July 14, 2022   

C-3PO Syndrome

I want to coin a new term. Please use it everywhere. I’m sure you know some people who suffer from this. (You know at least one.)

C-3PO syndrome

(Variant: C-3 syndrome)

Indiscriminately accumulating knowledge without regard for what it means for oneself in order to compensate for the lack in other areas of one’s personality.

It’s different from imposter syndrome, where you feel inadequate no matter how hard you study or practice. People with C-3PO syndrome are generally unaware of their suffering. They are know-it-all’s oblivious of how they are being perceived. In contrast, those with imposter syndrome are tortured by their self-consciousness, like David Foster Wallace.

If you have C-3PO syndrome, you feel you have to be competent in everything, so even for subject matters that have no personal meaning, you spend days, months, or even years learning until you feel you are competent enough, and then move on. It’s a masturbatory pursuit to satisfy your own ego, to feel smart, educated, and superior to others. But when you look back on your life, you realize that you’ve spent a lot of time on things that have no real meaning to you. You don’t prioritize what is important to you because you don’t differentiate this “you” from your ego.

For instance, when I was in art school, certain philosophers and theorists were cited in every art review. Among the most popular was Jean Baudrillard. I had no idea who he was, but I felt I needed to know. The fact that his name appeared everywhere, but I didn’t know who he was, made me feel insecure, so I spent many months reading his books. In retrospect, the only benefit was that I didn’t have to feel insecure about not knowing who he was. His work never resonated with me. I’ve done this with many other intellectuals.

Professionally, having C-3PO syndrome is not a bad thing because you end up amassing more skills and knowledge than you know what to do with. It’s especially useful if you have your own business.

But, personally, it is a cause of the top regret of the dying: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”