Before you read – 1: I wrote this from the ‘syndrome’ angle. I draw many parallels between this and a ‘real’ disease. Of course, imposter syndrome is not a serious illness. Please remember these parallels are for demonstration and rhetoric purposes.
Before you read – 2: I made a joke in the title. I am funny. Thank you.
Imposter syndrome seems to be common in the entrepreneurial world. I can, of course, only account for my experience and that of the people around me; but it seems to be.
I have over 10 years of experience dealing with imposter syndrome. In this post, I want to share my thoughts on:
- What the imposter syndrome is (and how it affects me)
- How to deal with it
- Why it’s not such a big deal
- How to find the right balance
What is the imposter syndrome?
The imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that leads people to believe they are not qualified or competent in a particular domain, though the evidence of their accomplishment in said domain proves otherwise.
For most people suffering from it, it is a fear of being called out as a liar, as a fraud, by (presumably more qualified) peers. For others, it is a completely internal process.
On a personal level, as a university dropout, I have been dealing with imposter syndrome my entire adult life.
When I first got decent at playing poker, after spending months sharing my (sometimes controversial) opinion on public forums, a leading French poker training website reached out to me and asked me to produce training videos. These weren’t videos for beginners. These were videos for ‘people like me’, advanced content where I would dissect my plays, on record, for tens of thousands of people I felt were way more qualified than I was.
When I started learning to trade the Forex market, I translated the entirety of my English training course into French, started a satellite site for it. This allowed me to learn by teaching, something I found to be a powerful catalyser for me. Though I wasn’t actually sharing my own knowledge (I was translating content from someone with 10+ years experience), I still feel odd ‘teaching’ it. This feeling stayed for the following few years doing this.
Today, I run the marketing and acquisition side of a company leading the tech trend of 2018. I sit in meetings with executives from giant companies, advise them on where to take their companies for the next decade, and close 6-figure deals on a regular basis. More often than not, I get home and think ‘how the f@#k did I get here?’.
Even writing this blog post makes me cringe slightly. Who am I to talk about this topic? Not a leading psychologist. Not an expert in any way whatsoever. Someone is going to read this, point something out, and drop a comment to tell me how stupid I am to write this article without the proper knowledge.
How the imposter syndrome affects us
This syndrome affects people in different ways. I am, again, only going to talk about my personal experience. I have seen the imposter syndrome affect people in three different ways.
1) The public fraud
This person’s biggest fear is being called out in public. Actually, their biggest fear is making an innocent mistake and being called out for it. It’s ultra common in the tech space, and I have noticed it a lot in my time as a poker ‘teacher/mentor’.
It seems more prominent when the individual shares something that involves both a technical approach and a dash of personal opinion. I have seen crazy smart people be afraid of sharing their thoughts/opinion for fear of misplacing a word.
The ‘public’ part of this one is important. I think, for these people, this is the main drive behind their fear. It’s not about not believing in themselves or the amazing work they do. It’s about the fear of having missed something so obvious in their public statement that they’ll get called out for it.
Imagine a skilled developer suffering this type of imposter syndrome, sharing a screenshot of her code on Twitter. Her thinking goes:
‘What if I made a mistake in my code and someone sees it? Surely they’ll call me out for it. Then they’ll go on my profile and see where I work and think I’m a fraud. Then they’ll scout my other posts to find more mistakes. Then they’ll comment about it and ridicule me publicly. What if they talk to my boss/colleagues?
Better not hit send on this tweet after all.’
Sounds somewhat familiar? If so, you’re not alone.
2) The shrugger
This type of person constantly downplays their achievement. To them, they’ve never achieved anything and thus feel like they don’t deserve to be where they are. Whatever they do, whatever they achieve, they always shrug it off.
‘It must have been luck.’
‘It wasn’t my doing, it was Julie in accounting who knows the client’s brother’s pet sitter’s hairdresser’s mom who most likely got us the contract.’
‘They had to promote me, there was no one else to take the job.’
This person is unimpressed by his own capabilities. By constantly referring any success as something external to his control, he never gets the confidence to believe in what he does. And thus, feels like an imposter.
This is me, today.
I often feel like this. I’ll come back from successful meetings and completely shrug it off. Family members, friends, girlfriend; they’ll all congratulate me and I will still shrug it off.
3) The easy-peasy high achiever
This type of person lives in the fear of not knowing. Again, from my experience, this is fairly common in the tech space. This person needs to have an answer to everything, know everything there is to know about his or her sector.
Of course, imposter syndrome hides behind this need. This type of person never feels like they deserve to be there, and the only fix they found is to learn more about what they do. The more they learn, the more they feel like they can ‘fake’ it.
All in the spectrum
There are many more ways in which a particular person can feel inadequate in their position. This article exposes a few more if you are interested.
In my experience, people who experience this syndrome land somewhere in the spectrum. Though they experience parts of the other types, they’ll often identify to one of the above. Myself, for example, don’t feel much like a public fraud but sort of identify to the easy-peasy high achiever on top of being a shrugger.
(I completely made these names up btw.)
I have a backlog of stuff I want to read to educate myself, filling that hole my imposter syndrome is leaving behind, to prove it.
I use Evernote to log any article I find on a topic I want learn about, tagging them as ‘Read’.
Wherever you land, if you feel like an imposter, the section below will help you. These are my seven go-to anti-imposter-syndrome pro tips.
Seven ways to deal with imposter syndrome
I am nowhere near ‘cured’ from imposter syndrome. I have, however, found seven ways to remind myself that I’m just being silly.
Take one, two, or all seven of these and run with them. Some are more important than others. Let me know which ones work for you.
You’re just stepping out
99% of the time you will experience imposter syndrome because you are stepping outside of your comfort zone. That’s a good thing.
Whether it is a new promotion, launching a new product, writing a book, doing a presentation; if you feel slightly out of place, you’re doing it right.
Stepping outside of your comfort zone is what makes you grow. Ironically, it’s also most likely what got you there. Every single step you took until this very moment was most certainly outside of a previous comfort zone. Today’s comfort zone comes from yesterday’s step. Keep going.
It’s ok to be wrong
Almost a direct corollary from the point above: it’s ok to be wrong. Most ‘public fraud’ types are terrified of stepping out of their comfort zone, make a mistake and somehow get exposed to the world. I want to hug them Robin Williams style and tell them it’s ok.
The reality is people make mistakes. All the time. Should you make one, you won’t be the first nor the last. If you make one, you fix it, learn and move on.
Want to know the even dirtier little secret? No one will care. Unless you’re Elon Musk saying the most powerful car engine of the future will run on marshmallows and hot chocolate on live television, no one will care.
Do that thing that scares you.
Talk to your spouse/partner
Big one for me. If there is one person who can talk me out of shrugging every single achievement, it is my girlfriend. She’ll point out how silly I am for not believing in myself. She’ll list out the things I have done.
She’ll set the record straight.
Admittedly, this may not work for every type of imposter syndrome out there. But, if you are like me, give this a shot. Talk to your partner. They know you best and are probably your biggest fan.
Talk to knowledgeable people
Do you have friends in your community? Do you know people who can relate to what you do, understand your positions, understand your work?
Time to talk to them.
Feeling like an imposter is most often the result of too much time spent in your own head. People around you, friends at the office, colleagues in your field, will take you out of your own head. And the beauty is, when they tell you you deserve to be where you are, you can’t argue with them.
Your spouse may sugarcoat stuff for you because (s)he loves you. Your colleague, probably not. I did this all the time when I started coaching in poker. I had two very close friends who I trusted and were very good at the game. I’d constantly go to them.
Take a giant step back
Feel like you don’t deserve to be where you are? Chances are you do, you’re just shortsighted.
Pause and take a step back. What got you there? Like I said earlier, there’s a high chance you got there little by little, small achievement after small achievement. You didn’t inherit this wonderful position where all the sudden you feel out of place. You worked your way up there.
If you feel like you don’t belong, if you feel like you need to overcompensate, if you’re afraid of being called out, just pause and remember. You got there for a reason.
Frauds get called out
Ironically, your biggest fear may be your biggest ally.
News flash: frauds get called out and don’t last. If you truly were a fraud, if really you didn’t belong, you wouldn’t have lasted as long as you have. People aren’t stupid. Your boss is not an idiot. Your team isn’t packed with imbeciles. You’re not this superb and incredible fraudulent butterfly that managed to fly through all the nets and land this promotion/job/contract.
You know your shit. You’re there for a reason. If you were a fraud, you would have been called out ages ago. Remember, you took steps to get to where you are. If at any point you truly stepped into fraud territory, people would have called you out.
Cheer up, you’re surrounded by smart people who think you are too. Congrats!
It means success
I saved the best for last. Do you want to know why you’re having imposter syndrome? *drumrolls* Because you are being successful. It is success that drives this feeling of doubt.
You’re feeling out of place because you’re moving forward.
You’re feeling scared of being called out because holy shit look at this MASSIVE PROJECT your boss put you in charge of.
You’re downplaying your involvement in acquiring this major contract because you freakin’ acquired it. You were there every step of the way. They’re a new client because of you. The only reason you’re even thinking about it right now is because you were so majorly involved in bringing them in. And, by the way, what about all these other contracts you brought in? Did you just happen to be in the right room at the right time again? Of course not, you doofus.
You’re afraid of sharing your thoughts publicly because you have knowledge to share. You’ve learned enough about something in your field to have an opinion, to have something to say about it. You care enough to share.
Expanding your circle of uncomfortableness
Imposter syndrome is not something you need to ‘cure’. It is something you need to understand.
If it keeps you from doing the things you want to do, notice it and use one of the tricks above to fight back. If it keeps you from celebrating wins, notice it and fight back. If it keeps you awake at night thinking you don’t know enough just yet, notice it and fight back.
I’m going to end this post on an interesting phrasing I heard. I am super sorry I don’t remember who said it. I have a feeling it came from a recent Tim Ferriss podcast. If anyone knows, please drop a comment and I’ll give credit.
This person (think it was a man) felt like the only way to move forward in life is by expanding their circle of uncomfortableness. Screw staying in his comfort zone. The wider he expands this circle, the better he feels about himself.
This triggered something in the back of my imposter syndrome mind. He’s right. We only move forward by reaching for the new, growing outside of what we know and have mastered into the unknown.
So, next time you feel like an imposter, out of place, out of your depth; do a mind shift. You’re not a fraud. You’re expanding your circle of uncomfortableness.