I had barely been at university for twenty minutes before I realized how inadequate it could make people feel. I had just sat down near the top right of the cavernous lecture theater for Introduction to Fiction when a young woman dressed in pink and white arrived.
She looked so upset that I immediately asked, “Is everything okay?”
She burst into tears. “Can I do anything for you?”
She shook her head, and sat for maybe a minute, sniffling. Abruptly, she fled up the stairs of the lecture theater and disappeared into the hall.
Possibly, she broke down because she was embarrassed that a stranger had noticed her. But I imagined that, like me, she was new to the campus and overwhelmed by the experience. During my first year, I remembered her many times, as well as my own inability to help her, although I never saw her again.
Not that I ever broke down and cried, but I could understand how someone might want to. My first year of university was a time when most of the assumptions by which I lived my life changed. I was abruptly free to do almost anything I wanted, but with that freedom came a vast indifference. It was all the same to the university whether I attended classes or not. Nobody care if I handed in assignments. Whatever I did, the university would continue to grind on the same as ever, processing whatever data it had about me exactly the same way as it would any other data. I had deliberately gone to a university where few of my high school friends had gone, and now I was feeling lonely with the intensity that only teenagers have.
The second semester, if anything, was worse than the first. Noticing that the subject matter got much more specific in second year, I had deliberately arranged my first semester so I could take second year classes in my second semester.
Consequently, I felt massively inadequate. The teaching assistant, let alone the professor, seemed so much more knowledgeable than me that I despaired of ever equaling them. How, I kept asking myself had I ever imagined that reading through my high school library could possibly prepare me for university courses? My grades were high, but I felt like I was surviving by luck alone. I was an impostor, elbowing myself in to a place I had no business being, and it was only a matter of time before I was denounced as the phony I obviously was.
I started talking every chance I could during the tutorial, hoping that, as unlikely as it seemed, I might make up in participation what I lacked in knowledge. The ploy seemed desperate, since I had already figured out that, unlike high school, university reacted to results rather than effort. I was steering a narrow line along the edge of panic, sure that I was about to fall off at any second.
One day, a woman in my tutorial with whom I had had coffee once or twice remarked about how much I seemed to know.
“No, I don’t,” I said. “I just know how to fake it.” If the words were flippant, my tone was anything but.
She looked dubious, so I added, “Seriously, I just know how to make the most of what I do know.”
Later that day, on the bus home, I realized that, in trying to sound modest I had said something important and true. Over the next few weeks, I started thinking of the possible implications.
One of my courses was Romantic and Victorian Literature, and we had spend an inordinate amount of time on Wordsworth, who was the professor’s and teaching assistant’s special interest. But, when we turned to Shelley, I was able to correct something the professor said in lecture, and one tutorial, it was obvious that I knew considerably more about Shelley than the teaching assistant did.
These instances cheered me immensely. Even more importantly, in thinking about them, I realized an obvious but important fact: I was never going to absorb all the possible knowledge in the world, as I had vaguely assumed possible in high school. In fact, I was never going to do as much as win a general overview of all possible knowledge. The best I could was find a niche or two of expertise.
On other subjects, the best I could do was sound attentive and learn a few basic facts – faking it, if I was feeling cynical, or accepting my limits, if I was being realistic. No matter how much I tried, there would always be people who knew more than I did on some subjects. But that didn’t matter because, that was reciprocal – in my chosen specialties, they would be as out of their depths as I would be in theirs.
In some ways, I never have outgrown my childhood wish to know everything. Decades later, I still prefer to be a generalist, knowing a little about as many subjects as possible rather than a lot about a single thing. For better or worse, I have what my partner used to call “a magpie mind,” that’s always being distracted by shiny new tidbits of information.
But more to the point, that was the end of most of my feelings of inadequacy. I was – or could be – on an equal footing with almost anyone, if only I chose to make the effort. True, there might sometimes be geniuses whose expertise I could never match. But I could choose to win a rough competence, and even geniuses would have areas where they were less than brilliant.
With these conclusions, I learned to live with myself, as well as freeing myself to admire experts without jealousy. I still had flashes of inadequacy, but, in general, I never thought of myself as an impostor ever again. At worst, I am only ever a person at the start of a particular learning curve that I might or might not choose to ascend some day.