As a Medium user, you’re probably some form of high achiever. And like me, I bet you sometimes experience Imposter Syndrome: you look around and think I don’t deserve to be here. Everyone else looks comfortable, but I have no idea what I’m doing.
Are you just lucky? Will everyone someday find out that you’re a fraud, triggering a wave of pointing and laughing that ends with sprinting out of your office? Isn’t your success just a big, improbable coincidence?
Yes. In fact, it’s worse than you think. Your place in the world is not merely improbable: it’s nearly impossible. But hear me out.
Here’s a tiny percentage of the unlikely things that had to happen in order for you to do your work:
#145. About 470 million years ago, an enterprising plant edged its way from the ocean, which teemed with life, onto the land, which was empty. Surprisingly, it went well. More plants followed, turning the land green and increasing the oxygen concentration in the air. This caused an Ice Age and massive ocean extinction, which would have affected you — but luckily you weren’t around.
#2,507. 65 million years ago, a 6 mile wide asteroid probably skittered across the atmosphere, then slammed into the Earth near the Yucatan peninsula. It threw enough dust into the atmosphere to cause several years of impact winter. The collision and ripple effects caused a mass extinction of species, including the dinosaurs. While this is sad for 5 year olds, it’s fortunate for the rest of the (relatively weak and small) human species: we get to thrive instead of cowering.
#13,952. About 800,000 years ago, humans started using fire to make much more calorie-dense food, which let us double down on our species strategy of growing big brains and not very big muscles. We could have evolved to be more like big dumb apes, or grown brains before we learned to cook so we spent all day chewing. Instead, our ancestors had the insight that fire was not a natural disaster like a hurricane or tornado: it could be controlled, and used as a tool. The evolutionary stars aligned, and we’ve strategized our way to the top of the food chain.
#405,039. A few decades ago, you were born. Your particular mother and father met, and you are the product of one egg out of two million and one lucky sperm. You could have not been born, or been born with different skills. You could have been born sick, or in a war zone, or at a time when your best bet was to try to pull your plough a little faster than the person in the next furrow over. If this had happened even a slightly different way, you wouldn’t be quite you.
#6,895,302. The tools you use to work represent an amazing combination of intelligence, resources, and organization. Your computer owes its existence to an army of people and their belief in their work. The most obvious of these people include Alan Turing and Steve Jobs. Less heralded contributors include the manufacturer of the silicon wafers that are a computer’s brains, the engineers that keep the brains from overheating while doing simple calculations, and even the window polishers in the store where you bought your computer. In a way, every restart is a small miracle. Don’t get me started on your protein bar, your air conditioner, and your search software.
#80,729,534. Finally, despite our enormous power and often questionable judgment, the human species has not managed to destroy itself yet. We’re beset by fast and slow catastrophes — nuclear proliferation and climate change, terrorist attacks and influenza epidemics, natural disasters and drug-resistant bacteria — but humans still exist, you exist, and your work is waiting for you.
Hey, Imposter: you are the result of luck, but rest assured — everything and everyone else is, too.
You are nearly impossible. So get to work, you big ape.
— — — — —
A lot of the ideas here are the direct result of reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert and letting it knock around in my brain. It’s a serious book about serious mass extinction, so please don’t take this piece as anything other than a (somewhat awkward) tribute.