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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Underdog Syndrome

Much has been written in recent years about Imposter Syndrome - the unfounded feeling that you don't belong and will one day be found out as a fraud by your peers, who you wrongly assume to be more qualified and confident than you. Being able to name those feelings and talk about them can be very reassuring to those who are new to positions of authority or who are outsiders to the usual power clubs.

Imposter Syndrome goes some way to explaining my own experiences, but it has never sat quite right. Firstly, there are a lot of very powerful people who actually are faking it most of the time, which I think is a big problem for the quality of decision making and leadership in modern society. Telling the difference between feeling fraudulent without grounds and actually being fraudulent is tricky. Secondly, it implies that we are actually all equal and that women and others just need more self-confidence in order to succeed on the usual terms. This overlooks real structural barriers to inclusion, including deficits in cultural and social capital that people from 'the right background' take for granted. Finally, I am left wondering why doesn't this feeling go away? Why am I always the outsider? This has led me to something I am calling the 'Underdog Syndrome' - the tendency to create situations where I am least likely to succeed on the usual terms, but I do it anyway.

I am not some baddass, anarchist, barrier-breaker. I am basically a good girl, but there is always some grit. My identity as an interdisciplinary researcher is a case in point. If you want to succeed as an academic, you choose a narrow field of research and mine it for funding and publications for the rest of your working life. I have wilfully ignored this advice. My work on public engagement, teaching and general service to the university also indicates resistance to the rules of the game of academic promotion. I know the rules, but I am reluctant to respect them. The rules were not written by or for people like me, so I am naturally suspicious. I could give in to the institutional norms, and play along, but I don't, and I am curious as to why.

Everyone loves the underdog. Malcolm Gladwell has just published a book about them (David and Goliath, Little, Brown and Co) . His point is that apparent strengths can be weaknesses, and an apparent weakness can be an unexpected source of strength. The shepherd David slayed the sick giant Goliath through superior skill and versatility, not simply divine authority. This is a nice idea, but what happens when the underdog succeeds?

David became King, but my theory is that many of us underdogs keep finding situations where we start from a position of weakness, because this is what we know. This might partly explain why women are found in unpopular and underfunded fields of research and why we do a disproportionate amount of the work that our institutions don't obviously reward. It is not that we don't want to succeed, it is that we realise that our chances of success on the usual terms are slim. There is also the more troubling recognition that the weak can't be seen to want success. Everyone loves the underdog because no-one expected them to succeed. No-one likes the ambitious upstart.

In my own way, I have slayed a few giants in my time. But the giants are still in charge. On behalf of the Israelites, David slayed just one giant to win the war, but in the intervening three thousand years the giants have multiplied and regrouped. Slaying giants is no longer the secret to success, and it is tiring. So then what? If I can't beat them, do I join them? Imposter Syndrome tells me that if I 'lean-in' with more self-confidence that I too can be a giant. But I don't know how to be a giant, I only know how to throw rocks at them. And I am not sure I want to join the giants, particularly those imposter giants who have systematically cleared away all the rocks from the steams and subject shepherds to x-ray body scans before entering the field of battle to detect any unauthorised slings.

I can't be the underdog forever. I don't want to be an imposter giant. Surely these aren't the only alternatives. What would our world look like if we stopped being scared by sick old giants, and let the shepherds guide us? Shepherds are carers and protectors, giants are blind destroyers. Maybe we should stop pretending to be giants, and figure out how to be shepherd-Kings (or Queens).


  1. Sarah,
    this is great and describes exactly how many of us feel

  2. I just found this after discovering your blog link on your Iris page and I had to comment (very belatedly) because I love what you have written so much! I feel like this most of the time but have never been able to articulate it before. Thanks so much for writing it!

  3. Just came across this post and it's a great one. I often feel "impostor syndrome," though also feel unsettled by it. I like your concept of the "underdog syndrome" and definitely think that's part of the motivation for some of my career choices. I wonder, though, if it misses another side of it. Maybe instead of choosing these "riskier"/less supported fields, it's not always just "choosing a position of weakness," but perhaps it's because I value it as more important and the "giants" don't. Or my/our value system places higher importance on certain things that are perceived as weaker or unpopular to those whose value systems place higher importance on power or capital. Just a thought to add.

  4. I loved it! Thanks, Sarah!
    - Raul from Brazil