What is the deeper meaning of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”?

Remember the story? There once was an emperor who was the victim of his own vanity. In particular, he was obsessed with his ornate and elaborate wardrobe. The emperor contracted two master tailors to make him a fabulous suit of clothes but the tailors were actually con men. They told the emperor that they were weaving his new outfit from a fabric that was so fine it would be invisible to anyone who was unfit for his position. The tailors pretended to make clothes from this miracle material, causing the emperor and the members of his court to lie, saying that they could see this wonderful suit.

When the emperor’s new clothes were “finished,” the tailors pretended to dress the monarch, who then paraded his new ensemble through the streets of his capital. The citizens, fearful of being revealed as unfit for their positions, all praised the emperor’s wondrous attire. Ultimately, a young child exclaimed, “The emperor is naked!” causing all the adults, royalty and citizen alike, to realize that they’ve hoodwinked.

What is the message of this story? I don’t think it’s about foolish adults and wise children. Nor is it really about gullibility or giving into a herd mentality. No, the characters in the story behaved as they did from fear of discovery as “as unfit for their positions.” The Emperor’s New Clothes is about the imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is a term that was coined in the 1970s by Georgia State University psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. The syndrome is a feeling experienced by successful people, causing them to feel like they don’t deserve the success they’ve achieved. People suffering from imposter syndrome attribute their accomplishments not to their own innate abilities but to luck or circumstances. They live with a constant fear of being found out as the frauds they believe themselves to be.

Imposter syndrome was originally assumed to be exclusive to women but subsequent research demonstrated that as many as 70% of all people – both men and women, from all social strata – experience imposter syndrome at some point in their careers.

Here’s a striking example of imposter syndrome in action: Olivia Cabane’s 2013 book The Charisma Myth reports the results of a survey showing that more than two-thirds of incoming students at Stanford Business School believe they were only admitted because of an error of some kind on the part of the admissions committee. Another study revealed that nearly 75% of students at Harvard Business School feel the same way. The majority of students at two of America’s most prestigious schools don’t believe they belong there, despite their long records of academic accomplishment!

Imposter syndrome isn’t limited to professional or academic accomplishments; people can suffer from religious imposter syndrome as well. Converts can experience it. Baalei teshuvah (newly religious Jews) can experience it. People who show up in shul or at a Seder without knowing what to expect can experience it. Anyone who ever felt that they weren’t “Jewish enough” has experienced it.

It might be comforting to know that some of our greatest leaders also felt inadequate for the tasks they were charged with undertaking. Most famously, Moses argued with God that he was unfit to serve as His representative. “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” he protested (Exodus 3:11).

This sentiment is not unique to Moses; it was echoed by others of our greatest prophets. Yirmiyahu protested his mission saying, “I can’t speak – I’m a child!” (Jeremiah 1:7) and Yeshaya objected “I am a man of unclean lips!” (Isaiah 6:5). Of course, we know that all of these prophets were supremely suited for their tasks.

Aaron suffered from imposter syndrome when he was appointed High Priest. As Rashi on Leviticus 9:7 explains, Aaron was afraid to approach the altar, considering himself unsuited for the responsibility. Yaakov might have felt a little imposter syndrome when he told God, “I am not worthy of all the kindness and truth that You have shown Your servant” (Genesis 32:11). While Saul was being named king, he was hiding among the luggage (I Samuel, 10) and even after his coronation, he was still acting like a farmer. There are many such examples.

People who suffer from imposter syndrome are usually really just right for their roles. True imposters tend to vastly overestimate their own abilities.

The good news is that people who suffer from imposter syndrome are usually really just right for their roles. True imposters tend to vastly overestimate their own abilities in what’s known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. If you’d like examples of people who overestimated their own importance or skills, look no further than Balaam, who acted as if he could dictate terms to God (Numbers 22), and Korach, who couldn’t accept that he wasn’t better than Moses, who had been personally chosen for his job by God (Numbers 16). And let us not forget Haman, who couldn’t conceive that anyone other than he might be deserving of honor (Esther 6:6).

While our examples of those who underestimated themselves tend to be from among our role models, and those who overestimated themselves are from our antagonists, in truth we are each capable of feeling both extremes. Regarding this, Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa said, “A person should have two notes in his pocket, each to be read as needed. On one, for when he is feeling lowly or discouraged: The whole world was created for my sake (Sanhedrin 4:5). On the other, for when he is feeling conceited or self-important: I am nothing but dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27).”

God knows what is right for us and He puts each of us where we need to be. He knew that Moses, Aaron and Saul were right for their jobs even when they weren’t so sure. Similarly, we need not be so concerned of people discovering that “the emperor has no clothes.” When we feel that way, let us remember that “the whole world was created for my sake” and we deserve our successes. If we swing too far in the other direction – thinking, “Who should the king want to honor besides me?” – that’s the time to remind ourselves: “I am nothing but dust and ashes.”

The trick is remembering when to look at which note.

A version of this article originally appeared on ou.org.