Impostor Syndrome

We’ve all had a bit of a loonie week.  I have this idea for a comedy sketch.  The scene is Mission Control, Houston, the date, July 20th, 1969.  The lunar module is on its final descent.  The atmosphere is thick with tension.  Somebody said you could smell the fear.  Yet these young whizz kids, crouched in deep concentration over their consoles, have been buoyed by the pep-talk they received that morning from the Flight Director, the man with the crew cut and the white waistcoat, Gene Kranz.  “We came into this room as a team, and we will go out as a team!”

But now he needs a Sit-Rep.  Are the computer systems flagging up any problems?  Is there any indication to abort the mission?  Or are the astronauts clear to land?  Kranz interrogates the principal players in his team, rapid fire.

Cap-Com!

Go!

Fido!

Go!

Retro!

Go!   

Inco!

Go!

Telmu!

Go!

Guido!

Go!

Surgeon!

Surgeon?

A pause.

Whazzat?

Are we go, Surgeon?

Aw haud on a sec, Jim…

Surgeon is fumbling with his machine.  Surgeon is played by Ford Kiernan, the Scottish actor who plays Jack Jarvis in Chewin’ the Fat and Still Game.  You take one look at him and you just know he is the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I know Kiernan could play this role because I seem to remember him in a sketch where he found himself on a football pitch with a group of highly skilled footballers.  The ball fell at his feet out on the wing and he was required to cross it in to the box.  He eyed the ball and then the goal and then the ball, all the while prancing around performing various redundant balletic movements, extravagant arm gestures indicating his intentions.  But he was basically two left feet.  The football sketch and the astronaut sketch are one and the same.  That Jack should be in that situation is ridiculous.  Painfully ridiculous.  We laugh at it because we recognise an archetype.  It’s the recurring nightmare of turning up at school or college or at work in your pyjamas.  There is no more cringe-worthy situation than to find yourself an impostor among experts.

It’s well recognised that quite a lot of people who occupy high-profile positions of power and responsibility harbour a deep sense of humility and unworthiness.  This is known as Impostor Syndrome.  They look at themselves and ask, am I really up to the task?

Back at Houston, even if you did know what you were doing, it would take some nerve to abort the mission.  But I suppose the responsibility would not rest with you, but with Kranz.  You would merely be flagging up a potential problem.  After all, the on-board computer flagged up a 1202 and Kranz said it was okay.  Then it flagged up a 1201 and that was okay too.  But suppose the Surgeon had told him one of the astronauts had developed a tachyarrhythmia?  That might be outside Kranz’s field of expertise.  He might say, “Does it matter?  Is it critical?  Your call, doc!”

What a nightmare.  You definitely wouldn’t want Jack at the console, faffing about.  “Aw, go on yersel’, Jeannie!”

The Apollo astronauts for the most part seem to have shared a deep sense of humility.  They were all overawed by the sight of our beautiful blue planet.  I was intrigued to hear Apollo 8’s Frank Borman say that, once they’d gone round the moon a couple of times, they’d seen enough.  By far the most interesting sight in the night sky was an earthrise.  During a broadcast to planet earth on Christmas Eve the astronauts famously read the Genesis creation myth from the Bible.  This notion of seeing the earth from space and realising that it is a planet, perhaps unique, to be cherished, seems to have been the prevailing take-home message from all the Apollo astronauts, not least those of Apollo 11.  Funnily enough this week I read Greta Thunberg’s Nobody is too small make a difference (Penguin 2019).  Ms Thunberg’s plea for the health and safety of the planet is even more powerful than that of the astronauts.  There’s a steady flow of correspondence to The Herald expressing polarised views about the necessity versus the futility of striving for zero carbon emissions.  What’s the point, when China is burning all that coal?  What difference does it make what I do, when the whole world is hell-bent on doing something else?

Well, Ms Thunberg tells us the answer.  Nobody is too small to make a difference.  There is a story of a black American serviceman posted to Scotland in the fifties.  He was on a bus in Glasgow with his wife and a Glaswegian got up to offer his wife a seat.  She said, “Back home, nobody ever gives up their seat to a black person.”  The Glaswegian replied, “In Glasgow, we give up our seat to a lady.”  (For all I know, this might nowadays land the gentleman in deep trouble but let’s not go there.)   Anyway, the serviceman and his wife eventually went home, to Montgomery Alabama, where they happened to recount their Glaswegian episode, to Rosa Parks.  So you just never know how your actions are going to resonate.  The world needs gifted people who think they are impostors, precisely because it is run by impostors who think they are gifted.

As for Ms Thunberg, I think she’s completely remarkable.  She reminds me of Joan of Arc.  She’d be about the same age.  I used to think Jeanne d’Arc was a French myth, but now I’m not so sure.  People like that come along, about once every millennium.

For the rest of us, we must just hope we aren’t Ford Kiernan’s Jack Jarvis, struggling at the computer console.  We may have insight into our own frailty, but take little reassurance from that.  Just because you suffer from Impostor Syndrome doesn’t mean you aren’t a real fake.

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