In her book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott wants her readers to understand that writing is physically and emotionally difficult work. She says that sitting down to write, every time, it is like putting on a pair of earphones. The left earphone plays a constant stream of “rap songs of self-loathing,” a radio station devoted to her self-doubt and inadequacies. In the other ear, she writes, “[comes] the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is.”
The parallel between Lamott’s imaginary earphones and the experience of being a graduate student is striking in three ways.
First, being a graduate student, like writing a novel, is hard. I know I do not need to tell you how stressful, isolating, and demoralizing the whole, long process can be. Yet, this struggle is often hidden away behind the closed doors of an office or veiled in the myth of a mad genius. Like Lamott, scholars need to recognize that being an academic, or an academic-in-training, is four parts hard work and one part blind luck with a little lack of work-life balance sprinkled on top.
Second, the radio station telling Lamott that she is not good enough (despite all her success) or witty enough (despite all the evidence to the contrary) is a literary expression of impostor syndrome. The deep-seated belief scholars have that they are not good enough or smart enough to be academics, that one day they will be found out and shunned with a scarlet “I” for Imposter emblazoned on their briefcase, paralyzes the vast majority of graduate students at some point in their career. This syndrome, which disproportionately affects women, can lead to some serious mental and physical health problems. But, even if it is not that extreme, as Lamott points out, it is always there in the background every time we sit down to do our work.
Third, and what I want to discuss, is the radio station in Lamont’s left ear: “You are better,” it says, “than everyone else.” And if your work isn’t appreciated, it responds: “They are wrong, because they do not understand, are prejudiced against you, or unwilling to listen.” I call this the Hubris Syndrome: a tendency towards jealousy and self-aggrandizement, which leads to professional paralysis, resentment for your peers, and an overwhelming sense of distaste for academia.
The root of hubris is inherent in the academic system. First, it takes a lot of ego to want to become the world’s foremost expert on a particular topic, which is exactly what graduate students sign up for in the first place. Second, like with impostor syndrome, hubris is a way to cope with the demands of graduate school and protect us from external judgments. You can wrap yourself in hubris, like a warm blanket, when disappointments, criticisms, and failures assault you.
When your academic work is up for judgment, the impostor earphone tells you that your shortcomings are all your own fault and you are a failure. The hubris earphone says the opposite, that your shortcomings are everyone else’s fault, that the system or the criticizer has failed you. The result, however, is exactly the same no matter from which ear it comes: paralysis. What, after all, is the point of working if failure is guaranteed?
Do not mistake hubris, however, for self-confidence. Self-confidence, knowledge of your strengths and weaknesses, is constructive and propels you forward; hubris, blind faith in your own greatness, is destructive. Every failure and disappointment comes with it an opportunity to learn and grow. If you are too wrapped up in your own jealousies and too busy belittling the advice of your peers and colleagues, then you will miss those opportunities completely. In academia, you need to be strong enough to stand up for your ideas and hardworking enough to get those ideas out into the world; however, you should also be receptive--listening to and thinking about the ideas of those around you. Are your critics always right? Heavens, no! But hubris makes it very difficult to tell the difference between valuable and invaluable criticisms.
How do you know if Hubris Syndrome has affected you? Well, if you have ever said or thought any of the following sentences, then you might be suffering from too much hubris:
“Why did he get that grant?!? The committee must not have any vision.” This was me last spring when, after spending months applying to several very competitive grants, rejection letters piled up. I was justifiably disappointed, but I let this emotion consume too much of my mental energy. Hubris enters into this situation when you start to dwell, not on improving your own grant proposals or fleshing out your CV, but on all the ways the system is rigged against you or the numerous shortcomings of the successful applicants. A possible variation: “How did she get that amazing job? I’ve been applying for twice as long!”
“I cannot believe she critiqued my seminar paper in that way. She’s not right! Like at all!” Have you ever received a paper back from your advisor or a revise-and-resubmit letter from a journal? These critiques hurt, since often our academic work is so very personal. I will admit that I have thrown a little hissy fit or two about why an evaluation I received was unfair. I am sure that we all have. However, it is safe to assume that most of the comments we get on our work are meant to be constructive (though they might not sound that way) and could help strengthen our work. If your hubris prevents you from accepting criticism, then you stagnate, insulated from the outside world and stuck in your own positive feedback loop.
“When I win the McArthur Fellowship, I’m going to do X, Y, and Z.” Fantasies like this are fun, and we all have them. I, for one, used to imagine the many ways I would make Jon Stewart laugh on The Daily Show, discussing my latest book about Catherine the Great. However, these fantasies can turn to hubris if not kept in check. The subtext, after all, is that finally your work will be appreciated for how important it is. But this begs the question: well, have you done all that work yet? If you allow yourself to get sucked into how important your work will be in the future, then you are not focusing on actually doing that work in the present. This is how self-aggrandizement sneaks into our workflow and disrupts actual progress.
“Here is this paradigm, and I am going to change it.” My advisor is going to laugh when he reads this, because this was the gist of my first prospectus draft—all theory, no evidence. Like with fantasies, focusing on the impact of your work and not doing the actual labor is a form of self-aggrandizement. In hindsight, I recognize that my emphasis on paradigms and theory in the earliest draft of my prospectus was a way to cope with fear and laziness. Since then, I have been working hard on collecting the evidence—the number of spreadsheets I use is staggering—but this voice still lingers when I am bored with my data or unable to translate something difficult. [Disclaimer: This only applies to doing your actual work. For grant applications, shift all the paradigms!]
Unfortunately, I do not have any quirky ways to deal with the Hubris Syndrome, any books to read or mental games to play. Instead, there are only two things you can do about it. First, you need to learn to recognize it for what it is: a coping mechanism to deal with fear. Pointing this fear out and calling it by name prevents you from deluding yourself and allows you to move forward in your work. Second, cultivate a healthy self-esteem. Beginning from a place of confidence in yourself and abilities, makes you more open to helpful criticism and personal growth.
Have you ever found yourself stuck in a Hubris Syndrome cycle? How have you gotten unstuck? We’d love to hear your story, so leave us a comment!
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