PRACTICAL PHILOSOPHY

The brilliant way feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir outsmarted imposter syndrome

Even the brilliant can suffer from insecurity. In her 1958 autobiography Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Simone de Beauvoir recalls an experience that filled her with biting self-doubt about her intellect. “I was… suddenly uncertain of my true capacity,” she writes.

Thankfully, Beauvoir refused to be discouraged. And her daring response to the phenomenon now known as “impostor syndrome” invites us all to reconsider the way we respond to self-doubt.

Most conversations about impostor syndrome today suggest it is a feeling that we can readily resisted or overcome. “Realize that everyone else feels like an insecure newbie too, and you’ll be okay,” the popular literature suggests. But this response, common to proponents of pop Stoicism, is ultimately trite.

The solution to impostor syndrome, as Beauvoir shows, is not to get a grip on your negative emotions and exercise self-mastery. As we shall see, when presented with impostor beliefs, the philosopher chooses change in the face of self-doubt. And she chooses to pursue that change with others. As a response to adversity, this is striking—and merits exploration in the workplace, in the classroom, and in our broader public and private lives.

In her autobiography, Beauvoir recalls her student days at the Sorbonne. There, she met several brilliant peers, including Jean-Paul Sartre—then a student three years her senior. She writes:

“Day after day, and all day long I set myself up against Sartre, and in our discussions I was simply not in his class. One morning in the Luxembourg Gardens… I outlined for him that pluralist morality which I had cooked up… he soon demolished it… I argued with him about it for three hours. In the end I had to admit I was beaten: besides, I had realized, in the course of our discussion, that many of my opinions were based only on prejudice, dishonesty, or hastily formed concepts, that my reasoning was at fault and that my ideas were in a muddle.”

After debating her philosophical views with Sartre, Beauvoir decides to wholly change how she thinks about things. She describes the experience as leaving her perplexed, her assumptions having been stripped away:

“‘I’m no longer sure what I think, nor whether I can be said to think at all,’ I noted, with a sense of anti-climax. I took no credit for that. My curiosity was greater than my pride; I preferred learning to showing off.”

Boom! That last remark is incendiary. Beauvoir sees that much of what passes for success and mastery is actually just showing off—seeking admiration, rather than actually getting better at what you do. This is not her way. She doesn’t deal with her insecurities by learning to deliver displays of erudition or analytic acumen. What matters to her is actually striving to become a philosopher.

Encountering brilliant peers like Sartre is also a turning point for Beauvoir because it prompts her to take a good long look at herself. She describes this as an unnerving experience: “After so many years of arrogant solitude, it was something serious to discover that I wasn’t the One and Only, but one among many, by no means first, and suddenly uncertain of my true capacity.”

Now, Beauvoir has no reason to deny her ability or her competence. She is a student at an excellent university, one of only a handful of women admitted. She will go on to be the youngest person ever to pass the aggrégation in philosophy. But right now, at this moment, she doubts herself because she realizes that she may not be as singularly exceptional as she thought.

Beauvoir then has another moment of clarity about her situation. Her male contemporaries are older, and they have had a far better schooling than she. She has had a conservative upbringing and a limiting “sectarian” education. They have not. Given all this, she is at a disadvantage, and it will be harder for her to break into their world.

She is correct in her assessment. The pop Stoic guru might argue that we all lack self-confidence, and that the best way to respond to imposter syndrome is to “fix how you feel.” But in the face of accurately observed challenges, this quick fix is revealed as hopelessly irrelevant.

There is an Epictetus counsel on not getting ahead of yourself, oft quoted in Stoic blogs on impostor syndrome. In the Discourses, he counsels listeners to yield to the better prepared and the powerful, to those who have the advantage over one, and to “keep quiet, and not be vexed.” But the existentialist response to imposter syndrome is entirely different: Choose to change how you are. Become the person you pretend to be.

Confronted with the reality of her “arrogant solitude,” Beauvoir sees that she must overcome such arrogance (both her own and others’) and strive against it. This, she realizes, is an act of rebellion in her culture. She writes:

“I didn’t let myself be discouraged; the future suddenly seemed as if it would be much more difficult than I had reckoned but it had also become more real and more certain …. There was everything to be done … to combat error, to find the truth, to tell it and expound it to the world, perhaps to help change the world … Nothing had been done: but everything was possible.”

Beauvoir’s bravery is astounding—as is her resoundingly existentialist embrace of her own predicament. As she recognizes the enormity of the challenge that lies ahead, she makes a passionate commitment to change the society that is stacked against her.

This is not to say that she sees all of this in a flash. At first, she does not see the need to change the world. Indeed, it was not for some years that Beauvoir grasped the contradiction between her professional and intellectual aspirations and her social situation as a woman in her culture. She has to work with others more, over time, in order to recognize such injustices. And her diaries show that she had to struggle to live up to what she wanted to become. But it also seems that she had quite some fun trying.

Beauvoir emphasizes that recognizing that how far she had to go as a philosopher—that she was “not the One and Only”—prompted her to choose a collective way of going forward. “I had been given a great chance: I suddenly didn’t have to face this future all on my own,” she writes. The task of reaching her full intellectual potential is sure to be difficult; but she does not have to face it alone. Sartre will be one companion, and later, her beloved Sylvie le Bon.

And there is a twist to the tale of Beauvoir’s philosophical reckoning. Some years later, Sartre has to accept that now he is the wrong one. The woman he called “Valkyrie” has the better of things. She persuaded him that he must take history seriously and showed in Ethics of Ambiguity that his approach does not support an existentialist ethics. It fails to grasp the interdependence of human freedoms and the subsequent moral duty to promote the freedom of others. Sartre changed his philosophy of freedom accordingly, as seen in his late works.

Beauvoir, then, offers a thrilling response to impostor syndrome—a forceful reaction to the deadening thought: “I don’t deserve to be here.” Rather than internalizing her insecurities or seeking to brush self-doubt away, she imagines herself as a part of a collective project with others: we shall dare this. She makes a resolute commitment to undertake truth-telling and social transformation. And so she turns adversity into opportunity.

This response is not about seeing things differently, as the modern-day Stoics would suggest. It is about doing things differently. And Beauvoir hails others as fellow travelers, as participants with her in a collaborative enterprise.

This is a philosophical attitude that we might embrace today. We are in a time of great change, when we will inevitably wonder if we are up to the difficulty of the tasks that lie ahead. Under the circumstances, there may be self-doubt. But it can be useful, if, like Beauvoir, we take it as a dare and meet it together.

Sandy Grant is a philosopher at the University of Cambridge and tweets at @TheSandyGrant. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search