Imposter syndrome, “Thought Leaders”, and quiet expertise

Day 11 of #100DaysToOffload

When you spend too long in a pursuit that claims to value expertise and enforces a fairly rigid prestige hierarchy, imposter syndrome is inevitable. I have flushed away so much time to this affliction (thank you academia!) that I have moments where I feel desperate for radical solutions.

This has been a particular problem recently with starting some public-facing projects. I keep balking or delaying on certain projects because of this sense that I'm not quite expert enough or that attaching my name to something where I seem to be claiming expertise will make me the subject of critique.

Or something like that.

I wonder whether there's another part, a part about being loud. I get really annoyed at the shouters, the ones who are so sure that they're right about everything. I don't spend a lot of time on twitter or social media for this reason (Mastodon is a welcome exception most of the time, if only because the timeline is a great equalizer of voices); the marketplace of “thought leaders” and influencers competing for attention seems a bit unsightly, amped up and juiced by the algorithms on the bird site which elevate voices based on popularity and measure value by habit-modifying feedback systems for likes, retweets, and such. My own occasional tweets (in a different space, on a narrow topic related to my professional self) don't get so much exposure, but I'm pretty ok with that. So is that the unsolvable mis-match: how to be out there in a way that fits my happily quiet and reserved self? (side note and partial answer: thank you, Matt et al. at!)

I was once told, as constructive feedback from a teacher, that I sometimes write to myself. If that's what I was doing then it seems like that's what everyone is doing. It is amusing to me now that so much “public” content out there in the world has as its particular fakery the pretense of the voice in the head (memoir, many blogs, etc.). That teacher wasn't wrong, except in framing it as a criticism rather than a simple observation. It is, after all, the most venerable tradition, writing as if to oneself, going back to Boethius (most copied work of the middle Ages after the Bible) and Augustine's Confessions, if not earlier to the letter writers and philosophers of antiquity. (Marcus Aurelius is a particular and in many ways peculiar case, as it seems likely that his work was in fact not meant for public consumption; Cicero, on the other hand, was an insufferable gasbag who most certainly intended all his “private” letters and semi-monologues to have a public reception.). Those ancient examples are instructive: influencing and thought leadering through personal narrative is anything but new, however much social media amplifies things. Augustine was well aware of what he was doing, performing his personal thoughts in public. Boethius, a public political figure in his time, was likely no different. We could look later to other prominent examples like Dante or Voltaire or, more recently, writers like Joan Didion or Paul Auster. The configuration changes in measure but not in kind. Putting any sort of self out in public means an awareness of how private thought plays on a public stage. I suppose that my aesthetic here is to choose a certain kind of quiet. If it is heard more loudly, then that can be valuable, but I am pretty ok with being quiet in a small corner of the internet.

Which takes us back to expertise. The issue isn't that I doubt, beyond reasonable humility and self-awareness, my expertise or skills or knowledge. It's that I've always had a bit of hang-up about self-promotion. I don't want to shout about things that, to be fair, I probably could reasonably shout about it in our extrovert-first world of self-promotional necessity. Blame some experiences when I was younger and where other people were made to feel bad about themselves, by their parents or a misguided teacher, by specific comparison to me. I took that responsibility on myself, as if I had hurt them, rather than locating blame where it should have been put, on the adults who used my performance as a benchmark. In practice, I am aware of this tendency I have, so I can push back against it.

The part that remains intractable is a more fundamental belief about the nature of expertise. I don't want to claim expertise too much because I don't think that expertise is much of a reality. Or, rather, expertise is simply knowing more about your own ignorance. More expertise means more awareness of the limitations of one's knowledge. It's like being able to see the horizons more clearly. I suppose that's the (soon to be ex-)academic in me and some habits of skepticism that are unlikely to leave. Thought leaders — and especially self-proclaimed ones — seem to me always to be self-delusional, thinking that they know something or have some sort of wisdom. But wisdom rarely rests. At least it rarely rests easily with me, as questions and questioning seem the greater part of the process. Boethius and Augustine follow that path; even as performance of wisdom, it is not so much a display of doctrine as a publication of debate, inner wrestling given shape and structure. That's not really an acceptable mode of assertion nowadays, at least not as a marker of showing expertise.

My version of public-facing expertise would be suffused with questions, what might read as doubt against the extrovert ideal where you make the world as you want it simply by declaring it. I sometimes think that public professions of doubt and uncertainty take greater confidence than assertions of expertise. It's not a fahsionable thing, it's a kind of quiet thing, a way of talking that I see sometimes on Mastodon, rarely on twitter, and more in forums and specialist spaces than in the public forum. I suspect there's room for something there, and a way to express expertise with claiming it, without shouting it. I hope that is a way that might fit for me. I can at least do it here and elsewhere, semi-pseudanonymously. The trick would be in attaching my name to it.