I first met Fleming at a dinner at Forbes, one of those occasions, all too infrequently attended by undergrads, where a distinguished faculty member would grab a hasty bite then deliver a talk on some academic subject and lead a brief discussion. It was the first such talk I ever went to, and I no longer remember the topic, though a vague memory remains of something in prospect narrow and dry as dust. As it turned out, what I saw was an academic stand-up comic, doing hysterically funny riffs on some esoteric bit of medieval literature. I don’t remember any of the punch lines, but I still recall chuckles, giggles and outright belly laughs. How could a man with such awesome academic credentials be at the same time so side-splittingly funny? My late father-in-law was a professor in Princeton’s English department, so the breed wasn’t totally unfamiliar, but this breadth of talent was new to me.
I got to know John better over the next few years. He used to open the pool at Dillon Gymnasium every morning, so I often ran into him on my walk to the Wa to get a paper, and we sometimes fell to talking. As I learned more about the remarkably erudite man behind the witty ‘Prince’ columns, it was clear that I just didn’t belong; I felt like a puppy running beside a real dog. It was a struggle to keep up the pretense that I was a member of the same faculty.
So you might imagine my feelings when five or six years ago the Opinion editor asked me about writing a regular column to continue the tradition that Professor Fleming had set. The editor said that several faculty members would write in rotation, so the load would be divided among us and so would the responsibility for filling Fleming’s shoes. But it was still a daunting prospect, and sharing the shoes with my current fellow columnists, all writers of great talent, does not make it easier.
John Fleming continues to write. His blog lets him adjust length and frequency to his taste and to include pictures; it continues to be erudite and witty and often very funny. There’s no keeping up with him.
On our last night in England after a long (though too short) vacation this summer, my wife and I stayed in Southampton, where I discovered a modern statue of an important person from long ago: John Le Fleming, mayor of the city in the early 1300s. I took a couple of pictures and sent them off to Professor Fleming in the hope that he might find them amusing. There followed in short order a note of thanks and a new post in his blog, about famous Flemings, starting with Southampton’s Le Fleming. It was entertaining, instructive and funny.
How is it possible to keep up with someone so exceptional? I don’t belong here.
There is a common psychological disorder called “the Impostor Syndrome.” Wikipedia says of its victims, “Regardless of what level of success they may have achieved in their chosen field of work or study or what external proof they may have of their competence, they remain convinced internally that they do not deserve the success they have achieved and are really frauds. Proofs of success are dismissed as luck, timing or otherwise having deceived others into thinking they were more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.” Sounds familiar to me.
And it might well sound familiar to you as well. Everyone here is very good at something and often very good at several or even a bunch of things. Indeed, some of you are simply off-scale in your accomplishments. Faculty advise presidents or write best sellers or win Nobel prizes. Undergrads routinely win Rhodes scholarships or lead the University orchestra or win an NCAA championship or make a credible stab at solving environmental crises. A few do several of these simultaneously. And most manage to do it while remaining really nice people and even have lives at the same time. How did normal people ever get here? We don’t belong!
But maybe we do. If you probe your superstar friends and colleagues a bit, you will find that they often suffer from the impostor syndrome, too. It affects the newly arrived most of all, of course — new faculty members and especially new freshmen — but everyone has a twinge from time to time. So take pleasure in having amazing people as friends, and take solace from the fact that you’re not entirely an impostor either.
Brian Kernighan GS ’69 is a computer science professor and a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at email@example.com.