Imposter syndrome has become quite popular recently, especially within the tech industry. It now shares the stage as a top topic at conferences and in trade publications with Design Systems, diversity, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and big data. I am grateful that we as an industry are making psychological safety a priority and are working to cultivate cultures that define and support personal development, career advancement, and success. I struggle, however, with how it is being presented as a “syndrome” that we all must deal with or get over. I also worry—especially for young professionals entering the market—that it is being preached as a universal catch-all for any fear, lack of confidence, hesitation, or general soft skill.
For those unfamiliar, Imposter Syndrome is:
…a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized 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. Individuals with impostorism incorrectly attribute their success to luck, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be.
There are many that struggle with confidence and fear, but are they actually debilitated by “a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud?” Through generalizations and overuse, I worry that we are minimizing the impact on individuals that truly suffer from it. Instead of labelling what should be considered positive personality traits—acknowledging that we can’t be right all the time, humility, and a desire to learn—as a “syndrome,” we should talk about how we all started at zero, many full of self doubt and insecurities, and then learned and became something. Some progress faster than others, but a beginner’s mindset and self doubt are normal, healthy feelings that everyone experiences.
For those that honestly deal with this, my heart goes out to you. Please know that there are many that can relate and many that are here to support you. I wish that it wasn’t trendy to talk about imposter syndrome so that we could focus more on your specific needs. I hope that more seasoned professionals will share the stories of their journey to provide more insight into what is normal. I can’t relate personally, but you have my sympathy and my commitment to help as best I can, directly and by pushing for positive change in the industry at large.
I recently read that leaders are not pushing themselves sufficiently and are arrogant if they are not experiencing imposter syndrome. I find this accusation strange and quite presumptuous. I’ve never experienced imposter syndrome. I have never felt like a fraud. I have never felt like my accomplishments were the result of serendipitous luck. I have never believed that I am an inadequate and incomplete failure despite evidence that indicates I am skilled and quite successful. That doesn’t make me better than those that do feel that way, but it also doesn’t make me arrogant, less sympathetic, or less qualified to be a good leader.
Am I perfect? Absolutely not. Are all of my accomplishments the result of luck? No. I have worked my tail off to be where I am today. They aren’t completely the result of my talent, skill, and effort either; I have also been incredibly blessed by God, my wife, and mentors that believed in me, invested in me, and supported me.
Successful leaders need not be completely or overly qualified for their positions. In fact, few are. But there’s nothing wrong with that and it doesn’t make them an imposter. It also isn’t required for them to feel like imposters in order to be honest and successful.
I caution the industry about positioning imposter syndrome as something that is experienced by everyone and, even worse, something that is expected for success. Successful leaders must be humble and kind. We need to do a better job at mentoring and coaching. We need to help minorities and provide internships. We need to establish better career paths and foster the development of better, stronger cultures. We need to be more transparent and define clearer expectations and outcomes. We need to be more sensitive to individual’s strengths, weaknesses, and aspirations and make psychological safety a priority.
It’s not sensational or glitzy. It’s not fraudulent. It’s leadership.