When I was in high school, being called a ‘poseur’ was the worst possible insult. At least, I thought so. A poseur is someone who adopts the external trappings of a subculture (like New Wave) but doesn’t actually buy into the underlying philosophy and attitude. It’s the incarnation of inauthenticity and superficiality; there is no sacrifice, no dedication, no depth.
(The irony is that the word ‘poseur’ is kind of a poseur — it’s not really a French concept!)
20+ years later, and I still dislike the whiff of poseurs. And then I wonder, “Hey, am I a People Poseur?” “Does writing a blog without really having hard answers make me a poseur?” Another, more modern interpretation of my self-questioning is, “Am I an imposter?”
Although the concept of “Imposter Syndrome” has been around since 1978, the last few years have witnessed a surge in popularity of this idea, largely driven by millennials in the tech sector. In a nutshell, imposter syndrome “is a feeling of ‘phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.’ While these people ‘are highly motivated to achieve,’ they also ‘live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.’” (Thanks, Carl Richards, for your NYTimes article, Oct 2015, quoting the two American psychologists who coined the term.)
This description is ostensibly true in my case. I recognize that I have an impressive resume and academic achievements. I know that I have spent the last 10 years professionally focused on people dynamics and management. I acknowledge people think I’m smart and I am a hard-worker. But I still think I don’t know anything and frankly am a fraud. Every time I open my mouth to answer a question, I don’t know if what will come out will make sense or be right.
From what I can tell from Googling around, there is no ‘cure’ to imposter syndrome. Yes, it helps to acknowledge that this afflicts many notable luminaries who are objectively deserving of admiration. We aren’t alone, what a relief! But then what?
Here’s an idea I am drawing from my philosophy studies (which are from a long time ago so, so sticklers please cut me some slack).
In philosophy, there is a field of study around personal identity: what makes one person at a given time the same person at another time? Is it their physical appearance, their beliefs, values, thought process, memories? All of these things can change — even very dramatically — so although it sounds like a really obvious question, it’s quite complex to answer. Our physical appearance changes with time (and, even more so, with deliberate surgical alterations); our beliefs and values as an adult are dramatically different from when we were children; our memories can get wiped out through a lobotomy or disease; our genetic code can be identical to a twin’s but that doesn’t make us the same person, or it can be altered, etc. Yet, we think we are the same person we were before these changes, right?
Perhaps studying philosophy warped my thinking, and my terrible memory doesn’t help, but I believe that my imposter syndrome stems, in part, from the belief that the person I was before is not necessarily the same person I am today or will be in the future. I don’t always agree that past performance is indicative of future performance. The world is changing constantly, people’s expectations and receptivity to things are shifting, standards are raised, and results may be different in the future than in the past.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t think there are any ‘experts’ out there. It may mean, instead, that I believe the field of people is so uncharted and evolving that it’s hard to brand oneself an expert.
Actually, here is perhaps a reassuring corollary. Having a continuity of witnesses, peers, friends observe your past, present, and future accomplishments can tie your identity to them, an organization, a time and place. They can view you as the same person who was successful at X before, and help you feel confident that you will be the person who will succeed at Y in the future. Perhaps that’s a solution to my version of imposter syndrome: working with people who know me, whose trust I have earned through doing things well, and who support me as I venture into the future.
Just an idea.
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From a co-ex-philosopher … anyone that isn’t “faking it” to some extent in a senior People professional job is deceiving themselves. Primarily because the problems we solve are casuisitc — each problem that comes up or at least the meaty problems tend to be ethical dilemmas and tend to be problems for which the first line of answer is “it depends”. Now, there are many people in corporate life that love policy manuals of biblical proportions precisely because they are uncomfortable with problems like this. In tough situations, the answer always reduces to be a question of how to fit the problem against xyz policy. But policy manuals are by nature incomplete and typically give not only a false sense of certainty but can dehumanize a workplace. Fundamentally, I find that day-to-day I’m mostly addressing ethical problems around fairness, obligation, values and values interpretation and what is or is not the morally appropriate decision. All in reference to what the good/fair/just is believed to be in my organization. Consequently, my only true reason for having the job I have is the clarity and consistency of my judgment. Basically, a poseur.