December 4, 2018 · personal opinion ·

What is Impostor Syndrome?

I was thinking about Impostor Syndrome today, a concept that I became familiar with a few years ago. It seems to be more commonly discussed these days, and I even saw an article about it in The Varsity, a University of Toronto student newspaper. This phenomenon, where a person feels as if they do not deserve their achievements and that they are a "fraud", is prevalent in our population affecting both men and women equally. People who have impostor syndrome express how they feel at any time, someone will discover that their credentials are the result of a long series of accidents, or that they are not worthy of their job title/position. They may have a difficult time accepting compliments.

Working at the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, I have felt some similar symptoms. My first time there, I walked into a huge hub of researchers (working on AI!), and saw long math expressions, complex probability distributions, and pseudo-code plastered across the multitude of whiteboards. Honestly, it made me feel a bit out of place. But over the past few weeks, I am reminded that concepts in math, computer science, or biology only seem difficult because of a lack of the necessary background knowledge, and usually the thing seperating two people, at least in terms of understanding a concept (maybe not creativity), is the hard work and time spent building up that background knowledge. It's kind of like reading a math paper: on the surface it seems difficult, especially when you skip to the conclusion. But there is a logical order to slowly building up a proof, i.e. if this line is true... then the next line follows. Obviously, we aren't born knowing all there is to know in the world, but we took a steady journey to get to a far enough position within a certain high-dimensional knowledge space.

Still, I mentioned above that creativity could be a characteristic that can't easily be matched between people. Perhaps this is the result of having a more attuned memory to hold more domain-specific concepts, with some brains being simply better at manipulating certain object types or concepts than others. I'm not sure how easily one can change their working memory type, although people have tried and succeeded, but this would be a bottleneck for most people. I have trouble imagining the instrumentation and melody lines for an orchestral composition, and someone else might have trouble developing the functions and data structures for a computer program. I think with enough time, I might be able to understand and internalize an advanced musical concept, but would only be able to apply them one at a time. Furthermore, having such a limited working memory would severely limit the speed for finding "creative" ideas within the corresponding search space. Another analogy for this might be like: searching for a glowing object within a building by going up floor by floor (free movement in xy-plane, fixed z), vs. being able to see through the walls and floors (free movement in xyz-plane).

That's enough analogies for now. I'm not too sure where this leaves me, but right now, I'll be focusing on two things: working hard & finding a niche to continue researching on.