Furtive workaholism in a culture of genius

Louise Chapman
Feb 5 · 6 min read

Being a workaholic in a discipline that is premised upon a cult of genius breeds a feeling of essential intellectual deficit. From this burgeons a thick and toxic air between grad students, who routinely attempt to cope with feelings of insecurity within the culture by disparaging their peers, the effect of which, they hope, will buoy themselves up. It moreover fosters a rampant epidemic of imposter syndrome. My own eight-year journey in academic philosophy has been largely characterised by extremes. Indeed, extreme behaviour has not only enabled me to pass my exams. It has enabled me to ‘pass’ more generally in philosophy’s insidious culture of genius. What do I mean by that?

For a je-ne-sais-quoi, the elusive-to-articulate ‘cult’ or ‘culture’ of genius weighs heavily on younglings who think they’ve found their calling in philosophy. Like Humean morality, this culture is more felt than judg’d of. It comprises an unspoken understanding that this arena of endeavour is the preserve of remarkably rarefied minds (think Kant, Wittgenstein, Frank Ramsey, Hornsby). And preserve it philosophers will. The pressure at work here is as much from the top as it is from the bottom. From the top down, students see the most senior of philosophy academics as dragons, whose own rite of passage into the tenured side of the discipline was in fact vastly less competitive than it is today (although this is not only disregarded but disrespectful to mention). Nevertheless, the old guard have the power to both anoint and annihilate vying philosophy careerists thanks to a power differential that we younglings are both impotent and forbidden to challenge. (Young philosophers ought not dwell on this disparity any more than first-time buyers should attempt a comparison with their parents, who got onto the property ladder for an entire £800. OK, Boomer). So, that’s the view from our overlords. From the early-career part of the cesspit, well, things are a veritable bum-fight. The prize? Getting a gleaming reference letter from one of those unremitting gatekeepers to the Academy.

But what does one need the reference letter to say exactly? Well, within a culture of genius, there will need to be praises sung regarding natural brilliance. Of a gift; a mega-brain. God forbid it should mention anything as soily and shameful as one’s being hardworking (or any other attribute that tends to befall references written for women as opposed to their #gifted male counterparts). Everybody knows that no-one truly gifted ever had to toil. Tosh! Hard work is a taint that any serious junior academic needs to keep hermetically sealed. If your tutors or peers so much as get a whiff of it, your place in the culture of genius is irrevocably undermined.

This all being so, you become a furtive workaholic. To retain a competitive edge amongst your vying early-career peers, and to ensure that your reference letters err on the side of natural giftedness than anything as besmirching as ‘stamina’, you must appear at all times the finished product. And, while you may not realise it, your peers have become furtive workaholics too. While not unique to philosophy (nor even academia), there is a growing trend (encouraged especially by highlight-reel-dominated social media) to promote the product, not the productivity. In short, there is a desire to present one’s achievements in the form of, what I will call, the decontextualized flex. LinkedIn is about as paradigmatic as it gets when it comes to witnessing a veritable showreel of decontextualized flexes. If anything, LinkedIn is the arena of the disingenuously over-contextualised flex. What’s this? Not only am I doing my PhD in Oxbridge, I declined funding to the value of half a million pounds for the privilege. Oh! And did I mention that there was a veritable bidding war between the Colleges to have my name on their alumni register? When will we wake up and realize that flexing on each other like this is like trying to psychologically kill one another.

I think the reason we don’t offer any such context is because it quite simply imperils your ability to flex on ‘the competition’. Moreover, it allows less clued-in (but, let’s be realistic, no less bright) students to get in on the secrets of your success, so that they may approximate it for themselves. Share your elbow-greasy secret and you might as well have retweeted an ad for your dream job. Remember, this is zero-sum game. And so, crippled by the idea that you might undermine your ability to pass within the culture of genius (not to mention reduce your chances of getting an academic job), you keep informative contextualizing factors to yourself. Thus, the cycle continues for another academic year. You lock yourself away for weeks on end, sporadically rolling out a golden nugget here and there. Bravo, you’ve made it look absolutely effortless. Well done, you belong in the culture of genius.

The problem, amongst others, is that you have now made a rod for your own back. ‘Passing’ in the culture of genius can feel like a glorious achievement. Your name is appearing on conference proceedings with the brightest and best. Your work is forthcoming in special issues with the gatekeepers themselves (!). But while the tail-feathers look remarkably smooth and composed from what everyone else can see, beneath the surface you’re peddling like the clappers. And, the truth is, you don’t know whether you can keep this up without running yourself into the ground. But, having adopted this approach from around-about day 2??? of your academic career, you have absolutely no evidence that you can keep these standards up without simultaneously being your own slave-driver. The cost, then, of ‘passing’ in the culture of genius? Burnout and imposter syndrome.

At 30 years old, while I am a recovered workaholic, I’m at risk of needing quarantining for my imposter syndrome. I am indelibly wounded from years of not showing myself that I did not need to work as hard as I did to do well in philosophy. Like the anorexic who never has chocolate cake in the house because they believe they could not resist it, I never gave myself an opportunity to prove myself capable of good work without the most punishing approach to productivity. That was until it was medically necessary.

Friends: we are gaslighting ourselves. We have caused ourselves to doubt our own abilities without any actual evidence of fundamental lack. We are overcompensating when it’s not clear there was ever any scarcity of intellectual resource. Philosophy’s culture of genius had bred so much insecurity into me that workaholism had become the only handrail by which I believed I could carry myself into the professoriate.

To (external) intents and purposes, then, I have passed in the culture of genius. While on the surface there is relief that one is able to navigate this circle without eyebrows being raised, it doesn’t stop you checking — permanently paranoid — to see if anyone has noticed your (suspected but not proven) shortfall in inner resources. We cast our glances this way and that, desperate to verify the fact that we have indeed assimilated. Cognitive behavioural therapy has since told me this is “safety-seeking behaviour”, which traps you in a vicious cycle like no other. But while you are ensconced in that mindset, you can’t enjoy ‘passing’ in the culture of genius, because beyond the paranoia of imposter syndrome, the legwork that goes into keeping you there (and checking that you are not, heaven forbid, suffering any blips in status) is utterly exhausting. Trying to keep up in a culture of genius is as paradoxical, and self-defeating, as it sounds. For what all of this has left me with is a profound lack of confidence in my ability to do well. I may have prostrated myself on philosophy’s altar, and passed in the culture of genius, but this has been marred on a personal level by an intensely shameful feeling of not really belonging one bit.