Illustration by Atib Jawad Zion

You, Franz Kafka and Michel Foucault walk into NYU Abu Dhabi...

As important as it is to not overexert ourselves, it is also necessary to give ourselves ample credit for all we have accomplished by having enough courage to take a leap of faith every once in a while.

Sep 26, 2021

When I visited NYU Abu Dhabi for Candidate Weekend, a panelist at a session on Campus Life said: “Here, you are going to be average.”
I thought I had a good sense of what I was setting myself up for when I came here. I was aware that this would be a highly competitive arena, and if I was to keep up, I would have to watch out on all sides — academics, extracurricular activities, social life and so on. The fast pace of NYUAD was evident in its branding, but my apprehensions met their final confirmation when I heard those words.
Anyone experiencing impostor syndrome at NYUAD can hardly be considered an impostor, though, particularly when the university itself is aware of the feelings of inadequacy looming over its student body. The university has directed well-meaning efforts to address students’ impostor syndrome with care and empathy. The Health Center has even hosted talks on how to deal with it.
There is always some comfort to be found in the cracks — the recognition that many of your peers feel the same way about being a little behind on the race might push you to analyze the dynamics of the race itself. If everyone else is after the same “gold standard,” who is tailing who?
And things do get complicated when you are, as you should be, defining your own standards. As easy as it is to set very high expectations for yourself, it can also be difficult to meet them, and I suppose at some point or another, we have all experienced the impact of short-term failures on our overall morale. And when desires are so tangible — the perfect GPA, a student assistantship, adequate social capital — it can be hard to rationalize them away with “everyone else is struggling” or “we are in a global pandemic.”
We could, however, try renegotiating our terms with the race we are running.
I have found that, if not already due to social media, living so closely with other people on campus makes it easy to fall into the trap of constantly feeling judged by others. This evokes an innocent urge to stand out and elevates the anxiety over always doing our best. Think of Foucault’s panopticon: a prison system designed to ensure constant observation of the prisoners, without the prisoners being able to tell if they are being observed, and thus drive them to conformity. Similarly, we feel we are always under the watchful eye of an invisible other and sometimes end up being very unkind to ourselves to keep up the display of elegant perfection. The anxiety can get debilitating when it starts to close yourself off to new opportunities, and then your impostor syndrome ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. I thought of Franz Kafka, who was morbidly insecure about his work and published only a fraction of it during his lifetime.
“My scribbling,” Kafka weighed, “is nothing more than my own materialization of horror.” After his death, his best friend and confidant Max Brod found two notes among the writer’s archives addressed to him:
“Dearest Max, My last request: Everything I leave behind me… in the way of notebooks, manuscripts, letters, my own and other people’s, sketches and so on, is to be burned unread and to the last page, as well as all writings of mine or notes which either you may have or other people, from whom you are to beg them in my name. Letters which are not handed over to you should at least be faithfully burned by those who have them.
Franz Kafka”
Needless to say, Brod betrayed the last wish of his deceased friend and went on to publish his works, sensationalizing the literary realm forever.
Inspired by this, I have found that it can be a useful exercise to check up on myself any time I dare to take a leap of faith. Whenever we have a choice between action and inaction, it is almost always better to choose action over the other, because there is always the possibility of a good outcome. If things do not turn out the right way, consider it a learning experience and an opportunity for growth. In Foucault's words: “the main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.”
Another helpful reminder for me has been to realize we are not as closely watched as we lead ourselves to believe. Just as we pay little individual attention to all the people we come across every day, they are also unlikely to think deeply about any insufficiency in ourselves we might have betrayed. As it is with our minds, when it comes to something as remote as others’ perception of us, we would rather assume the negative than have no information at all. It can even feel punishing to idealize and compare ourselves with the carefully constructed and incomplete images of others, while we are always painfully aware of all our inadequacies and minor blunders.
As a whole, this is a practice of being kinder to myself. As important as it is to not over exert ourselves, it is also necessary to give ourselves ample credit for all we have accomplished by having enough faith to take a bounding leap once in a while.
“Two people were struggling within me; one who wants to go and one who is afraid to go — both just parts of me, but undoubtedly scoundrels,” Kafka wrote to his lover, Milena Jesenská. “I got up the next morning like I did in my worst times.”
Atib Jawad Zion is Deputy Features Editor. Email them at
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