A Nagging Doubt

We all have them. Even those we most admire.

The Washington Family by Edward Savage, c. 1796 (public domain - Wikipedia)

"Still I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an honest man." — George Washington, 1788

Earlier this week, when I was preparing the essay titled "Ignorance, Incompetence and Impostors," I came across another couple of "I" words related to the topic: idiot and imbecile.

Ignorance, Incompetence and Impostors

Now, we know these two words as invectives hurled at people whom we think exhibit some sort of temporary stupidity. "You imbecile!" or "What an idiot!" are phrases we've all heard before.

But there's a history to these words—a history that isn't widely remembered any more. It's medical in nature.

When you consider the spectrum of intelligence as typically measured by IQ scores, you see the standard bell curve with a distribution. The middle portion of the curve (the "bell") includes those who are considered average. To the left of the peak is below average, which in the early 20th century, were divided into psychological classifications:

Idiots.—Those so defective that the mental development never exceeds that or a normal child of about two years.
Imbeciles.—Those whose development is higher than that of an idiot, but whose intelligence does not exceed that of a normal child of about seven years.
Morons.—Those whose mental development is above that of an imbecile, but does not exceed that of a normal child of about twelve years. — Edmund Burke Huey, Backward and Feeble-Minded Children, 1912

We've come a long way from those days in the medical field (thankfully), but the terms remain with our vernacular and have since been applied as insults rather than scientific observations.

I mention this for no other reason than to insert a bit of trivia into this week's topic.

Regarding impostor syndrome though, I received a good number of responses and notifications from people who identified with the essay. It's not surprising: some 70 percent of the population experiences impostor syndrome at one point or another.

Would it surprise you to know that George Washington was among them?

This Founding Father—the courageous general who led America's victory over Cornwallis at Yorktown, who became our first president and established many of the traditions we've since followed—was filled with self-doubt.

It seems surprising that this towering figure (physically and metaphorically) would have anything to fear, but his letters and papers indicate someone who was either ultra-careful regarding his humility or who was simply terrified of forging into uncharted territories.

When the Continental Congress informed Washington on June 16, 1775 that he was to be made General and Commander in Chief of the army of the United Colonies, he rose and addressed the assembly:

"Tho I am truly sensible of the high honor done me in this appointment, yet I feel great distress from a consciousness that my abilities and military experience may not be equal to this extensive and important trust. I beg it may be remember[e]d by every Gent[lema]n in the room that I this day declare, with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to that command I [am] honored with."

Here was a man who, even though he commanded British troops in the French and Indian War in 1754, was doubtful of his skills to lead our country in battle. Could it be that he was simply lowering expectations, in order to overdeliver later on?

In his biography Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow writes:

"While some of Washington's humility can be traced to political calculation, it also reflected his frank admission that he lacked the requisite experience to take on the British Empire. It was both a gratifying and a terrifying moment for a man who was such a bundle of confidence and insecurity."

Washington certainly knew the raw power and might of the foe he was taking on. And he also knew that other members of the Founding Fathers were far more experienced, educated, and well-traveled than he.

"He lacked the liberal education that then distinguished gentlemen, setting him apart from such illustrious peers as Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, and Madison. He would always seem more provincial than other founders, his knowledge of European culture more secondhand. A university education would have spared him the gnawing sense of intellectual inadequacy. We know that he regretted his lack of Latin, Greek, and French—the major intellectual adornments of his day—since he lectured wards in later years on their importance. The degree to which Washington dwelt upon the transcendent importance of education underscores the stigma that he felt about having missed college." — Ron Chernow, 2010

Further evidence that this was part of his persona comes from a rare letter to his wife Martha that survived (she destroyed their correspondence after his death), written just two days later on June 18, 1775:

"You may believe me my dear Patcy, when I assure you, in the most solemn manner, that, so far from seeking this appointment I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my capacity and that I should enjoy more real happiness and felicity in one month with you, at home, than I have the most distant prospect of reaping abroad, if my stay were to be seven times seven years."

And yet, Washington delivered our young nation a victory and led with honor, dignity, and confidence as our first president.

If George Washington could entertain doubts of inadequacy yet succeed, so can you.