Friday, January 20, 2012

Excessive humility

Flavia has a great post up about the phenomenon of (academic, in this case) high-achievers, already well-established in their professions, who cling to a self-deprecating grad-student persona. This isn't something I've much experienced, being very much still at the stage at which a self-deprecating grad-student persona is the only appropriate one, but it sure rings true, and has its equivalents at the earlier stages as well.

As for how it comes about, I think it's a few things. One is that the path from 'yay, I got into grad school, they pay me to read books!' to any kind of permanent job is not only long, but also filled with a great deal of internal competition, such that you've never reached the rung where you know that you may not be the Star, but you'll do OK, until you're, at the very earliest, 35. In academia, the competition isn't over whether you'll be a big shot, but over whether you'll ultimately qualify to get any permanent job of the sort that your years of training ostensibly lead to. It's like if anyone who went to law school and got a paid job as a lawyer, anywhere in the country, however prestigious, felt as though they'd won the lottery. If you've spent that many years feeling professionally insecure, giving it up would be difficult.

Another is that there's another way many successful academics approach self-presentation, which is to act, from the first day of grad school on, if not from the first day of high school on, as though it's part of some divine plan for them to one day have HY&P battling it out to see which one gets to appoint him Most Distinguishest Professor Evar. That "him" isn't a gender-neutral "him," as in a grammatical choice intended to indicate "him or her." But if you don't get too many women acting this way, it's not as if most men do, either. But enough do that it might actually pay not to come across as arrogant, entitled, etc., and self-deprecation is shorthand for humility.

One more, though, which might be the big'un, and which someone alludes to in Flavia's comments. In our society, the youthful prodigy is a celebrated figure. Imagine, how did X accomplish so much, and so young? (This made me, a 28-year-old who's never even aspired to be a fashion designer, question my life accomplishments.) So it sounds much more impressive if you aw-shucks got invited somewhere to give a talk, to think, they invited a mere speck like you, new at all this, still fresh from the assembly line, than if they invited you because you're a full-fledged member of the profession in question, and this is what the profession entails. Giving off an aura of youth - which is something different from actually lying about one's age - is a way to make even relatively minor accomplishments seem immense, accomplishments that would indeed be immense if the person accomplishing them was 12, notable at 24, nothing surprising at 46.


Anonymous said...

Don't forget about the prevalence of the imposter syndrome among even highly successful academics, which may often be present if not actually contribute to causing that kind of excessive humility.

It's a serious problem, too, as the literature -- with which I am quite familiar on this point -- documents that the imposter syndrome can cause quite a lot of psychosocial problems and suffering, both directly and indirectly.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I'm not going to get into the pros and cons of pinning diagnoses situations that are in some instances legitimately clinical issues, in others just instances of people being like that. Not all social awkwardness is Asperger's, not all procrastination ADHD, etc. I have lots of thoughts on this (and more still, after listening to an NPR story where a perfectly-well-spoken man calls in and explains that because of his Asperger's, he can never tell if a woman is hitting on him, and this is his main complaint as pertains to having Asperger's... as though men without Asperger's can!), but this would be a good way to get both side-tracked and in over my head.

Instead, I'd say that Item #1 in this post - the fact that getting a job in academia requires years and years of uncertainty, even for those who are by all accounts doing well in good programs - doesn't mention "impostor syndrome" by name, but that's pretty much the idea. This type of professional trajectory - not to mention the vast amount of down time in grad school - seems as though it would encourage the sense that one doesn't really meet the qualifications.

Flavia said...

Thanks for the shout-out!

I agree especially with your last paragraph, and I'd add that there's another reason so many academics in their thirties still think of themselves as "kids"--the lifestyle itself promotes that sense. I was in my thirties and had been a full-time professor for a year before I owned a car (or, indeed, anything more valuable than my laptop), and was living in a small, urban apartment until I was 36. Partly that's just the life-deferral that happens when you're in school forever--but it's also about the kinds of flexibility the job has built into it: the ability to go to bed at 3 and get up at 10, to spend summers abroad, to stay out late drinking with your friends and so on. Those read like the behaviors of much younger people, and I think it's easy for 30-something academics, fresh out of school, to identify more with people in their 20s, both because of superficial lifestyle similarities and because many of them ARE in some sense picking up their lives where they left off before they started grad school.

Jacob T. Levy said...

In addition to everything mentioned just above about the 30s, I'd note some things about the other end of the career. There's a weird stasis created by having the generations above you just stay there. No mandatory retirement, and retirement often just meaning an end to teaching but not to research and conferences, means that the Very Distinguished People whom one first read as an undergrad and glimpsed as a grad student can still be active in the profession and appearing on panels as one gets well into middle age. Likewise one's advisors. It can be-- though it certainly doesn't have to be-- a source of the feeling that you're still a kid that your teachers and advisors are in the room!

As a teacher, every year you get older while the students stay the same age. But at conferences or in journals, it can be much easier to feel locked into place in age. You're on an airport-moving-walkway through time, and the people you see standing ahead of you on it are the same people who've been standing there your whole professional life.

Flavia's still *right*, of course-- the walkway is still moving, and it's absurd to go on pretending to be a stumbling newbie. But I think this is one of the sources of the temptation to do so.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Yup. I'd only add that in academia, you get a lot of people who were too studious, or who had yet to find people they really connected with, while actually in high school, so they end up experiencing that during the down time of grad school and, perhaps, beyond.


I'd say that's true, but not unique to academia. Doctors, writers, judges... any field where the youth are in awe of the elders is going to be like this. I'd also wonder if being the sort who's in really profound awe of Big Names makes some grad students and younger academics more likely to exhibit a kind of genuine modesty that reads as false.

PG said...

Having just attended a conference on the Next Generation of Scholarship, where the new generation was defined as "people under 40" (and the organizers noted that by the next conference in 2014, all the current presenters would have aged out), I think that academia and a few other fields (including law, medicine and literature) view age differently than the rest of the culture, partly due to the amount of professional training required before one's allowed to do the job at all. Having achieved tenure and published several articles at the age of 35 is seen as more difficult and thus a bigger deal than having, say, made $10 million in bonuses as an investment banker at the same age -- not because there's necessarily more $10 million bonus-making youngish i-bankers than youngish profs, but I suspect the prof has seen more of his cohort that started with him around age 25 fail to achieve what he has than the i-banker did.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


There are a couple of different things going on. One is that in these various fields, one is still effectively a student ("fellowship," "postdoc," etc. still being thought of more as apprenticeships than early-career) even once quite old, even once the not-young parent of not-young children, etc. Another is that, in academia, you've "won" if you have any permanent job at all in your field. This isn't really true in law or medicine, so the impostor-syndrome angle is probably not so relevant. In other professions (with the exception of the super-glamorous ones), success means something beyond merely being employed in what one went to school for. I think the weirdness of that is a big part of this phenomenon as it pertains to academia specifically.