Impostor Syndrome: How to Succeed and Thrive (Even if You Feel Like a Fraud)
A funny thing happens to me each time I “succeed.”
When I land a new client, sell a book, get accepted to do a talk, get a new freelance gig, etc — I always feel worse.
My stomach forms knots. For a moment, I feel like I can’t breathe. My mind starts racing through the usual thoughts and questions.
“Why would anyone pay you? You don’t know what you’re doing.”
“Where are your credentials? Who do you think you are to try to help and teach? You barely have it together man.”
“If only they knew who you really were, they’d run the other way.”
This is impostor syndrome. This is the famed “resistance” Steven Pressfield talks about in The War of Art.
Fortunately, my stories don’t end up with me folding under the pressure. Ultimately everything works out.
I’ve had success with my clients. I continue to write and hit publish all the time. The books keep selling, I keep growing and I’m pushing myself harder than I ever have before — hitting new milestones constantly.
So what’s the difference between me and you?
You probably feel a lot of the same feelings. Except, maybe you’re stuck in the starting gate still. You’re letting impostor syndrome sabotage your life and career. It feels inescapable at times too, doesn’t it?
I remember what it felt like to be stuck in a loop of doubt.
You feel the doubt, feel bad about yourself for feeling the doubt, then you think of yourself as a person who lacks confidence — it seeps into your identity — and you find yourself on the impostor syndrome hamster wheel.
There has to be a better way, right?
How to Understand Impostor Syndrome So It Doesn’t Hold You Back
I’ve spent a ton of time studying impostor syndrome, doubt, and fear. Here’s how I’ve come to look at them.
Impostor syndrome isn’t the same thing as a lack of confidence. You definitely have confidence. Why? Because you need some confidence to be able to daydream about doing all of those cool creative ventures you want to do. There is a picture of yourself in your mind’s eye that is following through.
I know you haven’t given up completely because you wouldn’t be reading articles like this. People who give up aren’t still hunting for solutions. You are.
Tina Fey perfectly describes how impostor syndrome works:
The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania, and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh god, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.
I’ll explain more in a section later, but I succeed by riding the waves of confidence when they hit and just accepting impostor syndrome when it hits.
Impostor syndrome is just a thing that I have. Like a birthmark.
It only becomes a problem when you blow it out of proportion.
It becomes a problem when you switch from “I have impostor syndrome” to “I’m an impostor.”
I’ve talked about this in my book and other articles many times. Having negative thoughts isn’t bad for you at all (it’s often healthy) but turning thoughts into descriptions of your character will destroy your future.
So I still haven’t given you a solution yet…
What do you do?
Try This Ancient Reasoning Method to Calm Your Self-Doubt
The unexamined life is not worth living — Socrates
Let me preface this by saying I haven’t cured my impostor syndrome whatsoever. But I have gone on to do what I’ve wanted to do in spite of — maybe even because of — it.
I spend a lot of time working through my thoughts and I use this thinking method to talk my self out of spirals of self-doubt. And I learned it from an old dead white guy.
Socrates might be the G.O.A.T. of arguing.
His Socratic method — a tool for debate — can be used on yourself to examine and probe into your own beliefs.
Let’s use a pared down, nontechnical and jargonless version of the method. Here’s what you do. Take whatever negative thought about yourself you have and question it to death.
I’ll use myself as an example:
“You’re unfit to write & coach other people because you’re not successful.”
Haven’t your clients told you they got great value from working with you? Haven’t readers from all over the world reached out to you to tell their success stories?
“Well…yes…but my book didn’t hit the NYT bestseller list or anything like that, so why should I teach other people how to write if I don’t have the best credentials?”
Is making the NYT bestseller list the objective standard to judge aptitude for writing & teaching?
“Well…no…but I haven’t had that much success yet, why should I try to help others?”
You’ve published two books, had your words read by more than a million people, and have been featured on many major publications. You write for a living. Do you live a life your clients and audience aspires to?
“Ok yes…I guess you’re right.”
Yes, I am right, and by this logic, I’ve come to conclude your original assertion is false and you’re absolutely full of it.
After I calm myself down, I use my doubt as fuel to push on.
Impostor Syndrome Can be Your Friend
Since I want to get the best results for my clients (and secretly fear them calling me out) I put in extra work to make sure they’re successful.
Same thing with my writing. I’m always studying techniques to write better prose, be more engaging, and grow my audience online.
My paranoia pushes me. It can push you too…if you don’t let it fall into full-blown perfectionism and “paralysis by analysis.”
How do you keep from falling into the perfectionist trap?
You have to find a way to metaphorically “put a gun to your head.” Not to be crass, but you have to find a way to make backing out of something really painful and embarrassing to the point where doing the thing is less painful than not doing it.
That’s how I landed my TEDx talk. I signed up for a “pitch night.” 24 speakers were assigned to pitch their idea that night. They made programs with our pictures on them and everything. The night of the event I wanted to bow out, but this was an event in my local community. People I knew were going to be there.
There was no out.
I won the pitch night and landed the talk.
James Altucher has a great quote for this, “Ready, fire, aim!”
Don’t aim. Just fire.
The combination of me working hard, over-preparing, and committing myself to hard-to-back-out-of-obligations gives me something very useful — evidence.
Eventually, if you get some inertia and start accomplishing some goals, you’ll have more and more “evidence” that you’re not a fraud.
You won’t cure your impostor syndrome altogether, but you’ll have more ammo when it comes to mentally talking yourself off the ledge.
Another technique you can use alongside your evidence-based arguments is telling yourself this important fact.
You’d Be Worse Off If You Didn’t Have Impostor Syndrome
“The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”
You know who doesn’t have impostor syndrome?
Counterfeit innovators, con-men, hucksters, and hacks.
Psychopaths don’t have it.
People who are doing work they’re super over-qualified for don’t have it.
Wildly overconfident people to the point of delusion don’t have it.
Is this the type of company you want to keep?
Now, I’m sure there are people who don’t have it. I’d like to meet with them and examine how they feel one hundred perfect credible all the time. I’m genuinely curious.
Like many successful people have pointed out, fear is that signal that tells you to keep going. If you feel like you’re not credible and qualified enough for something, it means you’re doing something worth doing.
“If I only did things I was qualified for I’d be pushing a broom somewhere.” — Kamal Ravikant
Without impostor syndrome, you’re either an anomaly who feels 100% secure about themselves or you’re resigned to what you’re doing — numb with no need to feel twinges of fear because the bar is so low.
As much as I hate feeling doubt, the exhilaration of overcoming it feels orders of magnitude better than 99 percent of my emotions and experiences, which is great, but doesn’t matter much because it’s not all about me.
Get Over Yourself, Will Ya?
“Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.” — Marianne Williamson
We’re so wrapped up in ourselves. Constantly. Me, me, me.
We’re simultaneously arrogant and self-conscious. How does that even work?
At the end of the day, you have more people to serve than yourself.
I’m just going to say this — full stop.
There’s nothing virtuous about folding under the weight of your doubt. You can try to explain it away and tell yourself you’re avoiding your dreams for safety and security reasons. You’re not. You’re lying.
There is plenty of time available to do what you love in a risk-averse way.
I feel bold enough to assert this because I’m just a regular guy. I know I’m nothing special, meaning that my feelings must be common. I’m scared to death of a live well-lived but I desperately want it at the same time.
Most of us feel this way.
I’ve just made the decision to soak in that pool of doubt permanently and go for it. Why not? What do I have to lose?
I haven’t felt comfortable or secure for a long time. My comfort zone is gone. I don’t have one.
I’m trying to give more. Someone out there needs me.
Someone out there needs you too.
It could be in the smallest way. Maybe just a single person needs your help.
Give it to them.
Look, I know sometimes self-improvement makes you feel bad about yourself. I feel for you. That isn’t the point of this post. The point is to get you to look at what you’re doing and decide whether you’re going to let fear be your friend or foe.
I’ve examined my relationship with fear over and over again — all the while making progress in my life.
I’m still here — deathly afraid and wildly confident at the same time. Not trying to solve the paradox either. Just living it out the best I can.
That’s all you can do.