Overcoming Intimidation at Oxford

04/28/2015 05:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2015
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I spent most of my early school years feeling intimidated. Intimidated by the good-natured girls who made friends with ease. Intimidated by the Kumon kids who could recite their times tables with freakish rapidity. Intimidated by the insouciant Queen Bees who knew instinctively how high to pull their socks and how low to roll their waistbands, and who had boys' phone numbers (plural!) in their trendy Nokia 3120s.

With time and maturity, I slowly got a handle on my feelings of inferiority. At the beginning of Year 6, I turned down nominations for School Captain because I was scared that I wasn't good enough, but by the second semester, I'd pulled myself together enough to run for the position. I got it, and did a perfectly adequate job of leading the School Prayer in assembly once a week, prissily telling people off for not wearing their school boaters and handing over the odd ceremonial basket of wattle to visiting dignitaries. Incrementally, as I realized that I was at least as clever/competent/capable of stringing words together (even in front of boys) as my peers, my self-confidence grew and my stomach ulcers dissipated.

I survived Junior School, enjoyed High School and reveled in college life. But six months ago, I started my Master of Laws Degree at Oxford University and -- much to my horror -- like a turd in a paddling pool, those feelings of social and intellectual intimidation bobbed to the surface.

What confronted me most was the self-assurance of the Oxford students. Clad unironically in tweed and tortoiseshell specs, the Oxbridge undergrads articulate themselves with the kind of precision and passion that I can only muster for discussions of the Jim-Pam storyline in The Office seasons 2 and 3. They address all the Professors by first name; a level of familiarity I'm yet to reach with my hairdresser. My college is brimming with people who have clerked for internationally-esteemed judges, are doing research to cure Ebola or more effectively accelerate particles, and can speak multiple languages. My Swedish friend once expressed frustration that her English is not as good as her Swedish -- in the same breath as the words 'troglodyte' and 'ossified.'

And what did I have to offer? An undergrad law degree, an ironic pair of Atticus Finch frames and a sophomoric ability to abbreviate words in just one language (appaz it's an Aussie thing). In an aquarium of brilliant and interesting people I felt like a gelatinous, bottom-dwelling blobfish. Or like Eurasian Elle Woods, sans pink and pep.

So, how did I curb this malignant sense of inadequacy?

1. Realizing my negativity bias

Early on, I gave a talk in my Constitutional Theory class, after which one of my friends congratulated me on my very "accessible" presentation. My instinctive reaction was to balk and picture myself as Cher Horowitz debating; I must have failed to grasp the complexities of the topic and come across as a complete dunderhead! Maybe the class was just too advanced for me?

After reading about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, I've learned to reframe such thoughts. Inspired by the exploits of McArthur Wheeler, a 44-year-old man who robbed two banks after smearing lemon juice on his face in the mistaken belief that it would make him invisible to surveillance cameras (because lemon juice can be used as invisible ink, duh), psychologists Dunning and Kruger conducted a series of studies concluding that unskilled individuals tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities. Conversely, highly competent individuals tend to underestimate their abilities, falling prey to a 'false-consensus effect' (assuming that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others).

This ties into Clance and Imes' exploration of Imposter Phenomenon; the belief held by individuals (predominantly women) that they are intellectual frauds who may be exposed at any time. Much has been written on the topic (see Kay and Shipman on The Confidence Gap), and among those high-profile women reporting this internal experience are Sheryl Sandberg, Tina Fey and Maya Angelou.

By no means do I find my course content easy, but I do recognize that perceptions of knowledge and performance can be skewed. I also realize that this is probably not helped by my proclivity towards pessimism (I'm a "That half-empty glass of water definitely isn't fluoridated and probably isn't potable. And anyway, all I want is a cup of juice!" [sobs uncontrollably]). When my friend deemed my presentation "accessible", he probably intended it as genuine praise; it was my own cognitive bias which had me assuming the worst.

At the very least, I comfort myself with: "Elodie, you've used lemon juice to try to lighten your hair. You've used it to make a congealed lemon meringue pie which you grilled because you couldn't figure out the oven settings. But you've never attempted to render yourself invisible with it." I have my daft moments, but generally I know I can set store by my true ability.

2. Realizing the impossibility of comparison

When I first started at Oxford, I was overawed by the students in my Law in Society class who had read the set texts in their original German (while I was still ploughing through the English translation and only just realizing that Weber refers to more than kettle barbecues). Also, by the neatly-pressed guy in my Equality class who could quote verbatim and pinpoint cite every case that cropped up.

I made peace with these displays of brilliance when I realized they were nothing to do with me. Those who'd read the German texts? They had a particular interest in the area. And were German. The guy who knew the equality law cases inside out? His personal project is to overhaul the equality guarantees of the Singaporean Constitution. And I have a sneaking suspicion that an army of librarian Borrowers live inside his brain, ready to trawl up detailed points of fact and law at a moments' notice.

My point is, we all start from different stages of skill and knowledge, and have different priorities and aims. We're all running different races, and to use others as a yardstick for individual success would be as fruitless as comparing how well I can construct an analogy to how fast you can eat hot dogs.

3. Replacing intellectual cowedness with intellectual curiosity

During the Oxford application process, I'd babbled on about the "cross-pollination of diverse insights" I hoped to be enriched by, but it took me a little while to turn rhetoric into reality. At first I was too timid to ask questions or lean in to seminar discussions; afraid that I would be unmasked as a bumbling idiot. But I quickly realized that my accomplished peers and teachers didn't become so by sitting back.

Just as I didn't know the difference between the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice, so one of my classmates didn't know who the Dalai Lama is. The other day I was sitting with a group of postgrads and not one of us could define "marsupial." Evidently, everyone has gaps in their knowledge. Realizing this, when someone articulates something that I don't know much about, I try to use it as an opportunity to expand my own understanding, rather than a reason to feel moronic.

Self-doubt waxes and wanes, and it's never as easy as just "getting over it". But even here at Oxford -- among the Dreaming Spires, scholars and sophisticates -- I have overcome my instinctive feelings of intimidation. By recognizing my cognitive biases, refusing to compare myself to others, and adopting a spirit of inquiry over a spirit of self-doubt, I can appreciate this experience for what it is...and no longer feel like a blobfish.