can you have a bad fluke? Whatever. I have failed at things because I was unlucky, but I have only ever succeeded at things because I am competent. The world is too hard for any success to be luck. The reward for modest competence is sometimes out of proportion but all success by everyone is earned, be sure of that.

9. However, you take full responsibility for all your failures!

Yeah, I did it above, so at last something we can agree on. I can tell you why my actual projects have failed in forensic detail. The flukes I talk about above are mostly people rejecting me for jobs I am amply qualified for and probably at the right place to integrate well into. The process of getting accepted for a job is a wibbly-wobbly thing. I have not failed a technical test since MVC was hot and I sat two tests in a day that had dedicated MVC sections before I really knew what it was. And I got one of the jobs where I failed that MVC section because the employer believed I would "pick it up" (which I did).

As for projects which are within my power to bring in successfully and I didn't, I always consider, deeply, afterwards, why I failed and can tell you in detail why that might be. I may run down my failures at another time, because they're interesting. But suffice to say, for now, I know how to say that something was my fault.

10. You are likely to be highly capable, competent and successful in your field.

Ah, well, here we are then. A broken back one. The first two, probably, I am pretty sure I am both capable and competent, but successful? No. It's no wonder I don't feel like an impostor when it would be hard to work out, professionally speaking, who would want to be me.

This all leaves me very much feeling like the opposite of an impostor. I feel like I am better than the performance of my accomplishments would represent me. I have succeeded where it didn't count and, on a couple of notable occasions, I have turned in an understandable failure where it meant something afterwards. I guess this is one of my shortcomings, I can't tell up front, often, where a failure will "count".

I can't help but feel that, nevertheless, I have often succeeded in completing my objective and tend only to have failed when I failed to understand what I was doing until after I'd failed at it. I think that constant and repeated failure is, in fact, a major contributor towards eventual success. There are others who agree with me. At my age, what I should have done is fallen on my face more often up to this point, I guess.

Hey everyone, I have failed to fail! A lot!

In all seriousness, though, it is troubling when minor failures, like failing to get a job, bring out a reaction along the lines of: "Well, hell, yes, I could tell they weren't looking for someone as awesome as me and my awesome-ness was too at risk of breaking their company culture". That's a dangerous train of thought.

Not that feeling like a fraud when you're not can't have some deeply negative consequences if you're not careful. But, hey, those folks are being warned right now. And it only applies to people who are highly successful. Maybe part of their impostor-ness comes from the rest of us, all those people who are way under-valued, I guess that's a possibility. Maybe impostor syndrome is just a vague memory of that time that the impostor believed they were worth more than "this" whatever "this" might have been. Maybe all impostors started out like the rest of us the...

Oh, now, wait a minute. What are we called?

There's been very little in the way of attempts to define the opposite syndrome here. And I'm not talking about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, because that's only tangentially related. Nor am I referring to the obvious identity crisis that follows people who have lost their job. Although the people in the latter category have no name for their condition either (other than "unemployed" har har).

Over the course of writing this post I have come to the conclusion there must be tens of thousands of us, and probably not that many impostors, in the world. We're not given fancy articles in the Guardian because we're not successful, but we all feel as if we should be more successful. We feel as if the world is unfairly ignoring us, not tapping into our potential and reaping the rewards of seeing what we can do. We feel as if, no matter how much we are valued by our friends, family and current associates, we aren't valued in the place where recognition resolves into cold hard cash. People try to euphemise this as "aspirational" thinking but to aspire means you're not there yet, you're on the way. I'm talking about you arrived, took a seat in the coffee shop and have nearly finished your cappucino and still nothing has happened. You're not aspiring, you're overlooked and no one seems to have noticed the error.

There is only one archetype that views the world through this lens, the "Evil Genius", I had, orginally, been going to say "Mad Scientist" but that's way to STEM biased, you can be an evil genius in the arts, indeed I am. That's it guys, those of us who feel that we're way beneath where we should be in the world are Evil Genii. It's good to say it.

Just because I'm an Evil Genius does not mean I have to use my genius for evil, right?

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