I’m a Fraud (and Everyone Knows)

Sitting in my elegant, corner office, I felt like a fraud. I had been running a business (my first) for the better part of a year, and I was finally getting around to admitting to myself that I really had no idea how to fix it.

When you come into a new role, are hired by a well-regarded company or are accepted into a new school or program, there is a brief and heady period of elation. You know what I mean, right? The self-talk goes something like this:

“Hey, they picked me! 
They must know what they’re doing, right? 
This is going to be great!”

Sound familiar?

This lasts for a while — sometimes for months, sometimes, sadly, merely for hours — and then it evaporates. You begin to have a very different conversation with yourself.

“Oh, my God,” you think. “What if this is all some kind of horrible mistake?”

What if I’m a fraud?

This week, I listened to Marc Maron interview the phenomenally talented Seth Myers. Seth — former Weekend Update anchor and head writer for Saturday Night Live and current host of Late Night — is comfortably in the top decile of SNL alumni. Here’s how he describes his SNL experience:

Well, they weren’t wrong about Seth, but “they” — your boss, the admissions committee, etc. — do make mistakes. They can be wrong. In fact, they often are, and the evidence is all around us in the physical form of the nitwits who populate our world: the so-called expert who seems to lack even basic expertise, the chucklehead with a degree from a top university, the boss who seems stunningly unfamiliar with the fundamentals of your industry, etc., etc., etc. In your darker moments, perhaps you ask yourself: what if I’m another one of the mistakes?

If you do, you are in good company. Many demonstrably accomplished and successful people report that, even in success, they continue to suffer these feelings of insecurity, unworthiness and self-doubt.

Imposter Syndrome

You think: Crap. I’m a fraud. And they — the bosses, my peers — are just moments away from figuring this out, from figuring me out. Your heart pounds, and you picture the biggest jerk in your office sneering, “I always knew she was faking it.” Psychologists have a term for this. They call it Imposter Syndrome, and nearly all of us suffer from it at one point or another.

Pauline Rose Glance, one of the co-creators of the term, says she felt like an imposter in grad school. Later, “When I began to teach at a prominent liberal arts college… I heard similar fears from students who had come for counseling. They had excellent standardized test scores, grades and recommendations. One of them said, ‘I feel like an impostor here with all these really bright people.’”

Imposter Syndrome: not just for the ladies

Imposter syndrome research was initially focused on high-performing women. Men were assumed to suffer from this less, if at all.

Sorry, guys. Later studies have demonstrated that, when men are asked anonymously, they report that they experience Imposter Syndrome in similar numbers to women, and a recent survey by Heidrick and Struggles showed that three-quarters of CEOs (most of them male) reported second-guessing themselves and experiencing self-doubt over major decisions.

There’s an important distinction here. Questioning your decisions is good. In fact, it’s a critical part of how successful leaders chart a course through a chaotic world for their organizations. The writer E. L. Doctorow had a great line about writing novels. He said: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” The same thing is true for corporate strategy. Since none of us is in possession of a working crystal ball, it’s incumbent on all of us to test our hypotheses, to feel our way forward through the darkness, to iterate towards better answers.

On the other hand, questioning yourself, giving in to that small, dry voice in your head that says, “This is all a mistake. You don’t belong here,” can lead to paralysis. That midnight-voice — the one that sidles up to us most often in the wee hours of the night with its criticism and its contempt, its remorseless litany of past failures and mistakes — can make it very difficult to ask for help.

Think about that for a moment: 
the effort to feign confidence you don’t feel can, paradoxically, make you act like an ass, depleting the sympathy of your colleagues and alienating your supporters.

Okay, back to me

I had been a quirky choice to run the business I was responsible for as I sat in the aforementioned, elegant office. I had never managed more than three or four people. Now I had about 50, and I had never run a P&L before, not even a small one, and this business had tens of millions in revenue.

Despite that, I had worked away at it and, at first, things had gone pretty well. The business was a neglected fixer-upper, and there were a bunch of obvious changes to make. We made them. We cut some expenses, invested in more sales staff, fixed the incentive structure and raised prices selectively to grab a bit of margin. In six months, the business was showing a few signs of life. We were projecting a slight profit and showing some very modest growth.

That’s when the I realized I had a big problem. I didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t know how to generate real growth, and we couldn’t cut our way to success. That’s why I was staring out the window feeling like a fraud.

What I did

In the last three years in which I was responsible for that business, we more than tripled the growth rate and saw a consistent increase in profits. How did we do this? Well, note the plural pronoun in the previous sentence. I solicited a lot of advice and hired strong players, particularly in critical places where I was weak like sales management, marketing and web. Here’s what I learned in the process:

1. Relax. You don’t know everything. No one does. That doesn’t make you a fraud. The Imposter Syndrome is generally a sign that you are on a steep learning curve and that’s usually a good thing. Try to focus on specific challenges that must be addressed rather than abstractions like your general suitability for the role, and remember that the Imposter Syndrome is very common. It’s likely that a number of your colleagues are experiencing it, too. The important question is not whether or not you experience it; it’s whether or not you let it debilitate or disadvantage you.

2. Recognize the midnight voice. When the midnight voice starts up in your head, teach yourself to recognize it. Remind yourself that this “You’re a fraud,” or “They made a mistake,” business is completely unproductive. Steer that energy into something practical. Again, if you must lose sleep worrying about something, pick something concrete, a problem that you can actually fix. Make a plan. Then, take a moment to remind yourself of the problems from last week or last month that you have already addressed. Tell yourself that, in a few short weeks or months, this problem, like the others, will be a distant memory. The midnight voice is a habit. You can train yourself to recognize it when it starts, and derail it.

3. Ask for help. Seek out people who know more than you do, or who have skills or experience that you lack, especially in areas that are key to the success of the business. I brought in a friend who understood online marketing and knew how to build an effective website (back then, this was a big deal), and I hired the smartest data-driven marketer I knew to build a direct marketing engine. Both of these moves were massively important.

4. Admit the stuff you don’t know. When you are speaking with someone with experience or expertise you don’t have, don’t try to hide your ignorance. The other person usually recognizes your cluelessness anyway, and always appreciates the candor.

5. Insist on plain English explanations. Since you’ve been honest about what you don’t know, you are in a position to demand clear explanations. Don’t let so-called experts hide behind insider language, acronyms, etc. As a very successful former boss of mine used to say: “When I was a young man, and I didn’t understand something, I thought it was my fault. I don’t think that anymore.” Right. Insist that experts speak in plain English. If you don’t understand, make them try again until they get it right. If they can’t explain it clearly, maybe their expertise isn’t as great as you thought.

6. Cultivate a safe environment for sharing ideas. Google has studied high performance teams extensively. The most important trait they identified is what they call “psychological safety.” That is, creating an environment in which people can take risks without feeling insecure or at risk of embarrassment. Dial down the scorn and contempt. You want to create an environment in which people can put half-baked ideas forward, where they can think out loud with their fellow group members. This makes it possible for the group to iterate collectively towards solutions, and it results in consistently better answers. Powerful stuff.

7. Share the credit — generously. Insecure managers tend to take credit for other people’s ideas. This is a huge mistake. Over time, people stop sharing their best stuff. Go the other way. Be overly generous. You’ll get the best that your colleagues have to offer and — spoiler alert — as the boss or team lead, you get credit for the team’s success.

8. Step back and assess your progress. This is the trickiest step (and one that many people miss). If, after a reasonable period of time, you still feel like a fraud, ask yourself a question: am I getting better at this? If you are honest (and fair), you should be able to see progress. The truth is that many jobs, and most big ones, run on an annual calendar. Whatever the duration, you need to go through a complete cycle, all the way from planning through delivery, to know if you’re getting the hang of things. If you’ve been through a full cycle, and you can honestly say you are not getting better, maybe this is the wrong role for you, but if you’ve followed the other steps listed above, I bet you’ll see that you’ve made real progress. Okay, I’m going to end with a final question, and a request:

Does this resonate?
If it does, please write about it in the comments. By acknowledging your own experiences with Imposter Syndrome, you’re telling those who are suffering in silence that they’re not alone.

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