Jan 162014

Here is to another unfinished blog article I started last summer…

When I was a first semester graduate student at Stanford, because of some difficulties in the AI class (I took CS221 without taking the prerequisite CS121), I felt that Stanford made a mistake admitting me there. When people praise our work after my talk, I also often feel afraid that they will find out some caveats in our algorithms or findings that our work could not fully address. I have a wonderful team of students, postdocs, and research scientists at DFCI, and I often worry that my team will think I am not smart, hard working, or caring enough.

During the career training in Texas in 2012, I learned as women we are particularly vulnerable in feeling that we are not as great as people think and we are afraid sooner or later people will find out what a fraud we are. This is called Impostor Syndrome, and Sheryl Sandberg mentioned it in her book Lean In as well. It is an interesting revelation to me, although it didn’t stop me from feeling so just the same.

In a recent China trip, I watched the movie Hyde Park on Hudson. We normally see FDR (Franklin D. Roosevelt, not false discovery rate 🙂 ) pictures as the charming and confident president. But seeing FDR being carried from place to place by his valet, I wonder how humiliating he must have felt. In the movie, his night conversation with George VI was quite interesting and endearing. We all have our vulnerabilities, but that’s OK.

When reading shorter biographies of George Washington before, I couldn’t help marvel at his character, beneficence and good judgement. During the China trip, I read a more detailed Washington biography by Ron Chernow. By the way, Ron Chernow is quite a master at biographies, and I read his biography on Alexander Hamilton 3 times. Anyway, the Washington book not only mentioned some blunders of his youth, but also his personality flaws and corkiness. I guess none of us are saints… George Washington might not be the most brilliant of generals, but his character and integrity made him one of the most respected founding fathers of America and probably one of the best human beings I have read about.

There are two things I learned from the Washington book that are directly applicable to the impostor syndrome. The first is that George Washington was always modest and respectful to his colleagues, even the competitor generals during the war who reviled him behind his back. The second is that George Washington was extremely loyal and supportive to his team members. It is like saying, “Sure, I may not be the best, but I never acted like one. I just do the best I can.” Who can criticize that?? This really disarms the impostor syndrome, but it is easier said than done. Interestingly, looking at my colleagues, I found Bing Ren to best fit these characters. No wonder he earned the respect of so many colleagues!

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