The Trial by Existence

I recently read an essay in Financial Times entitled, “We all need to stop talking about imposter ‘syndrome’”. It struck me as a good idea on its face, at least in part because once something reaches the level of popular rhetoric, like imposter syndrome — and is therefore reduced to the level of meaningless jargon and cliché — I tend to avoid it like a bad case of poison sumac or an argument with an ideologue. I became convinced of its relevance and common sensibility as I read on.

Here’s a synopsis:

Most of us … have at one time or another suffered from what is known as “imposter syndrome”. But should we really consider it a syndrome, defined as “a combination of medical problems that shows the existence of a particular disease or mental condition”? This misnomer is part of a wider trend that too often pathologises what are very normal human feelings … Perhaps if we could destigmatise and reframe imposter syndrome as something of a strength, we might alleviate some of the stress that comes from worrying about the worry itself.

The essay reminded me of my history with depression. More specifically, it reminded me of one specific visit with my psychiatrist. On the day of the visit, I was feeling anxious, a sort of sub-symptom of the terror that had characterized my depression. I lived in fear of that terror’s returning. And I said to my psychiatrist, “Maybe I need an anti-anxiety medication or something.”

She looked at me in that beautifully compassionate way she always does — refraining from calling me a moron, as she always does — and said, “Mark. You have to feel SOMETHING.”

Point made.

In Favor of Study

Years ago, at the very beginning of my late-blooming college experience, I took a course called, Introduction to Literature. The professor who taught it, William L. Stull, now retired, changed my life. (That’s a story for another day.) During one of the class sessions in which we were surveying poetry from different historical periods, Professor Stull said, “John Donne’s poetry rewards study.” He was right, of course.

I’ve carried that notion with me since then. I’ve found many other writings by many other people that also reward study. The essay I read in Financial Times rewards study. And the citation in the essay of normal human feelings recalled another poem that also rewards study. The poem is not by John Donne. But it contains humanity-evoking lines like this:

  • “The utmost reward of daring should be still to dare.”
  • “The more loitering are turned to view once more the sacrifice of those who for some good discerned will gladly give up paradise.”
  • “The mind whirls and the heart sings, and a shout greets the daring one.”
  • “God has taken a flower of gold and broken it, and used therefrom the mystic link to bind and hold spirit to matter till death come.”

Spirit to matter until death come. Yes. But first we must pass the trial by existence. We must recognize our feelings of inadequacy aren’t symptoms of some kind of mental disorder. They’re aspects of our being human. They’re reality checks. They’re reflections of our imperfections, our self-awareness, and our humility. They don’t indicate there’s something wrong with us. They indicate there’s something right with us. They’re not a syndrome. And they don’t make us imposters.

I hope you enjoy this poem. I hope you study it. And I hope you realize you’re stronger, more able, and more valiant than you think you are.


Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brien
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

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