A Method for Dealing With Imposter Syndrome

Simply put, imposter syndrome sucks. For those of you who are aren’t familiar with the concept, it generally means you feel like a fraud or, as the terms implies, an imposter. Many of us have felt this way at some point in our lives. Imposter syndrome is rampant amongst graduate students, myself included. In addition to the unpleasant feelings that come with imposter syndrome (persistent self-doubt, worrying about being ‘exposed’ or when your ‘luck’ will run out, thinking anyone who pays you a compliment is a liar or doesn’t get ‘it’, etc.), it also stifles my creativity.  Late last year I came across a blog post that struck a chord and as I tried out the method, I realized it helped mitigate my own imposter syndrome and fuel my creativity. Intrigued? Keep reading. 

The Blog Post

Cal Newport published a blog post entitled the ‘The Feynman Notebook Method‘. Since I am married to a former physicist,  I have been exposed to various aspects of the field, including key figures. Richard Feynman was definitely a key figure. I was curious so I clicked. I encourage you to read the entire post (click here).

What is the Feynman Notebook Method?

At its core, the ‘Feynman Notebook’  is a dedicated space for learning something new. Feynman made sure to locate a place that he could work in solitude without distractions. The blog post includes the following quote from Feynman’s biographer, James Gleick:

[He] opened a fresh notebook. On the title page he wrote: NOTEBOOK OF THINGS I DON’T KNOW ABOUT. For the first but not last time he reorganized his knowledge. He worked for weeks at disassembling each branch of physics, oiling the parts, and putting them back together, looking all the while for the raw edges and inconsistencies. He tried to find the essential kernels of each subject.

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick

Targeting My Imposter Syndrome

Now for anyone who has kept a journal the method described above might not be totally ground-breaking. Trust me, I feel you. It was what Cal Newport when on to explain, that really struck a cord.

People resist learning hard things — be it a graduate student mastering fundamental physics or an online marketer taming a new digital analytics tool — because learning is hard and requires significant amounts of deep work. Dedicating a notebook to a new learning task, however, can provide concrete cues that help you stick with this hard process.

Cal Newport

Why did this strike a cord? I’m currently at stage (ABD) where I feel that all that stands between me and me with a Ph.D is writing my dissertation. It’s at this stage where I am confronted with the feeling that there is just too much I don’t know about a topic that I’m supposed to know intimately.  When I read the post, I felt an odd sense of relief that someone acknowledged that learning hard things is hard (vague, but true!). Sometimes, I go through all the motions (reading, digging, writing, networking, etc.) and I am still not sure what I really know. Dedicating a notebook to tackling this sentiment was an idea that really spoke to me.

Trying out the Feynman Notebook Method (with my own adjustments)

I created two notebooks: 1) Things I Don’t Know AND 2) Things I Want to Publish

These notebooks highlighted two aspects of my imposter syndrome: 1) feeling that I don’t know things and 2) not having peer-reviewed publications that I initiated.

The first page of each notebook was a quick list of all the things that I didn’t know or I wanted to publish. Aside from the structure of the first page, I quickly realized that I needed to approach each notebook differently. Here is what worked best for me:

Notebook #1: Things I Don’t Know

Since this notebook contained a wide range of topics, I need to structure my time more concretely to get the most out of it. My goal was to spend an hour a day on this notebook. I used a timer to keep myself accountable and I did most tasks in 10-minute increments because it was usually enough time for me to quickly look into a topic without getting distracted.

After deciding on a topic from the first page that I wanted to tackle, here is how I structured my time:

  1. 10 Minutes on What I Know:  I would spend 10 minutes writing down everything I knew about the topic. Sometimes there wasn’t much, but there was always something.
  2. 10 Minutes on What I Want to Know: I would spend another 10 minutes making a list of what was unclear about the subject and what I wanted to know more about.
  3. Pick  Something from Step 2: I would then select one item from the list I just created.
  4. Quick Bibliography Creation: Next, I spent about 10 minutes creating a bibliography of sources that would aid in answering the question. I often turned to Google Scholar or World Cat for this.
  5. Reading the Sources: For the remaining 30 minutes, I would read through the sources I found and take notes in my notebook. Usually, I would briefly skim over all the sources and jot down a sentence or two on all of them. If something was worth a closer read, then I would take more extensive notes and immediately transcribe them on my computer.

Notebook #2: Things I Want to Publish

This notebook turned more into both a list and a place where I could jot down ideas. I did dedicate time, usually 10 minutes, for creating more detailed outlines of potential publications.

The Results

Let’s start with Notebook #2: Things I Want to Publish. I actively used that notebook for two weeks and I found that it was really useful to get my ideas down on paper. I engaged with this notebook when I was in the field and the limited internet made this exercise quite productive. Upon returning from the field, my use of this notebook dwindled; however, I will be using the notes that I took to start a number of publications in the near future.

Notebook #1: Things I Don’t Know was a bit trickier. There were a number of things I did not know and I did not have the resources (e.g. internet, journal access, books, etc.) in the field to figure it out. When I returned from the field I was super excited to spend dedicated time with this notebook. I spent about 3 days on this notebook. It makes me sad writing that, but this notebook quickly became low on my priority list. I could list the excuses, but the reality was that I had impending deadlines that took priority (at least in my mind) and this was the easiest thing to cut to free up time.

While this journaling experiment might not seem so successful (hey, I did promise to share), it actually did help me confront some of the main perpetrators of my own imposter syndrome. I definitely felt better after writing things down and coming up with a concrete way to tackle things. I plan to keep both notebooks around for a bit. I will revisit Notebook #2: Things I Want to Publish this month as I begin to prepare a publication. As for Notebook #1: Things I Don’t Know, I hope to dust this one off in the near future as I begin to write my dissertation. The structured journaling exercise that I created for myself might really help when I hit a wall.

While journaling is definitely not a habit I usually keep up, I definitely see that it could be useful and helpful.

Do you keep a similar notebook? Do you want to try? What’s worked for you and what hasn’t? Sound off below in the comments section!

6 comments

Comments

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  • Thanks for sharing! Impostor syndrome has hit me again recently as I develop my proposal, dust off certain skills before heading back into the field, and prepare for my first publications. What you’ve done strikes me as having the potential to solidify my confidence (and sharpen my approach to some subjects) in several ways.

    For one, explicitly laying out what exactly I lack confidence in, perhaps why I lack confidence in it, and then finding sources to build confidence in a short but structured period of time is quite enticing. The other thing that stands out to me is having a journal dedicated to what I am interested in publishing. I sense that I don’t write such things down enough to begin with–often I have a small epiphany and rely too much on my ability to remember the details at a later time. When I do write them down, it’s typically diffused across a number of note sections or messaged to my partner on the fly.

    Having a space and routine to contain and elaborate upon these ideas, something that can be easily referenced, stands to help sharpen my focus. That, I hope, will give me the ability and confidence to discuss what I SHOULD know intimately! I doubt I can build this into a DAILY routine, but I think it would be valuable to perform these tasks on a weekly basis. Thanks!

    • Hi Ryan! Thanks for your comment. I totally feel you! Writing things down on paper really helped me. I am such a computer person that I was a bit shocked about the effectiveness of a dedicated pen and paper notebook. It felt a bit more concrete, but not as final, as writing/typing on the computer.

      Also, I don’t know what it didn’t dawn on me until I read your comment, but doing this WEEKLY, is totally doable and something I could make a habit out of for sure. I probably will give it a go in the coming weeks. Thanks again and let me know how this method fares for you.

  • I like this idea a lot, and especially the method you used: first page with a list (table of contents of sorts), and then going about filling in the information in a methodical way. I am NOT very good at being methodical, so I’m not sure I would do well with this, but I really LIKE the idea of it! 😀

    • Thanks for the comment! I am glad you liked the idea. I think everyone develops their own version as they try this technique so if you do try it out, let me know how it goes 🙂

Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.

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