Across my career, I have met countless people who have struggled with Imposter Syndrome.
For those of you not up on the lingo, Imposter Syndrome is when people feel they are not experienced, qualified, or talented enough to be in the position they are in (such as a new role in a company). Typically the sensation is a feeling of “well, it is only a matter of time until people find out that I suck at this and then I will be out on my ear”. Hence the “Imposter” in Imposter syndrome.
For a long time, people far smarter than me thought this to be a condition that primarily affected high-performing women, but since then it has been connected to men, women, trans, and other demographics. It is unsurprisingly a condition that can especially affect those in minorities and people of color.
Here’s the deal: Imposter Syndrome is really common, but a lot of people simply don’t talk about it.
Why? Well, it takes a strong person to climb up the ladder in their career and openly show signs of weakness. Many a presentation slide has been peppered with inspirational blatherings of “true leaders share their vulnerabilities”, but few leaders actually have the confidence to do this. I promise you that many of the C-level execs, SVPs, and VPs in your company struggle with Imposter Syndrome, particularly those who are new in their positions or first-timers at that level.
Imposter Syndrome is not just common, but it is entirely normal.
Firstly, our brains are hard-wired to look for threats in our environment and to actively perform loss prevention. We are also wired to care about status and our social standing in our groups. This milieu of status, social positioning, and risk can generate this unstable “imposter” feeling many people often report.
I sympathize with people who experience Imposter Syndrome because I have experienced myself too.
When I think back to many of the key milestones in my life…my first published piece, my first real job, my first book, my first time as a manager, getting married, having a kid, playing my first shows in my band, starting my business…there was always an element of Imposter Syndrome gift-wrapped within these moments. It took me some time to understand that this was entirely normal and I needed to turn it from a negative into a net positive.
So, how do you kick it?
OK, hold your horses. We need to get two things straight:
- I am not a doctor. If you take medical or psychological advice from me, you need to stop doing that.
- You will never 100% get rid of it. You need to focus on managing it.
Imposter Syndrome is similar to anxiety in many ways. People who experience anxiety often want to figure out a way to completely eradicate that awful feeling from their lives. As many therapists and mindfulness professionals will attest though: you can’t really get rid of it, you just need to change your relationship with it.
I am not an expert here, and I will naturally have a very different relationship to Imposter Syndrome than many underrepresented groups, but here are five ways I have found to be effective in not just me, but many others too.
1. Measure yourself and your performance
The root cause of Imposter Syndrome is usually a feeling. It is typically a sensation of not measuring up as opposed to a concrete data-driven conclusion. Here’s the thing: feelings are noxiously bollocks in terms of reliability.
So, become more data-driven. How would you define success in your career? Is it how much product you sell? Is it engagement on social media and your blog? Is it managing a team well? Is it shipping reliable code? Is it writing great documentation? Define an objective set of metrics for how you define success and get a sanity check on them from friends and colleagues.
Pick five to seven of these metrics and start measuring your work. Don’t set unrealistic goals, but focus on growth and development. Can you keep growing in those areas?
For example, if you are marketer, you may consider traffic growth to a website as a key metric for your profession. Are you generally seeing the trend moving forward? Yes? Great! No? No problem, what new approaches can you explore to move the needle? There is always a wealth of ideas and approaches available online…go and explore and try some new things.
Being great at your job is not just about delivering results, but it is about always learning and growing, and being humble that we are eternal students. Track your progress: it will help to show in black and white that you are growing and developing.
2. Get objective validation from your peers
It is astonishing how poor some managers are at providing validation to their teams. Some people seem to think that their teams should “know” when they are doing a great job or that managers don’t need to provide validation.
I don’t care whether you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or Thomas from my local bar: everyone needs to know they are on the right track. We all seek validation from our friends, family, colleagues, associates, and more. Not getting the right level of validation can be a critical source of Imposter Syndrome issues.
I remember I once had a manager who was terrible at providing validation and I had no idea whether he thought I was any good or not.
My colleague (and good friend) said, “don’t go down that dark alleyway, it is pit of self-doubt”. He suggested I raise my concern with our manager, which I did, and he had no idea this was an issue. He did a much better job providing feedback for both great work and areas of improvement, and my concerns were abated significantly.
Talk it through with your manager and colleagues. Tell them you are not needy, but you need to ensure your perception of your work is calibrated with theirs. This is part of getting good at what you do, and good managers need to provide good validation.
3. Build a team of mentors around you
I remember when I first moved to America, my wife Erica always stunned me. If she wasn’t sure of a given strategic or tactical move in her business, she would call other people in the industry to ask for their input and guidance.
I was amazed. Back then, rather embarrassingly, I almost never asked for advice. It wasn’t that I wasn’t receptive, but I just didn’t think to reach out. It never struck me that this was an option. She helped change that into a healthy habit.
Many of the world's problems have been figured out by other people. These solutions live in (a) their heads, and (b) the books they write. Why on earth wouldn’t we tap this experience and learn from it?
Mentoring is enormously powerful. It doesn’t just grow our skills, but it is a valuable feedback mechanism for ensuring we are on the right path. Try to find people you know and respect and ask them for a few calls here and there. Don’t just limit yourself to one mentor: build a team that can mentor you in different skills.
I absolutely love mentoring people: it is part of the reason I starting consulting and being an advisor. It is awesome to help shape and watch people grow and affirm their progress as they do it. We all need mentors.
4. Set yourself some more realistic expectations
Many of you reading this will be really driven about being successful in your career and doing a good job. This is admirable, but there is a risk: becoming a ludicrously unrealistic perfectionist. This is a sure-fire way to get a dose of heartburn.
Life isn’t perfect. You are going to screw up. You are going to make mistakes. You are going to develop new ideas you wish you had years back. You are going to use approaches and methods that are a distraction or don’t work.
This is normal. You weren’t born perfect at what you do. No-one was. Every one of us is learning and growing, but as I said earlier, many people simply don’t talk about it. There is not a single person, even well-known hotshots such as Elon Musk, Sheryl Sandberg, George Clooney, and Neil Degrasse Tyson, who hasn’t made significant errors of judgment or mistakes over the course of their career. Why should you be any different?
Take a step back and re-evaluate your position. Do you think your colleagues are really expecting perfection from you? Do you think they are expecting you to be rock solid at your job all the time? Do they have the same expectations for themselves? Probably not.
We should focus on always growing and evolving, but on a foundation that we are all imperfect human beings.
5. Don’t take yourself so seriously
This is for me personally, the most critical of these suggestions, but again something we all struggle with.
I don’t believe life should be one-dimensional. I absolutely love my job, but I love being a dad and husband. I love playing music and going to gigs. I love going for a few beers with my buddies at my local. I love laughing at stand-up comedy, movies, and TV shows.
I get enormous enjoyment from my career, but it is one component in my life, not the only one. Are some people going to think I am imperfect? Sure, that’s fine. I am imperfect.
I am fairly convinced a big chunk of figuring out the right balance in life is knowing when to give a shit or not to. Focus on doing great work, building great relationships, and being an honorable and civil person: those are the most important things. Don’t focus on a 100% success rate in everything in your career: it not only isn’t possible, but it will take important mental energy from other elements of your life too.
Well, I hope some of this was useful. If you thought this was interesting, you may also want to check out 10 Avoidable Career Mistakes (and How to Conquer Them) and my Remote Working Survival Guide.