Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome in the Silicon Guild

A few months ago, the Silicon Guild held a virtual session to discuss imposter syndrome.  While the authors who make up the Guild are among the most accomplished people in their field, including a disproportionate number of the Thinkers50, including six of the top 10 thinkers in the world, we found that most of our members still felt imposter syndrome on a regular basis.

Many of those who feel imposter syndrome believe that if they just accomplish enough, the feeling will go away.  The experience of our Guild members shows that achievement is not the solution to this problem.

We believe that it’s our responsibility to share our own stories of imposter syndrome, so that people understand that even the most famous and accomplished professionals in their field still struggle with these feelings, as well as what we’ve found to be the best interventions to manage and live with imposter syndrome.

As part of International Imposter Syndrome Awareness Day, members of the Silicon Guild have joined forces to share their thoughts on and experiences with imposter syndrome.  You can read their essays at the links below.

How I Overcame My Imposter Syndrome (by Scott Anthony)

Scott describes how he learned to be comfortable with discomfort and balance confidence in his abilities with a foundational humility.

I don’t have imposter syndrome…That’s what I said. (by Whitney Johnson)

Whitney shares how achieving one of her field’s highest honors caused her to feel like an imposter for the first time in her life, and how she learned to do what she needed to do to be what others thought she could be.

Imposter Syndrome: If you can’t beat it…Stuart Smalley it! (by Alison Levine)

Alison describes a time when someone told her, “You have no business being here,” and why continuing onward even when you feel like an imposter gives you the chance to decide for yourself whether or not you’re worthy.

Mind Your Introductions!  A Short Essay in advance of National Imposter Syndrome Day (by Rita McGrath)

Rita explains how society contributes to imposter syndrome, and how you can be a better ally to the people around you, especially when they don’t belong to the majority group.

Running from Ourselves (by April Rinne)

April writes about how our primal fear of going slower traps us in a “speed vortex” of societal expectations, and how therapy helped her find a more sustainable pace for herself. 

The Two Types of Imposter Syndrome, and How to Harness it for Good (by Caroline Webb)

Caroline writes about how becoming an author triggered her imposter syndrome, and how learning to focus on measuring herself against herself let her transform her imposter feelings into a motivational tool.

Five Ways To Inoculate Yourself Against Imposter Syndrome (by Chris Yeh)

Chris confesses to not feeling imposter syndrome, and shares the five actions he takes to boost his psychological immune system against the ever-present danger of these feelings.

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#NotAnImposter #IISAD2022 #ImposterSyndrome


To find out more about International Imposter Syndrome Awareness Day and how you can get involved, visit http://iisad.org

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Read the full articles below or at the links above:

How I Overcame My Imposter Syndrome (by Scott Anthony)

I used to have a recurring dream. More of a nightmare, really.

It would be the end of the school year, and there was a class that I had just completely forgotten to attend (often chemistry, a class I never took, or at least don’t think I ever took). Anxiety would turn into low-grade panic. How had I just completely forgotten to attend a class? What would this mean for the year? For my future?

With hindsight, this dream shouts “imposter syndrome,” a feeling that there was a disconnect between my external reputation and internal sense of self. It’s endemic within the consulting industry, where people with relatively limited experience have to project confidence and competence to clients that often have work experience that exceeds a consultant’s years on Earth. I felt it even more as someone who became a partner at Innosight at 28, had my first book published at 29, and became Innosight’s global leader at 37. The dream showed an underlying fear that I was a fraud.

In recent years, the dream stopped. 

Does that mean whenever I start a new consulting project I brim with confidence, sure it will succeed? That when I step into a room (or onto a Zoom) to speak I don’t have a pit in the bottom of my stomach? Does it mean that I immediately open up an email from an editor rather than wait for hours because I have low-grade terror that it will contain negative feedback? Do I truly believe I am one of the world’s 10 most influential management thinkers? 

No, of course not. Because I’m a human. I continue to have trials and tribulations and moments where I feel out of my depth. I have my quirks, neuroses, skeletons in the closet, past traumas, and family issues. Everyone does.

So, what changed? In short, through practice, coaching, and hard, often repetitive—and sometimes exceedingly boring—work I have learned how to see, hold, and not succumb to these feelings. I’ve tried to share what I’ve learned with colleagues, telling them that, when they’ve done the work, they should have confidence in themselves while also recognizing and acknowledging the limits of their knowledge. After all, as our co-founder Clayton Christensen always used to teach, there’s something to learn from everyone.

I don’t expect that I’ll ever fully defeat the pit-in-the-stomach discomfort and some part of me will always be afraid I forgot to finish that chemistry class. And that’s good. Because forgetting those things feels like losing my humanity and starting a path to destructive narcissism. 

I feel fortunate that life helped to put me in a position where I even had the opportunity to worry about imposter syndrome, and even more fortunate that as a while male I haven’t had to deal with the pernicious impact of stereotype threat. I feel proud that I’ve learned how to be comfortable with discomfort. On this imposter syndrome awareness day, I hope to continue balancing confidence in my own abilities and knowledge with the foundational humility that recognizes there is so, so, so much more to learn.

I don’t have imposter syndrome…That’s what I said. (by Whitney Johnson)

I’ve actually said that out loud and believed it. Despite estimates suggesting that 70% of us will have at least one episode of imposter syndrome in our lifetime, I could honestly say I hadn’t had that experience. 

Until late last year, when my episode arrived at the doorstep.

I’d heard other people say they felt like imposters for years but was dismissive about it for myself. My definition was narrow: imposter syndrome strikes when you get an assignment or a role that you don’t feel you’re qualified for. You’re not deserving. Luck has smiled your way, not competence. And chances are, you’re going to be found out and exposed as a pretender. A fraud. Fear and anxiety, not confidence, are primary emotions. 

I’m willing to set ambitious goals and work hard to achieve them. My childhood years of music lessons and a university degree in piano performance haven’t translated into an adult career, but they have blessed me with discipline and an ability to stick to tasks even when difficult. Professionally, I’ve been called a late bloomer. So, when something I worked for came along, I was less likely to think, “Who, me?” and more likely to think, “Finally.”

But the imposter syndrome switch was flipped late last year with the Thinkers50 announcement for 2021. Thinkers50 is an organization dedicated to amplifying the top business and management ideas and every other year they announce awards for thought leadership in a variety of management categories.

I’ve been on their list the last few cycles.

I’d been doing good work; my fourth book, Smart Growth, was about to be released. It was my expectation that I would be among the Top 50 again in 2021.

As I tuned into the announcement ceremony virtually, I was disconcerted that as they announced Thinkers 50 to 11, I wasn’t on the list.

What happened? How come I’m not on the list? Maybe I wasn’t doing work as good as I thought I was.

Then came the countdown for the top ten.

I was #8.

In a nanosecond my thinking flipped from “why didn’t I make the list?” to “Wait. What?” 

I shouldn’t be that high. I don’t deserve to be that high. And the Imposter Syndrome clincher, “Others will think I don’t deserve to be that high.”

There are some spaces and places where subjectivity isn’t much of an issue. You run the fastest. Jump the highest. Dive the deepest. Objectively, the data verifies that you deserve to be in whatever position you’re in. Others can see it. Perhaps most importantly, you can see it. It doesn’t leave room for the vulture of self-doubt to roost.

But much of life isn’t like that. Objective data isn’t available to prove our value in every case. Some things aren’t measurable that way. Many things happen as the result of somebody’s subjective judgment call.

You get an opportunity: a chance to write; to speak; a promotion or coveted assignment comes your way. Or you receive an award or other form of recognition.

Sometimes we’ve planned and worked for the new opportunity. We may think, “It’s about time,” as I have had occasion to do at times when I’ve received a promotion or the like. Maybe we were forewarned that recognition for our work was coming our way and had time to relish the anticipation of receiving it.  On other occasions we are pushed to do something new, to make the best of a tough situation. We may think, “I didn’t expect (or want) this. I guess I’ll have to figure it out.” Think of what happened to all of us in different ways with the pandemic. Whatever our particular situation, we had to be resourceful and figure it out.

But sometimes we are pushed into something better than we expected, or different, or sooner than we expected. And the fact is that there may be someone, including ourselves, or several others, who think we don’t deserve to be in that spot—whatever it is. Not yet; maybe not ever. 

Imposter syndrome is more complex than I once thought. One of my first realizations after discovering I was experiencing it, was that I’ve been pretending all along. There are numerous indicators of various imposter types. If these indicators were an exam, I’d get an A. I have pretty much all of them and have for a long time.

After the Thinkers50 event, I confided my insecurity to my colleague and friend, Liz Wiseman, who wisely told me, “Whether you think you deserve to be in this position is now irrelevant. What matters is, what are you going to do now that you are here?” She even said to me, as a good friend, “Now that you are on this S Curve, what are you going to do?”

I’m trying to find a way to make meaning. That is what I usually do. Try to understand the experience and discern what I can learn from it, what I can do with it.

Even if we don’t quite believe that we deserve the chance we have, someone did. Maybe deep down we do too. Or at least we believed we could be there eventually. Someone else just saw our potential fulfilled earlier than we did. We often think of unexpectedly bad things as opportunities for growth. It’s a way to cope with challenging situations, but it’s more than that too. Difficulties stretch us; they are intrinsically weighted towards growth. 

Unexpectedly good things are opportunities to grow, too. 

Predictability is less fertile ground for growth. It is the unexpected that offers the invitation to grow–to do the work; to be what is required of us to make a success of the position we’re in. What I’ve discovered is that when we get something unexpectedly good, we can learn to do what we need to do to be what someone thinks we are or can be. If we don’t let our imposter syndrome feelings about ourselves change by embracing the opportunity to grow, then the opportunity is squandered. 

I’ve also realized that the unwelcome, startling feeling of discomfort, the fear that “this chair is too big” and the terror that I won’t be able to do this, is actually welcome. 

It’s an invitation to stop masquerading as someone I wasn’t meant to be.

By becoming the person I can be.

Imposter Syndrome: If you can’t beat it…Stuart Smalley it! (by Alison Levine)

The year was 2002, and I was the team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition. I was living my dream adventure. But on the mountain, everything was not dreamy. As I was making my way through the Khumbu Icefall (one of the most feared sections of the route), I was trying to block out the words that were bombarding my brain. I was approaching a rickety aluminum ladder that spanned a bottomless crevasse that looked like it wanted to swallow me whole, and I heard this voice saying, “You have no business being here on this mountain. You are not fast enough, and you should think about going home.” I couldn’t shut this voice out as this wasn’t self-doubt talking; it was another climber who was right on my heels. An actual human being who towered over me by at least a foot, whose leg span allowed him to go twice as far as I could with every step, and whose long torso most certainly housed larger lungs than mine. This was someone who was well known in the mountaineering community, and I have never been able to get his words out of my head. “You don’t have what it takes to succeed here.” 

Cut to my life today. 

I make a living as a keynote speaker. I never get nervous before a talk. I am in my element when I am up on stage in front of a sea of people. Yet…when I step off stage and make my way down into the audience, I have to take a deep breath because that’s when the fear sets in. It’s time for the meet and greet, and every time someone approaches me and asks for a photo/selfie, I think, “If they only knew that luck was the reason I made it to the tops of all of those mountains” and I have to really force a smile in the photos because I feel like a fraud. I have this irrational fear that they are going to see the actual letters “F-R-A-U-D” show up over my face in the picture. 

And sure, luck is part of achieving success on a climb. But it also takes strength, stamina, courage, determination, athleticism, and a willingness to suffer and to keep putting one foot in front of the other—EVEN WHEN YOU FEEL LIKE YOU CAN’T. I know I have demonstrated all of the above during my various expeditions, but I still have to put forth a conscious effort to make sure that the words I heard from that guy in 2002 do not drown out the words I tell myself in 2022. 

My hope is that today, on National Imposter Syndrome Day, you will take comfort in knowing that you are not alone in feeling like an imposter. Many of the most accomplished people I know suffer from imposter syndrome, so maybe it’s time to change the dialogue we have with ourselves.  Maybe we do deserve the positive feedback, the compensation, the promotion, the dream job, the recognition, the summit celebration, and whatever else that we feel we may not be worthy of? 

Bottom line: ONLY YOU get to decide if you are worthy. And you are. You earned it. 

So, let’s all repeat the affirmations of Stuart Smalley from SNL:  “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” 

Mind Your Introductions!  A Short Essay in advance of National Imposter Syndrome Day (by Rita McGrath)

Imposter syndrome – that sneaking feeling that you are not worthy – can be crippling. It is especially problematic for people who are not in the majority group. As an ally, you can help in ways large and small.

We’ve all been there. A situation in which you look around and can’t believe you’ve been admitted to the company of a group of brilliant people. Or receiving an award and feeling that the judges must have made a mistake. Or over-preparing and over-emphasizing how smart / funny / accomplished you are while at the same time feeling like a bit of a fraud.  

All these things are related to imposter syndrome – the sneaky feeling that you didn’t really earn or deserve some major accomplishment or recognition. It’s related to anxiety, to the unwillingness to take risk, to avoiding new opportunities and to feelings of inferiority.  It’s that voice in your head that says “you can’t do this!”  

While it can be a little motivating in that it can spur you to make greater efforts, the resulting anxiety usually isn’t worth it.  

Where does imposter syndrome come from?

Psychologists have reasoned that imposter syndrome, the nasty voices inside our heads telling us that we aren’t worthy, originates in our attempts to make the world make sense.  When we are faced with the challenge of holding two or more conflicting beliefs values or attitudes, the result is cognitive dissonance, an uncomfortable state of mind. People will go to enormous lengths not to have to grapple with the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. 

Leon Festinger, who first describe the theory, suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and behavior in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance). This is known as the principle of cognitive consistency. When we have an inconsistency, we will go to enormous lengths to resolve the tensions. Thus, people who know smoking is bad for them, but smoke anyway, will justify the behavior by suggesting that the research isn’t conclusive, quitting will make them fat, or that it’s better to life a life full of things you enjoy doing than experience deprivation.  We all have a powerful desire to have a balance between our beliefs.  

This, by the way, is why it is so often nearly impossible to convince someone to abandon publicly stated positions. We’ve taken a stand, and will even do ourselves immense harm before being willing to admit that the choice may not have been the most sensible. It isn’t a problem of ongoing disinformation, but of having committed to a perspective at one point, we are incredibly uncomfortable abandoning it.  We’ll make up a reality if the one we have committed to doesn’t seem true.  

Thus, when your environment is giving you cues that you really don’t belong to a group, or really don’t deserve an achievement or recognition, and yet you are accepted into the group and rightly won the award or recognition, our minds resolve the inconsistency by convincing ourselves that it must have been an accident.   

Ironically, imposter syndrome often besets those who, by any objective standard, are outstanding achievers. They may be members of a minority group (women in a male-dominated environment). They may never have thought of themselves as particularly special. Their presence “at the table” may be something of a surprise.  Or their personal situations may be unhappy enough that they assume the rest of their lives must be so affected. For instance, at a bleak time in his life, Albert Einstein confessed “the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” 

The message “you don’t belong here”

Imposter syndrome is associated with feeling as if you are the only, or one of only a few people like you in a given situation.  The only woman in a computer coding class. The only person of color on the board. The only first-generation college student in English class.  Those kinds of situations. 

In many ways, some overt and some more subtle, people who are not part of the dominant group are being sent the message that their presence is some kind of aberration, likely a mistake. 

In fact, the original research on imposter syndrome examined high achieving professional women back in the 70’s, when women were beginning to climb the ranks of corporate organizations in large numbers for the first time.  The researchers found that:

“Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample objective evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief.”

Since then, the prevalence of imposter syndrome in groups that are not the dominant one has been explored.  If you feel as though you don’t fit in or if you feel that your acceptance into a group was a matter of luck (or God forbid, a mistake!) you are much more likely to begin to doubt yourself.  

Indeed, the environment can create and exaggerate any doubts one might have about one’s own abilities.  As Jolie A. Doggett notes, “We can hear it loud and clear when we receive almost daily messages from society that we truly don’t belong,”  

Another contributor to the anxiety of imposter syndrome is that you are looked upon as representing everybody who is your race, ethnicity or gender.  As one of my clients recently found, sometimes potential sponsors for people of color or women were afraid to put their names forward because of the risk.  “If they don’t work out,” the reasoning goes, “I’ll get the blame for not having made the safe choice of a white male.”  In other words, if the white male didn’t work out, the sponsor didn’t get blamed because, well, that would be the normal thing to do. If the diverse candidate didn’t work out, the wisdom of their advocacy was questioned.  Not only that, but the bar would be raised for any subsequent candidate with those characteristics. 

And this is where imposter syndrome hurts us all. People suffering from it may not ask the question or make the observation that could have solved a thorny problem.  They may hold back from asking for a raise or promotion, even if they are well qualified, leaving the role to potentially less qualified people. They may not be willing to take even small chances, lest they be “found out.” And they certainly won’t take advantage of even psychologically safe workspaces to voice contrarian views.  Worst of all, they sometimes leave the field to charming narcissists – toxic colleagues who deploy social skills to advance rather than actual job performance.  

Mind your introductions! And other tips

How can you, as an executive, team member, colleague or professor help those struggling with imposter syndrome to combat it?  A short list of potentially useful ideas.

  1. When you are introducing a colleague whom, to you, obviously belongs at a meeting, conference or other get-together, don’t assume everybody else is making that assumption. Specifically call out the accomplishments that led to your colleague being invited.
  2. Listen for signals that culturally or structurally your teammates might be feeling as though they are not part of the in crowd. Discuss what it takes to “win” in your current environment and whether this definition might need to shift. 
  3. Recognize that people in low-power positions suffer from what Adam Galinsky terms the “low power double bind.” This is that they have less latitude for action than people in a high power situation. Some remedies? You can advocate for others – and not be punished for it. You can expand your range of potential alternatives. Create allies – for instance by asking for advice. Tap into your expertise and passion – you’re much less likely to suffer from a narrow range.
  4. Reinforce your faith in your co-workers’ capabilities. This can have a self-fulfilling prophecy effect. Telling people “I know you’ve got this – I have confidence in your ability to pull it off” and meaning it is powerful.  
  5. Gather data. Information like the average time to next career move, compared across gender and race, can be incredibly illuminating. As Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey observe, “If your company rewards vague traits like “executive presence” and “leadership skills” without measurable behaviors and skills, bias is likely to creep into advancement decisions.” 
  6. Use your own credibility in the organization to sponsor and mentor people who are not part of the majority group.  Often, the support provided to the majority group is simply taken for granted, while the lack of support to groups not in the majority is not recognized. Tilt that balance a bit.  

As Tulshyan and Burey conclude, “Let’s stop calling natural, human tendencies of self-doubt, hesitation, and lack of confidence “imposter syndrome.” If you want women to lend their full talents and expertise, question the culture at work — not our confidence at work. Instead, recognize and celebrate a variety of different leadership styles and create work cultures where all are welcome and thrive.

#cognitivedissonance #impostersyndrome #nationalimpostersyndromeawarenessday #siliconguild 

Mentions:
Adam Galinsky
Giselle Shelley
Ruchika Tulshyan
WomenInLeadership
Jod-Ann Burey
ColumbiaExecEd
Amy Edmondson
WomenLeaders

Running from Ourselves (by April Rinne)

There’s an interesting link between imposter syndrome and humans’ (in)ability to slow down. We may fear being “found out” for who we really are, so we keep running ever-faster. But in what direction? 

Often, both imposter syndrome and a frenetic pace take us further from our true selves – and who we wish to become. Hence, understanding where your misplaced “need for speed” comes from and learning how to “run slower” not only help with exhaustion, burnout, and lack of focus. This also enables you to rediscover the abundance of who you already are.

So let’s back up and dig into that “need for speed” bit, and why it’s wreaking so much havoc..

Many humans today have a primal fear of slowing down. There’s the perceived fear of social stigma, disbelief, and condescension from others if we get off the fast track. There’s the potential loss of our value to society, for if we aren’t always on, then what are we?

Adding to this conundrum, the more someone takes on, the harder it can be to let go. Broadly speaking, today’s society is one of grasping: for status, wealth, and certainty of the unknown. The bigger one’s pyramid of activities and accomplishments, the bigger one’s sense of self, even if deep down that person is miserable.

The missing link of this conversation is that “getting more done” is not the same as progress, value, or worth. As philosopher Tias Little says, “From a spiritual perspective, moving fast and checking things off of a to-do list is the opposite of progress.” According to Little, we’ve become trapped in a “speed vortex” of technology, society, and expectations. We’re caught in “life’s speed lanes” rife with restlessness and frustration. Many people are actually addicted to this speed. But our jam-packed schedules don’t necessarily mean we’re growing; quite possibly, we’re running to escape from ourselves.

This speed gets trapped in the body and affects your ability to think, focus, dream, and create. It keeps you from simply being. It compromises your nerves, connective tissues, and glands. It hampers your physiology and brain chemistry. Your body keeps score while your brain tries to justify a pace that’s working against you. (Imposter syndrome on steroids, anyone?) 

I had my first real glimpse of running slower after both of my parents died in a car accident when I was 20 years old. On the one hand, in the vortex of grief, it was as though time stood still. No amount of running could change what had happened. I learned first-hand the fragility of life, and the pointlessness of trying to run fast merely to please others. On the other hand, however, this tragedy was part of a more complicated puzzle – my life – and I was still running from myself. More than a decade later, even though I’d slowed down to grieve, I still lived a “fast” life: working long hours, traveling for business to twenty-plus countries each year (and for pleasure to even more), and throwing my all into everything that I could. On the outside, I was doing it all (or at least an awful lot). Yet inside, I was still wracked with anxiety. The more I achieved externally, the more anxious I felt internally. My imposter syndrome was running roughshod, even if I didn’t know what to call it back then. But I did know that my roots were thin, and that at some point they could splinter, and no amount of external (financial, professional, reputational, etc.) security or reassurances from others could break that fall. 

Ultimately, I found my way to cognitive behavioral (CBT) and eye-movement (EMDR) therapies, where I discovered just how deep my anxiety and addiction to speed ran. This discovery was nothing short of life changing. Yet equally revealing is what it led me to observe in many others, in a wide variety of settings and cultures: there is an almost perfect correlation between anxiety, accomplishment, and imposter syndrome.

I have been part of leadership circles in which every single person (representing a wide range of cultures) feels anxious and unable to properly address it. I regularly see high achievers at their breaking point, who simply keep running because they don’t know what else to do—and are too frightened or too fully on autopilot to stop. Even those who are clear on their personal purpose are often addicted to speed and flirt with burnout regularly. Needless to say, this is no way to live, nor does it bode well for organizations or society to flourish. The imperative to run slower is urgent.

(Note: I did not say stop, or be lazy. Go ahead and run – but do so at a pace you can sustain for life!)

When we learn to run slower, the outcomes are better across the board: wiser decisions, less stress, greater resilience, improved health, a stronger connection with our emotions and intuition, presence, focus, and clarity of purpose. Paradoxically, slowing down actually gives us more time, which leads to less anxiety. Slowing down enhances our productivity in ways that matter and sends burnout to the dustbin. In reality, there are many kinds of growth that can come only with rest – including the ability to see the amazing you that you’ve always been. 

Adapted from Flux: 8 Superpowers for Thriving in Constant Change

The Two Types of Imposter Syndrome, and How to Harness it for Good (by Caroline Webb)

Recently, a group of smart author friends of mine were exchanging emails where we discovered that most of us felt some degree of “imposter syndrome” – a hazy mix of feelings that we don’t deserve the success we’ve achieved, that we don’t measure up to our peers, and that there’s a chance our true shortfalls will be revealed at any moment. 

A part of me was relieved by the discussion, as we always are when we discover that others feel as we do. But a part of me simply didn’t believe them. The voice in my head was insistent that everyone else on the thread was making it up when they said they experienced imposter syndrome. The voice insisted: I’m the actual imposter. I’m the only actual imposter here.  

It wasn’t always this way. I used to think of myself as being in an “n of 1” – by which I mean in a sample size of 1, doing my own thing, with no need to compare myself to others, finding intrinsic joy and motivation in the work I did. For most of those pre-imposter years, I was a management consultant at McKinsey where I focused on behavioral change and leadership development. I built some teams, served some wonderful clients, and created many new tools and techniques. I was passionate and innovative, but I wasn’t a high-performing partner because my work was pretty small scale. And I never really felt too bad about that. I didn’t worry if someone else got praised or promoted before me, because I saw their trajectory as simply being different to mine. I realise now this was a blissful state.

Because as soon as my Good Day book came out, that quietude disappeared. I started looking over my shoulder constantly, comparing myself with every author with a public profile. I felt honored to be in the arena, and loved the chance to get my ideas to a broad audience that I would never otherwise reach through my client work. I was thrilled to have a platform to speak and teach and share. But I was suddenly much less sure of my right to do any of it. Much readier to compare myself with others, and find myself perpetually inferior and out of place. 

I’ve wrestled with that sensation ever since, and through the experience I’ve come to think that there are two types of imposter syndrome. One is good, and one is bad, and the distinction offers a clue to how we can manage it. 

Good imposter syndrome (internal)

There’s a type of discomfort that most of us feel when we’re learning something new – giving a talk for the first time, say, or taking on a new project. There’s a feeling that we’re out of our depth, and it’s entirely normal – because we are. We feel discomfort because when we do anything that we haven’t practiced many times before, it requires more effort from our brain. Every new behavior requires our brain to work harder than something that’s habitual or familiar to us, because it requires more energy to make new synaptic connections. 

This type of imposter syndrome is internally referenced. It’s driven by the feeling of the skills gap between what we want to know how to do, and what we actually know how to do right now. We’re comparing our current awkward self with our competent past self – and we see ourselves as an imposter of the future competent self that we hope to be. 

This kind of imposter syndrome is something we can work with. Practice the new skill, learn the new context, and the gap shrinks. Imposter syndrome in this case is a motivating sensation that spurs us towards learning and mastery, to better ourselves because there’s something we want to get better at. I had plenty of this productive discomfort in my former life, in retrospect. But I remember it mostly with pleasure and pride.  

Bad imposter syndrome (external)

The imposter syndrome that’s less functional is the one where we feel bad because we’re comparing ourselves with other people, rather than a past or future version of ourselves. We see a gap between who we are and what we perceive others to be good at, and we feel bad about it. It’s externally referenced, rather than internally referenced, and this social component is something that most of us are exquisitely sensitive to because feeling included and respected are sweet rewards for the average human brain. In fact, the pain of social exclusion shows up in our brains just as forcefully as physical pain. 

But we can’t work with this game of external comparison in the same way as we can with internally-referenced imposter syndrome. First of all, it’s not a gap we can ever really close. There will always be someone in the world who is better at any given task or skill than we are – we simply cannot be the best at everything. The best speaker is not the best marketer is not the best sibling.

And our assessment of the external gap is always faulty in some way, because it’s based on incomplete information. We rarely know what other these impressive people are struggling and failing at. We don’t know what others are choosing to deprioritize in order to be brilliant at the thing they’re famous for. All we see is their public face, and we measure our whole selves against their shiny best bits. 

The alchemy of good into bad

Understanding the difference between these two shades of imposter syndrome has helped me when I’m starting to hear the inner voices of doubt and self-criticism. I’ve learned that I can channel the sensation of discomfort towards a productive internal question rather than letting my mind run wild with an externalized comparison I can never measure up to. The internal dialogue is something like this:

“Aha, so you seem to be feeling bad about not being as good as that other person over there. By all means take inspiration from them! But you’re the only one living your life, balancing the priorities you care about with the constraints you manage. So, what is it that YOU really want to learn to get better at?” 

And then I try to stick to comparing my current self with my past and future selves. 

  • Past: “What have I learned? How far have I come? What is getting easier? What still feels hard?”
  • Future: “Where would I like to go further? And where do I think I’m ‘good enough,’ given my other commitments?”

With this kind of internal dialog, I find I can get closer to my earlier sense of being in a “sample of 1”, intrigued and inspired by others but measuring and comparing against myself – my goals, my priorities, my desire to learn and grow. Do I still feel like an imposter? Yes. But in a more helpful way. The only thing we can ever be the best at is being a better version of ourselves, and that’s a goal I’m happy to chase forever.

#internationalimpostersyndromeawarenessday

Five Ways To Inoculate Yourself Against Imposter Syndrome (by Chris Yeh)

I have a confession: I almost never feel imposter syndrome.

I feel like that means I should be grateful, and believe me, I am.  But that begs the question, how can I best contribute to International Imposter Syndrome Day?

It’s hard to write a consoling essay on overcoming imposter syndrome when I have so little personal experience with it.

But while I don’t experience imposter syndrome, I think the reasons behind that quirk may very well offer some clues on how others can do the same.  Perhaps I am like Dr. Edward Jenner’s milkmaids, whose cowpox infections protected them from smallpox, and from whose example a preventative treatment can be derived!

After reflecting on these issues for International Imposter Syndrome Awareness Day, I’ve concluded that there are five actions I take that shield me from these feelings.  Collectively, they act like a vaccine to boost my psychological immune system against the ever-present danger of imposter syndrome.  And best of all, they can be safely self-administered by anyone.

1) Practice absolute candor with yourself, even if you never share that assessment with anyone else

I believe that self-awareness is the foundation of protecting against imposter syndrome.  This works in several ways.  First, self-awareness allows you to avoid being thrust into situations for which you aren’t qualified.  If you are asked to deliver a speech, but your public speaking skills are shaky, you can simply decline or ask to record an address in advance.  Second, when you are thrust into a challenging situation, you can set correct expectations for yourself and the other people involved.  If all are aware of and have an accurate sense of the challenge you face, you won’t fret that you’ll disappoint them.  Finally, events suggest that you might have overestimated your own abilities, the willingness to practice absolute candor will allow you to adjust your estimates.  That won’t save you from that uncomfortable feeling of being in over your head in the moment, but it will allow you to feel the comfort of taking action to head off such feelings in the future.

I generally don’t react strongly to others’ criticism of me because I’ve already critiqued myself, and how others see me is rarely a negative surprise.

2) Don’t claim to be more, better, or different than you are

Far too many people get caught up in the pursuit of status.  Attempting to impress people by claiming to be more, better, or otherwise different than you truly are is a recipe for feeling imposter syndrome.  I’ve seen people work themselves into knots trying to cover up the dissonance between their self-presentation and reality.  Not only is this stressful, it rarely works.  Besides, if you’re a caring and empathetic person, higher status just brings a greater sense of responsibility, as opposed to the sociopathic glee of feeling like you’re better than someone else.

After the Dot Com crash, when many people were out of work, a lot of the people I met were careful to call themselves consultants or advisors.  I had a simpler approach–when people asked, “What do you do?” I would reply, “I’m currently an unemployed bum.  Though I expect that will change.”

3) If you want to add to or improve your capabilities, work at it

Sometimes, I decide that my knowledge or experience is lacking in an important area.  The key is not to resist this realization, but rather to embrace it, and then devise and execute a plan to correct the situation.  This is a far healthier and productive approach than the all-too-common one of simply devaluing or deprecating the area in which you believe you’re deficient.

For example, for a long time, I viewed Web3 with distrust.  I didn’t understand its intricacies, and my distaste for the hucksters of the industry led me to simply ignore the topic.  But as it has gained momentum, I’ve decided that despite the obvious flaws with technology, business model, and character of many of the participants in the field, that it was likely important enough to justify the effort to learn more.

I seek out conversations with people who I think are smart, and who have gotten involved in the industry, looking to understand rather than dismiss the phenomenon.  As a result, I’ve learned 100X as much about the field in the past six months as I had in all the time prior to deciding to learn about it.

4) Embrace opportunities to test your abilities

People whose confidence in their abilities might avoid tests of those abilities, for fear of learning that their self-assessment was too rosy, or giving others evidence to that effect.  But this is precisely the wrong approach, because avoiding these tests prevents you from learning more or improving your abilities, and from increasing the accuracy of your self-assessment.

When I do something that tests my abilities, like when I started giving virtual talks about how I recommended entrepreneurs react to the Covid-19 pandemic back in April of 2020, I do so knowing that I might not like what I learn about my capabilities.  But I view those tests as a win-win.  Either I am able to increase my confidence in new abilities based on positive feedback, or I am able to identify a learning opportunity based on negative feedback.  Both of these outcomes are better than remaining uncertain.

5) Decide whose opinions actually matter to you, and focus on them

I frequently quote the great modern philosopher Taylor Swift, who wrote, “And the haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate.”  Her words reflect an important truth: Others’ negative opinions may have little to do with the actual facts, and may be largely or completely irrelevant to how you live your life.

Far too many of us seek the approval of others whose opinions shouldn’t matter to us.  When you read comments on your tweets, reels, stories, or other posts, you likely react to negative comments even when they come from perfect strangers or the clearly ignorant.

The only opinions that matter come from people whose judgment you respect and whose good opinion is relevant to your daily life.  And even then, those people can be wrong.

Others’ opinions are a tool; they are only a means to achieving the ends that you decide matter, and you can just as easily decide to ignore any opinions that are inaccurate or unhelpful.

Conclusion

Imposter syndrome is very real.  Nearly everyone feels it at some point in their lives, and sadly, it is more likely to affect people who are subject to other biases and discrimination.

Of course we should seek to correct these structural and societal issues.  But each of us can also inoculate ourselves against imposter syndrome by focusing on what is actually true and meaningful, and eschewing the temptation to indulge in alternative facts through hucksterism and status games.

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