Chapter 3: Impostor Syndrome – Leah Bush ’19

Leah Bush ’19 declared majors in Economics and Math primarily so that she could get enrollment preference in courses in both departments.  She also plays tennis, rants about playing tennis, and enjoys playing tennis.  She would tell you what she wants to do after college, but she’s just trying to make it through the semester.


When Sarah asked me if I would write a blog post, I was confused––more confused than I am in math classes.  Writing a blog post would mean acknowledging I’m a woman in mathI thought.  But…but I’m just…

Definition (Impostor syndrome).  Suppose some pupil u is an intelligent and capable element of a set in a high-achieving field.  We say u has impostor syndrome if u, in spite of their competence, fears being exposed as a fraud.

Theorem.  One viable response to impostor syndrome is to own it.

Proof.  We show that there exists some u who finds solace in laughing at expectations.  For example, let u be me.  (It follows that u meets the criteria in the definition because I said so.)  Conditional upon sufficient sleep, a strong sense of support, and some other pretty strong assumptions for a typical day during a semester, I can convince myself that others’ beliefs that I am an adequate scholar is such a preposterous assumption that I have no responsibility to live up to it.  If I don’t live up to their belief, that’s their mistake, not my failing.

Exercise.  What happens when we relax some of the pretty strong assumptions?

Theorem.  Impostor syndrome exists along a queer boundary.

Proof.  We show that any ball of positive radius around an arbitrary element u in imposter syndrome intersects both a sense that others’ beliefs about u overestimate the true value of u––as shown above––and its complement, that others’ beliefs about u are often belittling.  Extensive social science research has shown that the intersection of those most likely to deal with impostor syndrome and those who deal with denigrating and exhausting microaggressions is nonempty.  (I accept these robust social science findings as proof in the absence of axioms that allow for a mathematical derivation.) □

Will I acknowledge now that I am a woman in math?

I only took Multivariable Calculus because I thought I was supposed to.  I only took Linear Algebra in an attempt to fulfill my Division III requirements without having to take a lab.  A gaggle of Econ professors tricked me into taking Applied Real Analysis.

I will always remember flux as liquid bees.  (Thanks, Professor Adams.)  I will always carry in my head a list of 25 or so if-and-only-if statements on the invertibility of matrices.  Even though this was on a problem set I turned in weeks ago, I still think it’s so cool that the union of infinitely many closed sets need not be closed.

My entrymates were genuinely surprised when, after they asked whether I planned to TA for 151, I laughed and said no.  I erased half of a proof on a Linear midterm because I didn’t believe that I could figure out a proof on the fly and because I would rather appear humble and wrong than overconfident and wrong; the possibility that I was right didn’t cross my mind until the tests were returned.  It excites me every time I work on a problem sets in usually male-dominated study groups and manage to come up with something valuable to contribute, no matter how small.

I am a woman in math.

1Idea comes from Richard Feynman’s Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.