Impostor syndrome and mental models

6 minute read


Jerry and I both love teaching and so (especially now that he’s a professor with students of his own!) we frequently have conversations about pedagogical approaches, and these frequently come back to the idea of mental models. That is, when a student is having trouble understanding something, often it’s because their internal picture of how that system works, or how a new concept connects to old ones, is flawed or incomplete in some way. This could be due to any number of reasons, including (but not limited to):

  • poor prior teaching,
  • an overreliance on rote memorization over deep understanding, or
  • an unwillingness (or just lack of sufficient time to) to think hard about and engage with the material for enough time for the new ideas to sink in.

As an example, I remember the first time I was introduced to the concept of logarithms. I think I was about 11 or 12, and they seemed utterly mysterious. The initial idea (“What power should I raise a number to to get this number?”) seemed clear enough, but then I started learning all these rules about sums and differences of logs, or changing base, and I felt my eyes glaze over as I reverted to simply memorizing the rules to finish my homework assignments. I probably had to be taught the material two or three more times before it really became intuitive.

(For what it’s worth, I had the same experience with trigonometry as I did with logarithms. And I probably still need to learn second quantization once or twice more to really get it…)

And to some extent, I think that’s unavoidable. Some ideas are so different from those you’ve been exposed to before that you really need to chew on them before you can internalize and use them fluently. But as I’ve started my postdoc and am working to learn new ideas about electrochemistry and how batteries work, I find myself really wanting to “short-circuit” that time. I don’t mean I want to cheat out of the real work of learning something, so much as force myself to do all that deep engagement and mental wrestling the first time I’m exposed to something rather than the second, or third, or…

Anyway, what does all this have to do with impostor syndrome? Well, as tends to happen whenever one (who is prone to this sort of thing) makes a “jump” up the hierarchy, I’ve been wrestling with it again lately. As is the common manifestation for me, it’s not so much the “Am I good enough?” kind of insecurity (I actually do believe I’m smart enough to be doing what I’m doing) but rather the “Do I work hard enough?” kind. In the back of my mind, I’m always asking myself, “Can I really kick it in academia if I need to sleep 8.5 hours per night? If I’m committed to exercising six days per week? If I don’t want to do (much) work on weekends?”

Graduate school at MIT is in some sense a trial by fire in dealing with this type of thing because you’re inevitably surrounded by people who work longer hours than you, who publish more papers, who get more awards, etc. etc. etc. And so while I still deal with impostor syndrome, I’ve developed some coping mechanisms. For example, I’ve realized that most (possibly all) of those people who are in the office/lab for 14 hours a day are not actually working during all of that time!

And this is where it connects back to the idea of a mental model. My mental model for the behaviors and thoughts of the people around me was wrong! That seeming superhuman who is at her desk from her breakfast of a quart of coffee until well past her dinner of two pieces of toast? She spent an hour of that time reading the Guardian, half an hour shooting the breeze with labmates, two hours in group meeting, another hour napping…maybe it should have been obvious, but sitting in front of your computer doesn’t mean you’re working! But once your model is proven wrong once, it’s on you to dismantle the other assumptions that faulty model led to in your mind!

Another conversation Jerry and I come back to again and again is the question of how many hours of real work one can get done in a good day. Our consensus answer is about five hours. Even on the most mystically productive day, you’ve got (maybe!) five hours of real, focused brain time – probably less if you’re underslept, or sick, or just stressed. Everything else is meetings, or emails, or twiddling your thumbs and reading Twitter (@ me if you think I’m wrong about this. I’m genuinely curious for others’ honest assessment of this number). Of course, all (well, some) of those things are also necessary for professional success! Personally, as a morning person, I try as best as I can to shunt as many of those things as possible to the after-lunch hours when I tend not to be at my mental peak anyway. But time management strategies could be a whole other post.

Anyway, I’ve rambled a bit, but my point is that something I actively try to do now is question my assumptions about what other people are doing with their time or (perhaps even more importantly) what they’re thinking about how I spend my time. I think it’s worth the effort to actively engage with these thoughts in order to refine my own mental model of the people around me, and maybe, if my career doesn’t crash and burn, I’ll eventually prove to myself (and to everyone else!) that I can do this, in my own way and in my own time. And also learn electrochemistry.