.. and if you have it yourself, you can "learn your way out of it".
Michelle Obama talks openly about having the imposter syndrome, and that "it never goes away".
Maya Angelou said “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’ “
Actually, a lot of women have come out talking about their imposter syndrome. I don't think it's only an issue for women though. Just that men shy away from talking about it.
Here's the TL;DR for the impatient ones:
- my career (so far) took me across countries, in a large company and a couple VC-funded startups, from Director, VP, to Managing Director. Then I became an entrepreneur, founded my own startup, sold it. Now working on my 2nd and involved in a 3rd.
- I experienced the imposter syndrome every step of the way.
- my solution to get rid of the imposter syndrome is to learn and get better.
- the more and quicker I learn, the faster it disappears.
- I see now the imposter syndrome as a main reason for my career progression.
- and it helps me to see through some people in high position, and understand what they must feel at times.
The long version
For the patient ones, here is the long version:
If you are suffering from imposter syndrome, you are not alone.
More people than you think suffer from it.
What is the imposter syndrome?
From Wikipedia: "Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a "fraud". Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve all they have achieved."
It leads, at varying degrees, to anxiety, doubting one’s achievements, frustration and low self-esteem.
From promoting people in new roles, to mentoring people (including founders and new leaders), I learned that imposter syndrome is more widespread than one might think.
I have it - changing constantly roles (via promotions or founding companies), industries and countries.
I know how it feels to be asking oneself if we deserve the role we have - be it as employee or founder.
When you climb the career ladder, move industry, country or role, voluntarily or not, the imposter syndrome can happen more and more.
You are asked to do things you have not done before.
Or your environment changes drastically - with new people around you who do not know who you are, and your experience level having taken a hit.
Examples and learnings from my own life
Let me share with you a couple stories from my own life, where I had the imposter syndrome.
Let it not fool you though - I did not want this to become a fully fleshed biography, so only picked these examples. The imposter syndrome accompanied me each step of the way throughout my career.
Imposter Syndrome on the shop floor
I started in my first real job a few days shy of my 18th birthday.
Salesperson on a shop floor in a popular chain of brown goods (selling TVs, radios, mobile phones, etc..) in Paris.
It was a commission-based job, where you could read the code of an article on the shelf and know how much commission you would make selling it*. 3 products priced the same might have different commissions.
On the 1st day, I was given a bright red uniform, with a white shirt, striped tie and a name tag (if you're French, you probably know where I was). Yes, I looked as ridiculous as you probably think!
I asked about the training.
"No training, the guys on the floor will show you".
And while they were all (well, most) very nice, it was a (mildly) cutthroat environment. They knew that the more they'd helped you, the more you'd take commissions away from them.
First big imposter syndrome moment, when random people walking in the store look you in the eye, and ask you for advice about the products on the shelves.
They look to you as an expert, yet you don't know much more than them. Cue anxiety and low self-esteem.
And, of course, you want to sell them the one that will provide you the most commission (ethically not great - amazing learning experience though).
But feeling as an imposter for the first time.. and for a long time.
The first few months, winging it and learning the basics on the go, I started doing well. I liked the excitement and the "game" of Sales. But I still felt like an imposter. Putting on my bright red jacket was supposed to show the world (well.. the small world of this neon-lit shop at least) that I was an expert.
Yet I did not feel like one. I felt like a fraud. Nervous that someone might unmask me publicly.
An older colleague, in his thirties (that was old for me at the time!), was both helpful, and seen as an expert within the team. The store manager sought his expertise on a daily basis.
He became my first mentor of sorts (Bertrand, if you read this - Thank You!).
Spending time in the back, opening boxes and reading user manuals.
So I started doing the same. Learning as much as I could about the products myself. Befriending the people in charge of the stock, so I could gain easy access and have them cover for me.
I fine-tuned the approach, to learn specifically everything I could about the products that had the highest commissions. So I could sell these with ease.
The more knowledge I accumulated, the more of an expert I felt, and the imposter syndrome melted away.
And I became an expert - even senior colleagues came to ask this fresh-faced colleague for help (though "fresh" is a nice way to put it, my teenage years where not kind to my skin!).
While unconsciously at the time, the learnings I gained then, 20+ years ago, stuck with me since:
- the imposter syndrome is just a temporary state of feeling, which can be overcome.
- learning to become more knowledgeable melts the syndrome away.
Imposter Syndrome climbing up the corporate ladder
Let's skip 10 years now. And a flurry of other situations where my imposter syndrome kept returning.
Now in London, I was building the European business for a San Francisco based high-growth Tech startup.
During the 7 years I spent with this company, I got promoted regularly.
Every new role brought new challenges.
I became a Director, a VP, then a Managing Director. My team grew. Starting with one, and more than thirty towards the end.
Guess who was with me at each step?
My friend the imposter syndrome.
Yes, by then, we were friends. I knew (sort of) that it was there with me, to indicate that I was outside my comfort zone. That I needed to grow into the new role.
So what did I do?
I identified the skills and knowledge I was missing, to not feel like a fraud.
And I spent time in the back, reading the user manuals.
Well.. there it was not about selling goods sitting on a shelf. It was about management, leadership, sales, marketing - especially the newest strategies and tactics emanating from Silicon Valley - and the SaaS business model.
And the user manuals for these take the form of books, blog posts and Quora answers.
But the process remains the same.
Again, the more knowledge I accumulated, the more of an expert I felt (doesn't mean I was though!), and the imposter syndrome melted away.
It was also helped by the understanding that whatever role you are in, it is always multi-facetted. And there are always some facets where you are good at (or good enough).
In times of doubt, focusing your thoughts of self-worth on what you are doing well - or at least well enough - is a good way to help you feel better about yourself, while you catch up on the rest.
The additional learnings gained then, have stuck with me too:
- the imposter syndrome can be helpful, as a driver for growth.
- identifying what lack of knowledge or skill(s) makes you feel like an imposter, and learning these.
- when doubting, focusing your thoughts on what you are doing well (enough).
Imposter Syndrome as a first time entrepreneur
Skipping another few years - and a few other imposter syndrome episodes - for my last example.
An interesting one when it comes to the imposter syndrome..
Starting my 1st own startup in an industry I knew nothing about (business aviation, aka private jets), to launch a Groupon-style platform business (for which I had no experience), and building technology myself (I had only sold technology so far, never built it myself).
My friend came back. Big time! Very big!
So I did what I knew to do.
I learned. About everything, Just 10x more, and faster.
From the industry itself, to how inflight satellite communications work, the fuel supply chain, how the group purchasing business model works, how to build a database, programming in Python, integrating systems via APIs, automating tasks and processes, vector design, and so much more.
Once again, the more knowledge I accumulated, ... you know the gist.
It proved to me once more, that the imposter syndrome can drive you to achieve a lot, no matter how far outside your comfort zone you happen to be.
And on data and automation related topics in that industry, I am now seen as an expert (by some at least!).
The dark sides of the Imposter Syndrome
But the imposter syndrome can lead also to negative consequences - beyond the basic anxiety feelings.
The freezing effect
This happened to me at times, especially in the early days. Where the imposter syndrome feels overwhelming.
The non-rational, emotional side taking over and freezing you. So you just do less, because there will be less opportunities for people to see that you are a fraud. Right?
Procrastination is a symptom of the imposter syndrome.
Actually, it's a symptom derived from the emotions triggered by the imposter syndrome.
If you suffer from imposter syndrome, and procrastination, I highly recommend reading this article from the New York Times from last year:
"Procrastination isn’t a unique character flaw or a mysterious curse on your ability to manage time, but a way of coping with challenging emotions and negative moods induced by certain tasks — boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt and beyond."
Do you recognise the emotions listed there?
Just like with meditation techniques, the key here is simply to recognise that you are "drifting away".
And refocus on what needs to be done for the syndrome to melt away.
Defence is the Best Attack
You might have experienced yourself some people behaving in a bullish way, or having knee-jerk reactions with a hint of over-confidence.
It's good to know that people who come across as over-confident, might suffer from the imposter syndrome.
And some of their reactions are due to a lack of confidence, compensated by demonstrating an over confidence.
I cannot help but see through that, as a defence mechanism.
Displaying strength to hide their own doubts.
In those circumstances, retreating, shielding yourself, or cutting off with people behaving like that is a common reaction.
Trying to initiate a closer contact, by being open and transparent, usually helps to "break through" though. And allows to establish a trust relationship with that person.
Not always, but it has worked for me.
Imposter syndrome can (and probably does) impact everyone
Over the course of the years, I have promoted and mentored people in my team(s). And have heard from them, even if they were not labelling it as such, that they suffer from the syndrome.
I have also encountered people in higher up positions, or moving up the echelons, who are followed as leader. Envied by some, feared by others. But behind closed doors, they tell - or just show - that they doubt themselves. That they have the imposter syndrome.
I am sure even the most powerful people, like presidents, suffer from the imposter syndrome, at least at times.
After all, no first time president can possibly have the experience of what's bestowed upon them.
And it's OK if they feel like imposters at time. As long as they know how to turn this into a driver to become better, rather than deflect their self-doubts onto others.
Learning my way out of the imposter syndrome
The bottom line is, by now, after 20 years of experiencing it, again and again, I have come to reckon the imposter syndrome as a driving force that helps me grow outside of my comfort zone, and overcome the fear of changing (role, company, industry, or country).
So I feel comfortable taking risks and changing things because "I'll learn my way out of it".
I have been rather successful so far, yet I still today doubt at times that I will be again. Perhaps I fooled people too long, and now the truth will surface.
But I know the imposter syndrome is just a temporary feeling.
Here to push me to get better.
Who will disappear once I am somewhat an expert.
Let the imposter syndrome be a driver for your growth
"Overcoming imposter syndrome is about embracing a 'growth mindset' and being comfortable acknowledging our knowledge gaps" as my friend Chuck said.
Remember that, if you would be a proper imposter, you would not suffer from the syndrome. An imposter is someone who makes deceitful pretences... it supposes a wrongful mindset, which is probably not your case, right?
So if you have it, it just means you are in a position outside of your comfort zone, and you just need to learn, so it becomes your new comfort zone.
To overcome the imposter syndrome, it's important to
- acknowledge that it is a temporary feeling, that comes with being outside of one's comfort zone.
- when in doubt, focus your thoughts on what you are doing well (enough).
- identify what lack of knowledge/skill makes you feel like an imposter
- learn what you are missing (and generally, learn to learn). See “CareerPlaybook 001: Always Be Learning” for more guidance.
- do more, not less
Other helpful tricks to help, while in the middle of a syndrome phase:
- find a mentor, or simply someone you trust, you can say “I feel like a fraud” to
- keep an archive of nice things people said about (or to) you. This can be reading again recommendations people gave you in the past, or compliments sent in emails (I have done this many times, in times of self-doubt).
"Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right."
— Henry Ford
or, if you want a more modern take on this quote:
“You know who you are, you don’t know who you may be.”
So remember... read the user manuals!
What's your experience with imposter syndrome? And how do you address it?
PS: despite the years of positive feedback on my mentoring and tips, do I need to tell you now that I have a severe case of imposter syndrome starting this post series? 😅
* If you're curious: 3rd letter in the code referred to the commission. A for 1 Franc (this was before the Euro. Yes.. I'm that old!), B for 2 Francs, etc..