Now Fly

Problems of Place: Dealing with the Impostor Syndrome, Even At Home

I should be shooting for the moon. The time is now, the moment is ripe. My thesis has finally passed, and I have an excess of time on my hands to start turning it into a book. 

What’s more, my topic—the environmental history of living off-grid in Australia—seems eminently pertinent as people have begun embracing gardening, knitting, baking, canning, and amending household plumbing systems—all the monikers of home-based self-sufficiency—in ways largely unheralded as we find ourselves stuck at home for an indefinite amount of time. My thesis’ core argument, that home-based self-sufficiency has long provided an alternate form of environmentalism that deviates from normative ideas of conservation, has finally come to the fore. I have recently observed countless articles, essays, and blogs that see the idea of greening our lives and domestic self-sufficiency as a vital way of living one’s environmental ideals and challenge some of the precepts of modern capitalism and globalisation. 

So why am I stalling? Why aren’t I raising my hard earned “expert” voice? Is it because through the process of becoming a doctor in something so common and every day, I feel compelled to be it, and not just think, write and, analyse it?

The truth is I don’t live off-grid. Many people have asked me this simple question over the course of my research as a way of understanding why I would choose such a topic, and what my motivations were in bringing it out of the literal and figurative peripheries, and into mainstream conversation. I live in the suburbs, flick on a switch for power, flush away my waste down the centralised sewage system, and buy most of my food from the local market. But like many of the subjects explored in my research, I do share a common yearning for the rural idyll—the idea that life is somehow better, greener, and happier on a small rural block where you can live more simply and closer to nature. It’s as much a dream than a reality, as confirmed in my research, but one that is becoming increasingly common as we feel not just empowered but entitled to challenge our place in society, and how we want to engage with capitalist systems of economy and labour. The subjects studied in my research were most often drawn from the same middle-class background as I, a privilege that comes with the ability to choose one’s environs and way of life rather than be forced into working a soul-destroying 9 to 5.

But why does my physical location mean I feel the impostor syndrome so acutely? None of my peers feel the need to be artists in order to study the rise of wilderness photography or be a hunter to write about the acclimatisers of the late nineteenth century. Becoming the expert in one’s field is a process of discovery and realisation that comes after hours and hours, and then years and years, of working on a specific topic and learning pretty much all there is to know. The idea is that at some point we evolve from being a student to a teacher and—with that mental and emotional shift—find a place within our collegial network and larger field where we can talk with confidence about what we’ve discovered and the conclusions we’ve made.

I’m learning that this is a personal, as much as a professional transformation. An engagement with place that is as much internal, as it is external. In these times of global, and particularly academic insecurity, many of us are being held back from realising this metamorphosis more fully and stepping into the light as a voice of authority.

I wrote an opinion piece recently about what motivates people throughout history to look to the garden to alleviate anxiety and doubt during global calamities such as the one we are currently facing. After its publication, my colleagues called me “the gardening expert.” and although I was writing an instructional piece hashed together from my research and things on the internet, I felt that I was by no means the definitive “gardening expert.” Even if I do grow vegetables to varying degrees of success. 

Does finding my place in this field rely on my ability to both talk the talk, and live it in order to feel like I can move forward with my career? I think the impostor syndrome is more ubiquitous and problematic than we may acknowledge, and it continues to affect many of us as we bluff, scramble, and blindly feel our way into an uncertain career and professional life. We are able to write from a place of growing experience but are often reluctant to embrace the title of “expert.” It’s as much to do with the endless self-flagellation we put ourselves through over the course of a PhD program, than any given topic. It may just be a modern iteration of the age-old challenge faced by apprentices as they aspire to become masters in their craft, or it is something more sinister that is particular to these challenging and competitive times that see so many of us drop out of academia altogether as we struggle to find our place. 

What is becoming clear, for me, is that I shouldn’t have to feel like I am living my area of academic inquiry in order to be a definitive voice and share my findings with a wider audience. That realization is for me to make, and the space is open for me to step into.

*Cover image credit: Now Fly by Sam Cannon Art.

[Cover image description: watercolour image of a forest, with the sun shining behind the tall trees. Two small deer stand in the front. Lettering below, reads: You have escaped the cage. Your wings are stretched out, now fly.]