Impostor Syndrome

A few months ago I learned about a psychological term that explained a lot about the way I think and when talking with the people around me, I found I wasn’t in the minority.

The term I found is Impostor Syndrome which is "a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts his or her accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a 'fraud’. Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve all they have achieved. Individuals with impostorism incorrectly attribute their success to luck, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be."

Sound familiar? No? Ok, there are some other posts here. Oh, it does? Then keep reading.

In doing research on this I found multiple Ted Talks on the topic, but the one that stuck out to me the most was one given at TEDxSydney by Mike Cannon-Brookes, an Australian billionaire and the co-founder and co-CEO of the software company Atlassian. 

He talks about how despite his tremendous success he still feels like he’s in way over his head. He even states how he feels like an impostor in his own marriage. He tells the hilarious story about when he met his wife she mistook him for someone else and how, in this case, he actually was an impostor.

However, the part that stuck out to me most was when he gives the story about him winning multiple entrepreneur awards (some he was so sure he wouldn’t win that he didn’t even show up for, but did, in fact, end up winning), all the way up to representing Australia in the World Entrepreneur of the Year. 

He goes on to talk about how he was sitting next to the winner from Portugal, a 65-year-old man who had been running his business for 40 years. Brookes admitted to him that he felt like he didn’t deserve to be there and at some point, someone would find out and send him home. The man looked at him and admitted that he felt the very same thing and he suspected all the winners here were feeling that way as well. He encouraged Brookes, telling them they’re obviously doing something right, so keep going.

Why is it that even the people we would deem successful still feel this way sometimes? One reason impostor syndrome is so pervasive is that we know ourselves better than anyone else. We know our weaknesses, shortcomings and not-so-great tendencies. We wonder how we could ever deserve to be in any position of importance with so many imperfections under our belt. 

This is a dangerous thought pattern because it causes us to not want to take on reasonability of any kind due to the possibility of screwing up and the thought that we shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place will become true. We tell ourselves we don’t deserve a certain promotion so why even ask when we barely deserve the spot we’re in now?

So what can be done about this? It’s clear that a lot of people struggle with this and it’s also clear how much this thinking can stunt your growth as a person. There are two questions that I find that help to combat Impostor Syndrome. 

The first is “did I do anything wrong to get to where I am?”. Did I cheat my way to the top? Did I lie in any way to make it seem like I was a better fit for the position than I actually am?

If so, then you might actually not belong. I’m not saying all is lost. I’m just saying you may actually have cause for worry and you’ll need to right some wrongs, whether it be coming clean or working twice as hard as everyone else on your team. 

This is why a lot of companies are starting to look past certifications. One is because they’re gonna have to train you despite what your degree is, but the other is that the kids who cheated their way through school or took another easy route are actually terrible employees. Who would’ve thought?

The second question is “Do I have the ability to do what’s required of me?”. Can you actually do the day-to-day tasks? If you can answer both of these questions, then who cares how old you are or what certifications you have. You might actually have lucked into the position, but who cares if you didn’t do anything wrong and can complete the tasks given to you?

I think there are a lot more people struggling with this than we think. Bosses, professors, CEOs aren’t born with their titles. At one point or another, they woke up to the first day of their position and thought to themselves “How did I get here? Do I actually have what it takes to maintain this position?”

One last point I would add is that sometimes you don’t know that answer to that second question until you actually try. That’s where taking risks, failing/succeeding, and growing comes into play. More on that here.