When Impostor Syndrome is Good

It’s ordination season. After years of hard work, both theoretical and practical, a number of rabbinic and cantorial students will become real, grown-up clergy this month. My ordination, in 2011, was an overwhelming and momentous experience. This year, I have the honor of being the presenter at the Academy for Jewish Religion’s ordination for my congregation’s rabbinic intern.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes in his book, I’m God, You’re Not, “No matter how old you are, it always seems you’re never quite old enough to be a rabbi. No matter how much you know, you’re never wise enough. No matter how devout, you’re never pious enough. Tough job, the rabbi thing.” He is not saying that this is the perception of others looking at the rabbi, but the rabbi’s perception of him- or herself. He goes on to say that part of what makes a rabbi good at the work is feeling that they might not be good enough, and that they still have learning and growth to do in the vocation. It is necessary and possible to have confidence in your ability and at the same time feel that there is always more opportunity for improvement. I expect this can apply to many professions, not just the clergy.

Rabbi Kushner is making impostor syndrome an asset, even raising it to a level of holiness. Impostor syndrome is when competent people believe on some level that they are fooling everyone into believing they are worthy of their positions, when actually they feel that they are not good enough, and eventually, everyone else will realize this. Naturally, Buzzfeed has a collection of charts that make sense to people with impostor syndrome. Number five is the one that resonates the most with me. Also eight. And nine.

It is a tough job, the rabbi thing. As are many jobs. Never feeling that you’re completely worthy doesn’t let you relax, but then, in many professions, relaxing does mean that you’re not doing it as well as you could be. I’ve heard that arrogance and overconfidence is necessary for fighter pilots who have to land planes on aircraft carriers, because that is so hard to do that no one who has a regular level of confidence would believe they could do it. Being a rabbi is different (or being a priest, or a doctor, or a member of Congress, or a teacher, or a CEO, or a member of another profession that confers authority). Despite our culture of autonomy and anti-authoritarianism, for many a rabbi is an authority. With authority comes power over others. A healthy sense of limitations, a sense that we might not be quite good enough, is an antidote to the corrupting influence of power.

Impostor syndrome can be crippling. Like anything, it can go to far. But it is good for anyone who has power over other people to maintain a sense of their own fallibility and weaknesses, a true humility. Perhaps counterintuitively, this creates great leaders.

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