Bill Nye Is an Imposter — But He Knows That

Credit: Marvin Joseph / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Bill Nye has been very busy lately hosting his Netflix series Bill Nye Saves the World, popping up on news shows to shoot down climate change deniers, and publishing his third book, Everything All At Once: How to Unleash Your Inner Nerd, Tap Into Radical Curiosity and Solve Any Problem, edited by Corey Powell and out July 11. Inside the book, Nye shows us how he became such a fact ninja, drawing from his experiences in Boy Scouts to his time as an engineer at Boeing. A surprising tidbit — at least to those of us who view him as a guru of all verifiable knowledge — is that much of his success has hinged on the art of faking it. Nye argues, counterintuitively for a scientist, that we shouldn’t have to define ourselves by our expertise but rather learn from encountering things we don't understand. In a passage from the chapter “Are You an Imposter?” Nye lays out his game plan for how we can all follow his lead.  –Sam Donnenberg

Full-on imposter syndrome—the phenomenon first documented by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978—can be a debilitating condition. I don’t mean to treat it lightly. But as I learned from my experience at The Planetary Society, a milder form of imposter syndrome is not entirely a bad thing. If you’re riddled with insecurity, you will have a very hard time leading anybody. And if you have too little self-doubt, you can slide into self-delusion and hubris. Getting the imposter balance right requires filtering fear so that you keep things in proportion. That is a lifelong learning process. It reminds me of advice that the television host Tom Bergeron (you probably know him from America’s Funniest Home Videos and Dancing with the Stars) told me: “Turn your nervousness into excitement.” In the theater, in front of a microphone, while running a small nonprofit, or anywhere in life, a certain amount of fear means that you are taking a risk, challenging yourself.

There is another wonderful admonishment for stage and screen performers: “If you stop being nervous, it’s time to quit.” Nerves mean you are embarking on something daring and important. When you feel fear, you will know that you are on the right track. Let the fear come on, then take the time to reassure yourself that you can do this thing, that you can handle it. If need be, write down some of your favorite accomplishments that preceded this time of self-doubt. These touchstones need not be famous acts. Maybe you had a great time in a high school play, and maybe your buddy Rusty wrote that you were masterful. And you trust his judgment. (That happened . . . to me.)

If you are really good at internalizing and overcoming fear, people may never know that you felt it in the first place. Consider James Cameron. He went to the bottom of the ocean in his own $23 million submersible called the Deepsea Challenger. He wanted to do good science, but he wanted to prove himself, too. And of course, he wanted t go just because he’s an explorer and the ocean had been a longtime fascination for him. Along the way he had some frightening moments: I’m sure he was filled with a bit of doubt when his ship drifted loose of its ship-to-ship cables and when he heard a very loud bang as the crushing pressure outside his vessel suddenly hammered his main hatch into place. A great many people were skeptical about his project because they thought of him only as a movie director. After Titanic came out, he famously proclaimed himself “king of the world,” but that was the film world. In the world of underwater exploration, he was a relative unknown.

People wonder whether they are trying to do good for ultimately selfish reasons. Do I favor vaccines for the greater good or just to keep my kid safe? Do I support green energy only because it’s the easiest way not to feel guilty about my comfortable lifestyle?

So Cameron decided to prove himself all over again. He designed his ship from scratch, and he was alone down there. He landed in the Challenger Deep, a spot 11 kilometers (7 miles) below sea level, much more carefully than the Navy did in an exploratory mission in 1960; he didn’t kick up big clouds of silt everywhere. One fascinating thing he discovered is that a few kilometers away, where the ocean is only 30 meters (100 feet) less deep, there is an abundance of life. Where the Deepsea Challenger settled, though, there is virtually nothing living. Somehow, as the water flows to the bottommost part of the ultra-deep ocean, it gets starved of everything life needs: oxygen, nutrients, and minerals of the proper sort. We never would have known this remarkable fact if James Cameron hadn’t decided he was an explorer as well as a moviemaker. He did some great science down there and brought a new perspective and profile to the work.

Even if you never try to travel down to the bottom of the ocean or build a rocket ship to Mars, there are two kinds of imposter syndromes that almost every one of us deals with and that are absolutely essential to overcome. First, there is the question “Am I just pretending to be a good person?” I hear this all the time, and I wonder about it myself. People wonder whether they are trying to do good for ultimately selfish reasons. Do I favor vaccines for the greater good or just to keep my kid safe? Do I support green energy only because it’s the easiest way not to feel guilty about my comfortable lifestyle? Do I donate to a clean-water fund in the developing world mainly for the tax write-off?

When you take an everything-all-at-once approach, you can make those kinds of imposter feelings fade away. You slowly come to recognize that the things that benefit you also benefit the people around you. Reducing infectious disease, slowing climate change, and building up developing-world infrastructure all contribute to the global commons. In the long run, being selfish and being self less take you to similar places. Nobody wants poverty. When people are poor, they are much more likely to cause crime; they contribute less to the overall economy; they suffer more disease. The extreme poverty in Chad has a strong influence on health. The average life expectancy there is just 50. You want everybody to have a decent standard of living. Even if you’re a selfish bastard, you want everybody to have a high quality of life for the betterment of you. The best solution may not be the easiest, but it is ultimately in everybody’s interest. That’s why I talk about changing the world for us. In good design, everybody comes out ahead.

The solution to feeling like an imposter is to be authentic, and the path of authenticity is the path to a better world

Then there is the second form of imposter syndrome, perhaps the most common of all. It’s that feeling that the problems in the world—poverty, disease, climate change—are so huge, and the solutions are so complicated and daunting, that it feels absurd to presume that we can really solve them. It is easy to feel presumptuous even in trying; it’s easy to give up and think, I’m not a truly good person after all because I’m not facing up to the hard reality. It’s the flip side of being an actual imposter. When those feelings strike, remember one of the great gifts of nerd honesty. Looking at everything all at once doesn’t mean that you have to solve every problem all at once. Let’s face it— that’s not going to happen. What you can do, though, is apply a rigorous standard to your actions. You can overcome the fear of being an imposter or in over your head. Do your ideas further your own interests by furthering the common good? A positive answer can emerge from small acts as much as from big ones. Your answers don’t need to live up to some absurdly overwhelming standard—just a carefully considered one.

As you know, I love learning new words. Here’s an especially relevant one that Corey Powell just introduced to me: “neltiliztli.” It is an Aztec term meaning “well-rooted, authentic, and true.” It was their guideline for how to live a good life in an uncertain world on a sometimes-dangerous Earth, not by seeking power or affirmation but by doing your best to be in balance with your surroundings. The Aztecs—a society that most of us in the West do not associate with science—came up with a beautifully succinct expression for nerd honesty. The solution to feeling like an imposter is to be authentic, and the path of authenticity is the path to a better world.

Reprinted from Everything All At Once by Bill Nye. Copyright (c) 2017 by Bill Nye. By permission of Rodale Books. Available wherever books are sold.