A letter from Felice Kaufmann, Presidential Scholars researcher

When you hear the words Presidential Scholar, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? The medallion ceremony? The performances at the Kennedy Center? Your visits to D.C. landmarks? Late-night talks in the dorm?

In all the excitement of the National Recognition Program, did you ever hear a wee small voice in the back of your mind whispering,

  • “I’m not as smart at the rest of these kids.”  
  • "If the Commission knew the real me, they would have given the award to somebody else.”
  • “I don’t have what it takes to keep this up.”
  • “Someday they are going to find out that they made a big mistake when they picked me.”

 If you are now thinking “What? I NEVER feel that way!” please move on to another article or take a nap for the next few paragraphs and come back at the end. Or file this letter for future reference in case you ever DO find yourself swimming in feelings of ambivalence and self-doubt. In which case you might think, Wait, didn’t The Medallion once publish an article about this very thing? Well, yes. Yes, it did.

Before we go any further, let me introduce myself and tell you why The Medallion asked me to write this letter. I’ve been studying Presidential Scholars for forty years—yes, forty!—to learn what happens to Presidential Scholars over their life span. During this time, I’ve asked hundreds of Scholars, most of them from the first five years, to reflect on how their lives are going and to identify the turning points and influences that shaped their paths. I've asked questions such as:

  • How has your ambition waxed and waned over time?
  • What was the effect of early success and recognition like the Presidential Scholars award? 
  • What are your regrets?
  • What is the truth about your abilities as you understand them now?

The variety of paths that the early Presidential Scholars followed is astounding and fascinating to trace, but that’s another article. The bigger point is that despite vast differences among them, certain themes cut across age, gender, ethnicity, education, profession, and all those other demographics that researchers go on about.  One of those themes is that nearly every Scholar, no matter what their age or how accomplished, experiences feelings of self-doubt. 

I witnessed this firsthand at the 2014 celebration of the Presidential Scholars fiftieth anniversary where I spoke to more than 300 Scholars, their families, and guests. In my talk, I mentioned that many Scholars I have interviewed report feeling like frauds . . . as if they have “put one over” on everybody . . . that their much-praised extraordinary abilities are just a matter of good luck or good timing . . . that they don't believe they have ever deserved any awards or honors, much less one given by the President of the United States.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I reported that observation—perhaps a few polite nods of sympathy—but the response was dramatic. To my surprise, nearly everyone in the audience nodded vigorously in agreement.  Some applauded.  Some howled.  A few teared up. Everybody wanted to know more.

Here’s what I told them:

Those feelings of “not as smart as everyone thinks I am,” “I didn’t really deserve this,” and “someday the world will find out” are all characteristics of the Impostor Syndrome, a term coined in the 1970s by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. It is a problem that typically affects high-achieving individuals and is marked by (according to Wikipedia) “an inability to internalize accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’”

In other words, it’s the belief that no matter how much you accomplish, you constantly have that hollow feeling that it will never be enough and that all the honors, awards, and compliments you receive are misplaced. Consequently, you work super-hard to score more and more praise and awards, take on more and more work (in school and out), but often feel burnt out and anxious—always looking around for the next ladder to climb. Not because the climb is fun or engaging, but simply because you feel you must keep climbing.

If you receive an award, nail an A+ on an essay, or land a prestigious job and then find yourself thinking, That was just luck, don't worry. You are not alone. Drs. Clance and Imes say that 70 percent of all people feel like impostors at one time or another. However, if you are almost always convinced that your success is fake, then you may suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and wonder what you can do about it. Here are a few ideas:

 1.     Learn about it. Learn how it begins, the risk factors, the problems that go along with it. There are many books and online resources that provide helpful information.

2.      Figure out what triggers your impostor feelings and practice alternative responses. One way is to depersonalize the issue. In other words, pretend that the experience and emotional responses are happening to a friend. What would you tell him or her?

3.      Label impostor feelings as they come up. Talk about them with friends and family members. You may be surprised how many people say, “What?  You too?” Once you find that you are not alone, coping becomes easier.

4.      Recognize that you had a significant role in every one of your successes. Success does not occur in a vacuum. You had a plan, expended a lot of effort, and worked hard to reach a goal. Try to remember what you did. Keep a record if journaling is your style. 

5.      Focus not on the end product, but on your agency in the process. Think back on previous successes and see if there are patterns in what you did. Those patterns reveal the strengths you can depend on. Acknowledge them and know that they are yours to use whenever needed.

6.      Focus on being generous and useful, not on being perfect or the best.  Find ways to apply your strengths in more meaningful ways than seeking a better grade or another award. Think of service projects that fill a need. Notice the response of recipients—not their praise and thanks, but the effects that your efforts have on them. Nothing is more rewarding than seeing the work of your own hands help someone else.

7.      Remember what e e cummings said: “It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.” You will learn many new things about yourself in the course of your lifetime, some of which are your defining traits. You’ve got what it takes to make that happen. Go to it!

With respect and appreciation, your friend,

Felice Kaufmann, Independent Educational Researcher