How Do I Know That I Know Anything At All?

A reductive timeline of my life reads as follows: first I went to school, then I went to more school. Then I used that schooling to get a job, and then I completed more schooling to get another job. One step after another. You might have done the same thing, in varying order, with varying repetition. But lately, I’ve been thinking about all that time, essentially spent working for vouchers that say I have and which actually are: credentials. They’re mine now. I guess. So why doesn’t it feel like it?

When I graduated with my master’s degree, jokes abounded among my peers: look at us, we’re masters of writing! Of poetry! Of international affairs! And it was true, in a literal sense: that’s what our freshly printed diplomas said. Assuredly, provably: the powers that be, with all of their authority, had granted us demonstrable evidence that we had mastery in our fields. Yet in the time since, rare has been the day that I wake up and feel like I have agency over that so-called “mastery.” After all, it’s not really mine, is it?

Stop me before I go any further without mentioning that this is, of course, part and parcel to imposter syndrome. And this feeling that I passively possess something that I spent 18 years collecting by way of semesters and class rotations very much speaks to a seedy confluence of innate insecurities and societal demands that I, as a woman, should take up less space in the world. When will everyone figure out that I’ve been faking it all along? That I’m winging this, almost entirely? Etc. etc. etc. A tale as old as time.

But a very specific, highly private facet of that syndrome — one that is so nestled away, yet also so constantly present in my every waking moment — is the concern that I know nothing whatsoever about writing or literature or nonfiction — the fields in which I earned degrees, and which I am personally and undeniably passionate about. 

Access to knowledge is ubiquitous, and I do think that plays a part. But that’s not to hip-check the internet or anything — I live here, for god’s sake. That said, if you can basically Google your way through any curriculum I’ve ever completed, that says something about the so-called value of my education, doesn’t it?

Do you ever forget that you know things about the world that other people don’t? I mean those moments where you innocently, unthinkingly throw out a piece of jargon from your own unwitting expertise into a conversation with someone who isn’t as entrenched in it as you are, and they cock their head a little bit and (hopefully, possibly metaphorically) ask you what it is, exactly, that means? And then you realize — wonderfully, astonishingly — that you not only have an answer but perhaps a very long (too long, even) answer? Because, damn kid, look at you: you know what you’re talking about.

Surrounded by people with similar education levels, or people from the same place we grew up, or even our co-workers, it’s so easy to forget that what we have learned isn’t obvious. Our minds are not obvious. We may occasion to be basic (which is perfectly fine) but our intellect is earned. And, I don’t know who I’m speaking to when I say this, but I don’t think it’s just myself: you deserve the authority to claim ownership over your own knowledge.

I’ll throw in a caveat which, to me is obvious, but nonetheless: I’m not arguing for a free pass on the Arrogance Express. What I am arguing is that it’s worth reminding ourselves (and myself!!) that the fields I’ve chosen to work and study in are not just part of my past, once they turn into a degree or a paragraph on my LinkedIn profile. They are part of me and have given me jurisdiction to speak and feel as if I know a thing or two about a thing or two.

I find so many ways to undermine this. I hesitate to speak in certain conversations, even though I very much have something to say. I make self-deprecating jokes about how I always forget the details of the books I read, although I remember their stories by theme. I refer to myself as “oblivious” as a way to preemptively highlight the fact that my own information accrual is incomplete. Don’t embarrass yourself, my internal monologue screams at an alarming decibel.

But what is most embarrassing, I think, is living nearly 27 years on this planet, spending nearly two decades ensconced in formal education, working a series of experience-based jobs, pursuing related hobbies, and continuing to feel as though none of it is mine. As if anyone could live the life I’m living without having lived it this far, first.

I’m bad at giving advice — much better at giving direction — so I will refrain from any half-hearted attempts. I’ll leave you, reader, with a thought: self-actualization may be about “I am, I am, I am,” but I think it’s also, just as much, “I know, I know, I know.”


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