I remember being at an affluent party many years ago. Having not “achieved” much by that point (or even now for that matter), I remember at the time feeling somewhat inadequate even though I held my own. I had this feeling that came from an acquaintance, subtly reminding me of some of the successes of people at the table (or their children who were absent, but nonetheless happen to be over-achievers), while implying it was a privilege for me to be there and as if to say I didn’t have any “accomplishments” of my own. The underlying idea was if you weren’t “successful”, you didn’t belong at the table. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but come to think of it now, it made complete sense. Even if I didn’t feel like an impostor, I sure was made to feel like one.
I am not the only one who feels this way. Writer Neil Gaiman recounts a story of being invited to a gathering of artists, scientists, writers, and discoverers of things. He felt that it wouldn’t take long for others to realize he wasn’t “qualified” to be there. There, he met another elderly gentleman with the same name. At one point in the conversation, this man pointed to the people at the gathering and said something to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They have made amazing things. I just went where I was sent”. If Neil Armstrong felt like an impostor, maybe it was okay for others to feel that way too?!
Tom Hanks, the American actor, couldn’t have described it better:
I have been alone in a lot of hotel rooms around the world for long periods of time in which I know I have to get up in the morning and create something that I may have an instinctive ability to do or may fail miserably at.
The other one is I think something that is real to all of this – the shark terror of a loss of confidence in ourselves. No matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think how did I get here and am I going to be able to continue this? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me? It’s a high-wire act that we all walk, and I do this in the work that I do because there are days when I know that 3 o’clock in the – tomorrow afternoon, I am going to have to deliver some degree of emotional goods. And if I can’t do it, that means I’m going to have to fake it. And if I fake it, that means they may catch me at faking it. And if they catch me at faking it – well, then it’s just doomsday.
So what is the impostor syndrome and why do we experience it? Put simply, it’s this nagging feeling that you’re not good enough, that you don’t belong, that you don’t deserve the job, the promotion, the book deal, the seat at the table, or what have you. It’s when we doubt our own successes and have this constant fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Despite having evidence for the contrary, we are convinced we’re impostors and feel we don’t deserve what we have achieved thus far. We may even ascribe our achievements to luck or think of it as deceiving others into thinking that we are more intelligent than we actually are.
I had this fear for the longest time, and I didn’t even know I had it at the time. When I started taking on consulting work, I was “afraid” to have conversations with prospects on the phone, to meet with them in person to discuss the objectives they were trying to meet, whilst fully knowing that I could help them. I was afraid for fear of making a mistake as to how I would be perceived. I was afraid I wouldn’t measure up to these people.
Of course, I did my best to hide my nervousness at the time, but I was afraid nonetheless. Maybe it was partly because I felt like an impostor. Here I was, coaching highly successful individuals to reach their objectives, while at the same time worrying that I’d be “found out”. Of course, looking back at it, it’s the most irrational fear in the world (but a fear nonetheless). Unless you learn to deal with it quickly, it will thwart your progress.
The root of the impostor syndrome comes from wrongly thinking about what others are really like. We feel like impostors not because we are flawed, but because we fail to imagine how deeply flawed everyone else must be as well. We know ourselves from the inside, but we know others only from the outside. We are aware of our doubts, fears, and anxieties, yet we only know of others what they choose to say or do (or show us on Instagram), which is a far more narrow view of things. We fail to imagine that others are every bit as disturbed, anxious, or insecure as we might be.
It’s this voice in our head that questions your ability to do things. It doesn’t want us to be “rejected”, so it likes us to play it safe. It loves to maintain the status quo — maybe it even revels in it. It’s one reason why we (business owners) might charge less for our services than we would otherwise. It’s not the clients’ fault, but a result of our self-esteem (or lack thereof). It’s a lack of self-worth.
For example, let’s take the fear of being an impostor. We fear being “found out” by others because we think we are not good enough, which causes us to lose faith in our own abilities. We end up losing self-confidence and don’t believe in our own self-worth (because we have low self-esteem).
The other thing is we tend to take our strengths for granted. When we have an aptitude for something, we tend to discount its value. We mistakenly think that because we can do something well, others can do it too. It’s the curse of knowledge. We don’t know what it’s like to not know something. If you show up and do the work every day, at some point, you are likely to get good at it. As a result, it will seem easy and natural to you, and isn’t that the point? Watch Roger Federer play and you will see how he makes it look so easy, but it’s anything but. It’s a sign of greatness that comes with lots of effort and complexity behind it.
Here’s what Seth Godin said about doing work that matters:
Of course you feel like an impostor. If you are doing work that matters, you are an impostor. You can’t certify that you’ve done this exact thing before and it’s guaranteed to work. You can’t, so because you’re a good person and an honest person inside you feel like a fraud because you’re acting as if, because you’re describing a future that isn’t here yet and if you’re not feeling like an impostor I would argue you are not working hard enough.
Here’s how to live with it. We need to take a leap of faith that others’ minds work in the same way ours does. Realize that everyone is just as anxious as us and deals with the same fears. We are not alone. Others are just like us.
We have to live with the fact that it won’t ever go away. That’s okay, as long as you don’t let it stop you from doing work that matters. The best thing you can do is acknowledge it and move on without letting it paralyze you into fear.
Working on your self-esteem should be a daily endeavor. For instance, if you don’t believe in yourself, no one will, but that’s easier said than done. We may have the skills to do something, but without having the self-esteem to accompany it, we won’t get far. That’s when you think you may appear to be good at this, but you feel you would be “found out”. Skills can be taught, but developing self-esteem requires coaching. Of course, the single biggest contributor to low self-esteem is a lack of trust in our own judgement. When faced with ambiguity, we would rather trust others than ourselves. Besides, it’s easier to follow the herd by default due to normative pressure.
I’d be amiss if I didn’t briefly touch on the flip side of the argument. There are times when you are an impostor because you lack the skills to do the work. In those cases, working on self-esteem without having the required skills would be crazy-making and delusional. You should get the impostor syndrome when you’re being phony.
It doesn’t matter if you’re doing something for the first time or for the umpteenth time — no one is immune to the feeling of being an impostor. We just have to figure out how to deal with it in different ways.
One would think after writing all these years, it would be easy for me to put out these drafts every week, but honestly, it’s an ongoing battle. It sure might look easy on the outside, but it’s anything but.
The truth of the matter is this feeling never really goes away. It’s a sign that we are doing something right. The best we can do is to acknowledge its presence and continue to do the work anyway. In fact, if you are not feeling like an impostor, you are probably not working hard enough.