The first time I recall the feeling of impostor syndrome was just a couple years into my career. I had a boss who was very talented, he knew everything about our company’s products. As part of my job I had to demo our product to investors and prospective customers after he did the main presentation and pitch. Because I’d done the demo so many times, I felt relatively confident doing it. But impostor syndrome reared its head every time during the question period.
As you’d expect the audience would have many questions about the company and the product after seeing the presentation and demo. And while I knew the answers to many of them, I could rarely summon the confidence to actually respond. I just couldn’t pull the trigger. Even though I knew the answers, I also knew my boss could definitely answer them better than I could. He knew everything. No matter how well I answered, surely he could answer with more detail and finesse. So, I passed, and I passed, and I let him answer over and over again until one day he pulled me aside and asked me why I thought I should be in these meetings if I wasn’t going to add value in the question period. Ouch.
That was a defining moment in my career. I felt like an impostor. Like, why would anyone want to hear my perspective when they could just hear his instead? What if I got the questions wrong? What if everyone realized I was too inexperienced and underqualified to be in these high-profile meetings? My insecurities paralyzed me. Sadly, there wasn’t a short term happy ending to this story. I stopped getting invited to participate in as many customer and investor calls. I had let my fear of being discovered as an impostor manifest into the very thing I was afraid of. I learned a hard lesson.
Many years have passed since this sad tale and I’m happy to report I’ve most of the fears I once had. Through trial and failure and experience I learned a set of strategies and mindset queues that have been effective at calming and controlling the feelings of impostor syndrome that paralyzed me early in my career.
Here are three that I use to this day.
“Nobody Else Knows What They’re Doing Either”
This may sound a bit blunt, but I have found it to be a very helpful mantra. Many of us walk through our careers assuming (falsely) that everyone around us has it all figured out. They look so poised. They seem so sure of themselves. They speak with such confidence. It’s easy to trick yourself into believing you’re an impostor and everyone else is a well-qualified professional. It’s an aberration.
The truth: We are all neophytes. Most people at your company are as unsure of themselves as you are. And a good percentage of those who appear to be extremely confident are actually overconfident or not self-aware. My advice to people afflicted with impostor syndrome is to remind yourself that none of us has it figured out. Real confidence isn’t believing you know everything, its knowing enough to know you must be in a constant state of learning. If you approach your career with that mindset, and with the security of knowing most of the people around you are equally as unsure as you are, it will help you pull the trigger where I could not.
Don’t Fake it til You Make it - Learn it While You Earn it
With every year of experience I gain, the questions I ask in meetings get more basic. I vividly recall being too afraid to ask questions early in my career for fear I would out myself as an impostor. Specifically, questions that might reveal a lack of basic understanding. I would rather not know the answer than risk looking stupid. The irony was, as time passed, those basic questions, which would have been ok to ask a couple months into the job, became legitimately embarrassing to ask a year into the job. Again, I manifested the very thing I was so fearful of.
Fast forward almost 20 years and I will very confidently ask the most basic, neophyte questions you can imagine. I probably say, “I don’t understand” more than anyone I know. I have reached a point where I have zero fear of people thinking I’m not smart or qualified. My only fear at this point, is that I will make mistakes from acting without understanding. So, I ask. I always ask. I ask “dumb” questions”. You should too. Expertise is a perishable resource in the fast-paced workplace we operate in. It’s also renewable. But only if you are confident enough to ask questions and to make learning and understanding a priority over posing and posturing.
Develop and Trust Core Principles
The world is changing so quickly. Technologies change, corporate dynamics change, product offerings shift, industries move. Even if you know something today, there is no guarantee it will be valid tomorrow. In fact, getting locked into a rigid mindset or process is very dangerous to your career. In the current career climate, the winners are the agile and creative thinkers, not the dogmatic so-called experts. Being aware of this reality places a premium on learning how to think about problems and discounts the value of knowing any given answer in a moment in time.
My career has been buoyed by developing a set of principles, a model for evaluating problems, building programs and communicating with people around me. I have found these basic principles will hold true even as everything in my environment is in flux. Having these well tested principles gives me confidence even when I am a complete newbie in the field or problem area I’m immersed in. I may not know anything about an industry or a product or a competitor, but I do know about to think about a problem. I do know how to model a solution. I do know how to execute a program and communicate with a team. When you pair these core principles with a commitment to continuous learning, you have a powerful arsenal that applies to just about any business situation.
My advice is to start building your core models and principles. They will be a great comfort to you. Once you have them in place, you’ll feel much more confident and much less like an impostor.
Many of us have walk through our careers assuming (incorrectly) that everyone else knows what they’re doing. We fear at any minute, we’ll be outed as a fraud. We expend energy and emotion worrying about what might happen if we are faced with a challenge we don’t understand. We fear what will happen if we are embarrassed by a mistake we should be able to foresee. And so, we avoid new challenges, we operate too conservatively and we miss out on valuable opportunities for growth.
I help coaching clients understand and manage impostor syndrome all the time. If you think you’re the only one dealing with this problem, you’re wrong. Many highly successful executives have done battle with it. For those of you this resonates with, I hope these strategies were helpful.