The anxiety of influence

In all creative endeavors there is a phenomenon called the anxiety of influence–the angst arising from the suspicion that your ideas are supposed to be your own, but that they are in fact related to, or derivative of, those that have gone before.

Among grad students in the sciences, this can set up a tension between advisor and graduate student.

Now tension is not necessarily a bad thing. In measured doses, the anxiety of influence pushes you forward to do something new. And one hallmark of good science is novelty.

Don’t let it worry you too much. It is expected that a grad student, at least in their first year or so, will be doing something closely related to your advisor. Hopefully, you two will be discussing lots of ideas. The last thing you want to do is constantly dwell on ownership of ideas.

It is your advisor’s job to recognize and nurture your insights. In most cases, those insights will constitute a “rediscovery” (the nature of 99% of all insights). In other words, you will have made a cool and valid connection that someone has made before.

Some small proportion of the time, you will make a connection that is the genesis of a new, truly cool idea.

Both represent progress, in that you are learning to think creatively.

After a time, you will even begin to recognize which is which by the way your advisor reacts. A “rediscovery” will illicit a warm smile (“progress!”, your advisor thinks); the genuine, new, cool idea will involve more expressive body language.

At some point, the anxiety of influence magically disappears. This event is often associated with your first paper, or the corpus of your dissertation.


5 Responses to The anxiety of influence

  1. Hi. I’m helping to run a blog on a conference on doctoral education this week. One of our topics is the question of how Intellectual Risk-taking is inhibited or supported by existing programs. Hope it will be interesting to you.

  2. tammy says:

    Lol, many students in my country dont ever have such a feeling of “the anxiety of influence”, that feeling comes from the truly scientific guy.
    But its glad to know that still many people experiencing that…

  3. Prof Jay says:

    Thank God I am not a slow gecko – interesting blog – let’s see how it develops!


  4. Thank you for sharing us a very logical approach. I definitely agree in the anxiety of influence because most of our ideas are already taken by others since there are people born before us. I think we should believe in our unique creation in the end.

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