Imposter Syndrome

Emperor Hadrian Silver Coin, A.D. 119–122.
I cared little for youth and for my own youth least of all. I look back with shame over my ignorance at the world, which I thought I knew, and my impatience. My appetite for power (and for money, which is often the first form of power) was undeniable. Since then, I have been fortunate to learn to contend both with men and with things; to command; and, perhaps what is most important, to serve.
— Hadrian

I had several conversations that defined my time as a university student. And as I look back, the most important conversation I had took place over dinner with a local businessman.

I cannot describe how nervous how I was to meet him. I made sure to show up 45–50 minutes early. I checked my hair and the knot of my tie 10 times before getting out of my car. Throughout the day I had an internal dialogue with myself, coming up with “smart” answers to questions I assumed would be asked.

When the conversation finally started, I was disarmed by how unassuming and normal this man seemed. He was roughly 60-years-old and had a more distinguished career than anyone I had met.

But what stood out then — and still stands out to me now — is how relaxed the conversation was. There was confidence in who he was. He did not need awards, titles, or external validation. I assume those things became frivolous to him decades ago.

I left that dinner with two overwhelming feelings.

First, as Hadrian had written centuries earlier, I felt shame for my pridefulness. I knew my pride was something to be overcome, not praised. And second, I had a nagging feeling that I did not belong. That I somehow wasn’t good enough, both in that specific conversation and in my broader setting.

Years later, I learned that this phenomena is called Imposter Syndrome. And it’s fairly common. Think of someone successful who feels that they cannot relate to or live up to their status, or the expectations that others create for them. This is classic Imposter Syndrome at play.

Emma Watson, the star of one of the most successful movie series of all time, says she feels “incredibly uncomfortable” about her acting. Similarly, Shirley Manson, lead singer of Garbage (sold 12 million records in ten years), also found it hard to cope with their success in the late 90s.

Now, I am not famous or even well-regarded in my field, but there still feeling still surfaces. It happened as a student and now it happens in my career. Do I really know the material well enough, do I really have an expertise, that lets other people make decisions based on what I say? It’s not an easy thing to overcome.

For another anecdote, I’d like to point you to Neil Gaiman, a best-selling British author. The full story can be read here but I’ll provide the abridged version below.

Gaiman is invited to an event filled with esteemed artists, scientists, and writers. He feels out of place — and even goes far enough to say that he “didn’t quality to be there, among these people who had really done things.”

Then, he starts talking to a man standing in back of the room. The man shared: “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”

So who was this second man that Gaiman was speaking to? It was Neil Armstrong, the first man ever to walk on the moon. Yes, there are even rooms where Neil Armstrong felt like a bit of an imposter.

The point here is not to compare myself to a multi-millionaire investor, or Emma Watson, or Neil Armstrong. Instead, it is to bring attention to how common this occurrence is and to understand that external validation often makes the problem worse.

There are professionals — people who are doctors, lawyers, scientists, and so on — but under it all, we are still a bunch of individuals running around, fraught with insecurities.

I believe part of the problem is that we create unfair comparisons in our head. We do not see celebrities as regular people, with lives, families, neighbors, stresses, and mistakes. We see the best version of them — a singer on stage, for example—and compare that isolated event with the entirety of our lives.

Going back to my story, I think I know what was disarming. My 19-year-old self was shocked that a successful businessman was not a successful businessman to everyone, all the time. He was, in that moment, an equal sitting at a dinner table.

This is also why I think no level of success will ever lead to self-fulfillment. The titles, money, and external validation do not let you escape from reality. They do not stop your Wi-Fi from being terrible, the sprinklers from breaking, or your kids from needing your attention. Success in one area does not automatically transfer to other areas of your life.

In short, there are no professional adults who have everything figured out. And the quicker we can dispel that myth, the better.

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