In an engineering calculus class taken years ago, some of us were staying after to discuss a few problems, but ended up talking about the TA's dissertation research. She tried to explain a few aspects of topology, the fairly deep field of mathematics that she was working in. Her explanation was confusing (she eschewed the usual teacups vs. donuts approach) and we must have had pretty blank, confused looks. Frustrated, she sighed and said something to the effect of "Wow, I really can't explain this very well. I keep wondering if my advisors are going to tell me to stop working on this and get a job, because I'm not smart enough to be here. I guess I know that isn't true, but ...

I was shocked when she said that because I had always wondered the same thing, but thought the worry was my own private delusion. In middle school Odyssey of the Mind there was the concern that I'd be kicked out since my contributions were so much less important than those of others on the team. Later, in high school, I was placed in advanced classes which were full of people who all seemed to know what they were doing and why they were doing it, so I pretended that I did too. Even in college the worry still nags, that I'll ask an especially dull question and some professor will catch on that I'm only faking any intelligence.

So, instead of solving the problem in some "healthy" way, I've trained myself to stay silent unless absolutely positive that what I'm going to say is worthwhile. Hoping that silence is a convincing imitation of confidence, that what's said is remembered better than what isn't. Hoping that I'll somehow be able to avoid embarrassing myself before all of these brilliant people.

And wondering, always, which ones of them can tell I'm a fake.

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