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.
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.
This essay is part of the Silicon Guild project to honor International Imposter Syndrome Awareness Day. You can read what my fellow Silicon Guild members had to say here or at the links below:
Scott describes how he learned to be comfortable with discomfort and balance confidence in his abilities with a foundational humility.
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.
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.
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.
Caroline writes about how becoming a well-known 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.
#NotAnImposter #IISAD2022 #ImposterSyndrome
To find out more about International Imposter Syndrome Awareness Day and how you can get involved, visit http://iisad.org