Why I Think It’s Important to Talk About Failure (and other stories of Imposter Syndrome)

I was intending to post about what it’s like to be back on Infection Prevention and Control clinical this week, and what a day in the life looks like. And I will. However, it popped up in my Facebook timeline that it was five years ago today that I found out I’d passed FRCPath. Now that was a pretty momentous day in my life, but it struck me how sure everyone else was that I would pass and how crippled with doubt I was in comparison.

When I started studying for Fellowship of the Royal College of Pathologists, my father sent me this name plate for my desk. No child of his had ever failed anything and he didn’t believe we were about to start now. I think this probably sums up in one image why I’ve found this week re-starting clinical I used to do 10 years ago so hard. I’m terrified of being judged for making mistakes. Now, my father has got a lot of things right (and that plate was definitely a useful motivator) but I think that on one thing we have to disagree: Failure is important: we need to acknowledge it, learn from it and share the lessons. That said, I think this in my mind; The overwhelming panic I feel at the concept of failing shows me I don’t feel it in my soul.

One of the big problems with working in a Clinical Academic career (although I suspect they exist elsewhere) is that we work alongside people who appear very successful. I am surrounded by world-leading experts in X and Y. In this setting, it can be very tempting to try and benchmark yourself against others and to feel that you don’t match up. This is especially true in a Clinical Academic career: you sit in two worlds and so are never going to be productive in the same way as if you only sat in one.

I am, if you look at my CV, objectively pretty successful. Last year I won three national awards and was awarded >£20 million pounds worth of grant funding. In the same year, I managed to break my arm in two places getting out of a lift, had three papers that were rejected/required serious edits, failed to get four much smaller grant pots, and was told in a meeting I was of negligible value to my Trust, Leading me to consider whether I had what it takes to continue. The point being is that no matter how successful someone appears, it’s rarely the whole story. It’s a fine line to walk between believing in yourself and not getting sucked in by the successes or taking on board the negative comments.

It is worth knowing that all of us have CVs of failure and there is value in letting people know that everything doesn’t always go well. Not just because sharing our failures is where the learning is, but also because I don’t want people to see me as a successful Clinical Academic who is ‘other’. I want them to see me as Elaine, who is human and has her ups and downs. If you want to see proof of one of my more stupid moments, make it through the Stand up for Healthcare Science comedy set and wait for the punch line.

So, having established that I do fail, regularly, and also have a massive fear of that failure, I wanted to take a moment to talk about that and imposter syndrome. I’ve put a link to a Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy who talks about some interesting research, but also talks about the difference between ‘fake it until you make it’ and ‘fake it until you become it’. The first version indicates that at some point you can stop; The second means that it results in a shift in identify and, therefore, permanent change. Sometimes you just have to wear the identity for long enough that you truly become the identity and wait for ‘the imposter’ to leave.

When I was doing my GCSEs, I was pretty ill and couldn’t attend school for a year. When I was doing my A-levels, I was still recovering and could only manage a couple of hours a day. Most people acknowledged that university just wasn’t on the cards for me and that my academic success was going to be limited. This was hard (you saw the plate from my father, right?) and meant that I had to make a decision about what my identity would be. Could I be me and not be a good student? I was pretty scared and thought, in that teenage way, that life was over. Then I picked myself back up and decided I was going to try for university anyway. I acknowledged I would be behind. I acknowledged I wasn’t going to be the best and that I might just fail horribly. I decided to do it anyway. I chose to ‘fake it until I became it’.

My point? It’s OK to be scared. It’s OK to worry. It’s important to acknowledge all of that and then do it anyway. I could never have imagined being where I am today, for all of the self-doubt I still carry with me. Success is rarely the result of a single moment, it’s the result of a series of moments where we make the decision to carry on trying. So, join me in taking life one day at a time, acknowledging our failures, sharing our doubts and persisting towards success.

All opinions on this blog are my own

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