It seems you’ve been living…. two lives” – a Smith (The Matrix)
I want to thank Steve Waldman (for pointing out THIS) and Barry Ritholz for “nudging” me into finally writing this post, one that I have considered and put off numerous times as basically “none of your fucking business” on one hand, and a series of personal and professional risks on the other. Its a personal story, although one I will try to tie in to general reader utility. If I do this right, my sincere hope is that it helps those with similar struggles in the same way other personal stories have helped me. If it turns out personally cathartic, so much the better.
There are a number of ways in which my life peaked at 17. To that point, the details were familiar to any serious Ivy League candidate – second smartest kid in the class (there’s was always, maddeningly, a freak), captain and starting quarterback for the JV football team, scouted to play professional baseball. Psychotically competitive from an early age, extracurriculars three times per week, completely addicted to drama and attention. And, importantly, a complete and utter pain-inflicting asshole.
I won’t bore you with the details of The Decline and Fall. It is sufficient to describe it as equal parts Holden Caulfield (at its best) and Sylvia Plath at its most sordid. Two specific events are relevant to this post. One, dropping out of a good school in third year with really good grades because I could physically not continue – it was taking three milligrams of Ativan to get me on the bus to class. Two, sitting in a clinic at 21 and finding out that the level of cortisol in my head (a marker for stress, depression-related in my case) was six times what it should have been.
Now, this is not a sob story – the vast majority of these wounds were self inflicted. I am, of course, sensitive to those afflicted by clinical depression who note genetic biochemical predispositions. It is also the case, however, that psych-related hormones are highly sensitive to external stimuli. Watching comedy, for instance, creates positive hormonal changes while an obsession with death metal has the reverse effect. Personal responsibility, in other words, is not cut and dried. To the extent that my issues were the result of refusing to accept the validity of anyone or anything that conflicted with an adolescent conviction of my own “specialness” and destiny to rule the world, the fault is mine.
To continue our story, at 22 I reenter society in a kind of debutante ball where no one else shows up. As a dropout the apparent prospects did not include corner offices and the resumption of discussions regarding my “limitless potential”. It appeared, however, that my luck had turned as a series of breaks, combined with market conditions, allowed me to drag my ass from a telemarketing boiler room, to Operations at a major firm, to the trading floor of a global investment bank offering advice to people that should already know better, but didn’t. In fits and starts, career progress continued for a decade after that, culminating in a prominent strategist role. But, the whole time….:
Impostor Syndrome: sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. (Wikipedia)
The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, (who if you are not reading you really should – if only to lament that some are blessed with writing talent far beyond our own) , probably doesn’t remember this, but we had an email exchange regarding the “two-headed coin” nature of Imposter Syndrome after he wrote about the phenomenon as a fellow dropout. Our suspicion (then, that is -TNC is big enough now he might be cured) was that it is impossible for the non-afflicted to understand how powerful it is as a motivating force. The anxiety that has you living in fear that some intern in HR will arbitrarily decide to audit CVs to fill downtime peaks every once in a while, but the same tendency to look over your shoulder has you also living in fear of “average”. For Imposters, average isn’t good enough – everything you do, every report, seminar, meeting, has to exceed the acceptable, exemplifying some skill or talent that not only proves you belong, but that no contrary evidence will be sufficient to justify your departure. I summarize this process as reaching for the “objectively good”, implying that even if Warren Buffet read your report, he would be forced to acknowledge its well-argued validity.
It is not difficult to see then that Imposters and biz school grads are inherently at odds. At their worst, biz grads interpret graduation as a kind of club membership or voucher ensuring that they will never have to work hard again. The easiest way to tweak the bizknobs is to ask them whether “Sense of Entitlement” was a first or second year course in their program. Those that laugh tend to be the ones you want to work with and the ones that get pissed off are the people to avoid like the plague. This tweaking, however, is grounded in the most base kind of jealousy – the Wharton grad has the affirmation the Imposter craves most.
There we have it. I’m not sure what I’ve done here but at the very least those who’ve read this far will realize that the Interloper pseudonym was not lightly chosen. Certainly I’m concerned at this point that some readers, confronting my anonymity, have projected a back history that varies dramatically from what I’ve written here and are somehow disappointed. I can live with that if even one person is heartened by evidence that lives do have “second acts” on occasion.