Imposter Syndrome: Scientific Research is not Poker

Oct 28 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

The Moth Radio Hour presented a woman named Annie Duke, who was one of the first (if not the first) high stakes-winning woman in professional Poker.

Her story (which is worth listening to) is a classic story of imposter syndrome. She was invited to participate in a big televised poker game because she was sure  "they needed a woman".  One of things she loved about playing poker was that her mistakes were hidden from everyone but her and that was a relief. Now, there were small cameras to see the cards, so her mistakes would be viewed by everyone on national television. She says she spent way to much time debating whether to fold on a particular hand, in public, with a camera on her cards. She heard herself apologizing to everyone for taking so long (how familiar). She triumphs in the end, and it is a wonderful and well-told story.

But Annie Duke's talk reminded me that science is not a high stakes poker game, even though we often feel like it is.  Poker at that level is a high stakes interaction with other people. Much of the story revolved around such interactions with other players. Part of her devastation was that one BSD Player came up to her and told her she blew it after making a hard decision. And later someone else came and said that the One BSD Player was wrong, and she had in fact made the right decision. How lovely to get such feedback! How lovely to be playing poker where a hand is won or a hand is lost. Where the winning hand is determined by a set of rules (at one point her brother, also a poker player gave her a list of such rules).

Doing research (as is true of many other things in life) is not so clear cut. Making decisions about one's career is not so clear cut. It is not so clear whether you have "won" or "lost" as quickly as uncovering cards, let alone the fact that you may never know. Life is not a ceteris paribus experiment that can be re-run to determine alternate futures.

This lack of both determinacy and immediacy feeds imposter syndrome. There are many trolls in life who come up to us and say, implicitly or explicitly, "well, that was a stupid thing to do", in a way that the other player said to Annie Duke. The hardest thing, besides understanding that there may be no "right" or "wrong" in any situation (a themes that has been with me for a very long time), is being able to find the balance between, on one hand, listening/accepting criticism/acting on it and, on the other, not letting the bad little voices tell you that you are a fraud. If you shut out all input that makes you feel bad, you will not grow, except inward. If you let that input in, uncritically, you will be lost in a sea of self-recrimination.

Also: Lots and lots  here and here and here has been said about imposter syndrome in science. Part of the reason for this post is to link to all that good stuff that has been written before.

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