Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Failure Mode of Clever

Apparently while I was out sick, John Scalzi wrote a piece on impostor syndrome. Now, in general I'd say that my opinion on John Scalzi is that he's right about 99% of the time, but when he's wrong he puts his foot in it hard and tries to pretend his shoe doesn't smell. This is one of those times he put his foot in it hard.

Because I honestly don't even understand the point of this piece. It's John Scalzi telling everyone he doesn't have impostor syndrome. He says he's not bragging about it, but my question is, if this isn't a brag, then what is it actually supposed to be? Is it some sort of advice to people who do have impostor syndrome? If it is, it's beyond terrible into actively cruel. His first suggestion-not-suggestion is that he never suffered from impostor syndrome because he knew he wanted to be a writer from the age of fourteen on.

Again, I don't know what this is if it's not a brag, because as advice, it's not just useless but outright harmful. Telling someone, "Hey, the reason I don't have impostor syndrome is that I knew I wanted to be a writer from a very young age. You should try that," is going to undermine their self-confidence, feed into that crippling sense of doubt that's at the root of impostor syndrome, and convince them that everything their negative self-talk tells them is actually true. Because here's a famous, successful writer who's everything they want to be saying to them that no, real writers know it deep down in their heart from a very young age so they never have to worry about it.

To understand why this is a horrible, horrible thing to do, imagine transposing it to a more commonly discussed mental illness, clinical depression. Imagine someone offering to you, as entirely unsolicited advice about your depression, "Well, I suppose it's never been a problem for me because I've had so much to be happy about. I don't know why other people don't have that." Can you picture the way it would make someone feel to be told that the part of themselves that's lying to them and suggesting the things that bring them joy aren't good enough or true enough is actually right? Can you imagine why this is an awful thing to say to someone even if you didn't intend it to be that way?

His second piece of not-advice-but-certainly-not-a-brag is that he never had a problem with impostor syndrome because everybody liked his writing. Which is a) again, a horrible thing to say to someone with impostor syndrome who might be reading this, because they already tend to magnify any criticism they get and a famous author telling them, "Oh, nobody really criticized me" is going to further magnify it, but b) shows a complete and total lack of understanding of the problem so thorough that it magnificently disqualifies Scalzi from writing this essay.

Because the problem with impostor syndrome isn't just that you magnify criticism. It's that you disbelieve praise. The thing that is utterly gutting about impostor syndrome is that you assume anyone saying nice things about you and your work is deluded or lying, that it's only a matter of time before they find out who you really are and turn that praise into withering scorn. People with impostor syndrome get praise all the time, just as much as Scalzi if not more. They just don't believe it when they hear it.

Points three through six are all pretty much reiterations of the same theme--Scalzi had success early on, was proud of it, and when he hit a stall in his career he just dug deep and recommitted to writing. Again, this is sod-all use to anyone suffering from impostor syndrome, and completely misunderstands the problem in a way that only someone utterly oblivious to their own privilege can. People with impostor syndrome don't have a problem attaining success, they have a problem believing their success is genuinely due to their talent and that they don't deserve it. Scalzi's point four is absolutely flabbergasting in its sheer boneheadedness--it's, "When I succeeded, I was proud of it. That may be one of the reasons I don't have impostor syndrome." That's not even a reason, it's just a tautological reiteration of the fact that he doesn't have impostor syndrome. It's like saying, "Maybe one of the reasons I don't have the mumps is that my glands aren't swelling up?"

All of this would have been bad enough, a sheer mountain of smug lack of self-awareness as he proceeds to sanesplain people's mental illnesses to them, if not for his first comment to the person who called him on his crap. He said to them, "You do understand that I don’t actually care what you or anyone else expects from me, yes?"

So that's John Scalzi, telling people who are mentally ill and upset with him for casually dismissing their very real problems in a fit of oblivious privilege that he doesn't care. Apparently this piece wasn't written for them.

But it's not a brag. Because he said so.


Anonymous said...

Generally I agree, but not on point two. He's not saying everyone loved his writing, just that they accepted him as a writer, which is very different (I have known authors in writing groups whose work was dreadful but I didn't suggest they weren't writers).
But yeah, as inspiration for those afflicted, or even as an analysis of why Scalzi isn't one, it's questionable.

John Seavey said...

Fair enough. Even if you read it generously, though, it's still a big misconception of what impostor syndrome actually is. Plenty of people with impostor syndrome get praised very highly--not just "accepted", but out and out lauded. The afflicted person responds to that praise with stronger self-criticism, looking for the flaws that everybody else "missed" in their work and discounting the positive opinions of others. On that level, I think that my criticism stands.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, no argument you were right overall.