Saturday, November 23, 2013

Imposter Syndrome, Going Postal and book recommendations

My favourite book of the last couple of years is Going Postal by Terry Pratchett. It's one of the Discworld novels and in it the protagonist, Moist von Lipwig, is hanged for his crimes and then forced to take on the role of Postmaster and use all his skills as a conman, thief and trickster to make the post office functional let alone successful. And he invents stamps in the process.

I'd read a couple of Discworld novels but never quite gotten into them. I first saw the tv adaptation of Going Postal. Then I downloaded the electronic book. I now also have a hard copy, a french translation and I'm eyeing off the audiobook version despite it being almost four times as much as a paperback. 

Electronic copy
Hard copy
French translation

It was only on the second or third read-through that I realised why I loved the book so much: I identified with the main character. Not because he was a criminal, but because he spends the entire book feeling like a fraud and waiting for someone to bust him. But they never do. And when he does eventually confess to having no idea what he's doing, nobody believes him. 

Now I no longer feel like a total fraud. Most PhD students do at some point. But I am conscious of how much I don't know and expect someone to call me out on the things I'm not confident of. And when I tell people I don't know what I'm doing, to my great surprise they don't believe me. 

 My favourite quote (so favourite it is currently written on my fridge) is:
This is where his soul lived: dancing on the avalanche, making things up as he went along, reaching into people's ears and changing their minds.
I guess this is how I feel when I give a good presentation. Like people don't know how little I know, yet I'm pulling it off! I'm making sense! Or more realistically, it is only when I am changing people's minds that I realise I know what I'm talking about. On the other hand, when I'm less confident, I feel like I've been caught with my arm in people's ears before I've been able to reach their minds.


When I was in the middle of my PhD my friend gave me a book by Stephen Fry. I started reading it but didn't get far into it because it was too close to my reality to provide an escape - it was about a PhD student preparing his thesis for submission. So personally I couldn't recommend it for PhD recreational reading. 

Going Postal, however, has familiar themes for the PhD student and provides a decent escape while subtly suggesting 'Keep going. You may do some good, however inadvertently.' 

But why paraphrase? A few apt quotes:

"This was probably garbage, but it was good garbage!"

"Always keep moving. There may be something behind you."

"Run before you walk! Fly before you crawl! Keep moving forward!"*

"... Because if we fail, I'd rather fail really hugely."

For some strange reason, over my PhD I found this ambitious realism, this optimistic fatalism, hugely comforting.

*I actually used this quote recently talking to a PhD student who'd been offered an amazing opportunity but was feeling inadequate. 

EDIT: Forgetting I had scheduled this post to publish on Saturday, I coincidentally downloaded the audiobook on Saturday.

1 comment:

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