I hate listening to other people’s dreams.
I don’t mean those John Lennon-type dreams about a world where no one else has a car, beer grows on trees and the oceans are restocked with fish daily. Those, I can handle. The ones I struggle with are those where people dreamt that they’d met a dragon in a wedding dress who was drinking coffee out of a petrol can which suddenly turned into their Aunty wearing a pink lampshade with a rocket launcher on her shoulder. It may have been fascinating at the time (4am after eating a lot of cheese) but in the retelling it’s a meaningless collection of randomness and about as interesting as somebody else’s kid’s paintings.
Anyway, now I’ve got that out of the way, here’s my dream.
I’ve had it several times and it goes something like this: It’s a beautiful sunny day at Twickenham and a packed crowd is in for a test between England and the All Blacks. As the teams line up ready for the kick-off, some administrative confusion has resulted in a new player on the wing for the All Blacks: me. Although this might sound like a great opportunity to some, the issue is that it’s me as I am now: a middle-aged, sluggish incompetent who never played much rugby and is terrified of making an idiot of himself, let alone being trampled to death. Fortunately, I always wake up before the ball reaches me. I suppose if the ball actually did reach me then that’s when I never wake up. Hard to say.
Fear of being found out
I made you suffer through my dream because I used to think that it was an interesting example of Imposter Syndrome, which I thought was the fear of being revealed as being totally incompetent. Only it isn’t, because I now learn that Imposter Syndrome is, more accurately, when you’re fearful of being found out for incompetence, when in fact you’re actually rather good. I was never “rather good” at rugby.
Imposter Syndrome was initially identified in the late 1970s when a number of highly qualified women admitted to feelings of inadequacy despite their peer recognition and undoubted expertise. (Interestingly, to me at least, this coincides with my definition of the “Whale” from last week’s chart.)
Of course, when men spotted that women had found a psychological issue all to themselves they felt disadvantaged and rushed across to get a piece of it too. Consequently, these days incidences of imposter syndrome are split evenly between the sexes.
Actual Imposter Syndrome
While I can’t recall ever suffering from Imposter Syndrome myself, it is an interesting phenomenon. A variation of this which I am all too familiar with, without hopefully being afflicted by, is where people actually are completely out of their depth but carry on seemingly oblivious to their incompetence. I think these people deserve their own syndrome. Let’s call it “Actual Imposter Syndrome”.
To be clear, I don’t mean juniors who are yet to discover the true depths of their fallibility. I mean those individuals who have reached a position where for reasons of hierarchy everyone else is obliged to listen and nod, however much nonsense is being spouted. I’d be interested to know whether these people are aware of their own failings or whether they really believe what they’re saying. To be honest I’m not sure which is worse. Perhaps one of them could let me know.
How to spot them
What are some characteristics of Actual Imposter Syndrome? Well in order to maintain a veneer of competence AIS sufferers need something intelligent-sounding to say. As they’re Incapable of their own insights, they exist on the thoughts of others (Simon Sinek is their god). They struggle to turn these insights into useful actions but gain comfort from repeating them at regular intervals like a child learning multiplication.
Should they be forced to provide their own words they end up with a collection of adjectives, verbs and nouns jumbled up to impersonate an actual sentence, such as: “Leadership is a constant test of responding to external forces in an urgent, honest and iterative fashion.”
To make themselves feel better they like to see others fail by setting impossible tasks:
Actual Imposter: “I want you to communicate in detail the extraordinary expertise and technological edge of our company by using a single musical note from a child’s recorder.”
Any Sane Person: Hmmm. I’m not sure that’s actually possible.
Actual Imposter (Brightly): Well that’s your challenge, isn’t it?
They may be perfectly reasonable outside work, but it would really help everyone else if they received help for their affliction. Being forced to listen to their constant struggles with relevance and logic can make things really tiring for the rest of us.
Still, I suppose, at least it’s better than having to listen to other people’s dreams.
• Paul worked in advertising at a quite good level across New Zealand, the UK and Australia. This is a series of articles about how to make the best out of maybe not being the best.
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