Think you’re a Fraud? You’re not Alone
I still remember the day is if it was yesterday. It was a warm, sunny afternoon on Google campus and I was hosting a team meeting for us to formulate our 2013 marketing strategy for Google play. As I paced around the room talking about our business, our achievements and our challenges the room started to go into slow motion. With each passing minute a series of strange, disturbing questions started to pop into my head as I looked at all the bright, young, smart faces staring up at me:
- Did I really know what I was doing?
- How did I actually get here?
- Would people see through me?
- Was I really fit to lead these people?
- Why did Google ever even hire me? How did I get in here?
I felt like a deer caught in the headlights. I almost froze. I was terrified. With each passing minute my heart beat faster, my palms started to sweat and my mind raced with questions and nagging self-doubt. All I wanted to do was to leave the room or sit down and have someone else lead the discussion.
It was the return of an old friend, my nemesis
…I was just a fraud.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
It was only years later, while working with my personal coach, that I discovered that not only did this condition have a name but that it was also much more common that I imagined.
It was in 1978 that Two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, gave it a name : the impostor syndrome. They described it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” While these people “are highly motivated to achieve,” they also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”
How common is imposter syndrome? You might be surprised but studies going as far back as the 1980’s estimate that 2 out 5 successful people experience imposter syndrome while other studies have shown that up to 70% of people experience it at one point or another in their careers. Celebrities who have suffered from imposter syndrome include Natalie Portman, Seth Godin, Ryan Reynolds, Meryl Streep, Lady Gaga and Tom Hanks to name just a few.
In Silicon Valley, where we’re surrounded by some the brightest and most hard working men and women you can imagine, you could see how it’s even more common. Most of my clients have expressed this kind of fear to me at some point. They question their abilities. Attribute their success to luck or don’t value what it’s taken them to get where they are. In fact, in more than one occasion I’ve attended a conference and seen a celebrity founder underplay their success. Genuine humility or is it the imposter syndrome in full swing?
How do you know if you suffer from it?
Most likely the best way to know for certain is to see a therapist or a coach. However, there are certain online tests you can take including this one here at Psychtests.com where they will take you through a series of questions which you have to answer to see if this is something you might be suffering chronically from or if it’s simply a case of one off self-doubt. Some the questions include:
1. Do you feel like you don’t deserve any of the success that you’ve achieved?
2. Do you feel like you’re not as accomplished as people make you out to be?
3. Do you feel like you haven’t earned the rewards that you have received?
4. Do you feel like most of your accomplishments have simply been a fluke?
The key here isn’t whether you answered ‘yes’ to most if not all these questions. What matters is how frequently you feel this is true and if it’s a recurring pattern that’s been happening over a prolonged period of time.
OK, I’ve got it bad doc. Where do I go from here?
The first step to solving any problem is self awareness. Once you know what’s going on, then it’s simply a question of figuring out how to do deal with it. The bad news: Imposter Syndrome actually increases the more success you have. It builds over time. The good news, once you know you suffer from it there are many ways to keep it in check and you might even get rid of it entirely. Let’s dive into a few:
1. Share it. Our problems are seldom as bad as they seem and sharing them often can ease our burden and enlist the help of those closest to us. Tell someone you trust: a parent, close friend, your partner, coach or therapist. It will make it easier and you might even find that this person may have experienced it as well.
2. Invite it in. Mindfulness meditation helps a lot in this respect. But once you know you have imposter syndrome and feel it coming on, acknowledge that and see how it makes you feel. This will make you more easily self aware when it happens and you’ll be able to deal better with it.
3. Morning pages. I started writing morning page 5 years ago and have about 400 pages accumulated (they might even make an interesting Hollywood movie someday!). Morning pages is an exercise where you free write for 10–15 minutes each morning. I do it every morning and also take time to mention 5 things I’m grateful as well as any achievements I had the previous day. I just write whatever comes to my head and acknowledge its importance to me. Writing my achievements helps boost my confidence and keep the imposter at bay.
4. File away those ‘thank you notes’. In his article on Startupbros.com, author Kyle Eschenroeder mentions a tactic he uses where he copies all the positive feedback he gets from people on email and social media and stores it away in a document. I love this idea and it’s a great way to remind yourself of all the positive things people have had to say about you over the weeks, months and years. When you feel that imposter creeping in, you can always have a quick look at your ‘thank you’ doc for an immediate confidence boost.
5. Mind your language! I spoke about this quite a bit in my article on why entrepreneurs must avoid the word “should.” The language we use matters not just to those around us but to our own state of mind. When you use language and words that express doubt and bring you down you risk reinforcing the imposter syndrome. Compare:
- “I made a mistake. I’ll learn from that and avoid doing that next time.”
- “I’m horrible. How could I do that? I’m always such an idiot?”
6. Remember you’re only human. Realizing that your less than perfect is a great place to start. One my favorite quotes is “progress, not perfection is our goal.” Keep that in mind and tell yourself that when you feel the imposter creeping in. Nobody is perfect and neither are you.
7. Stop comparing yourself. There will always be who’s raised more money, built a bigger company or been more successful than you. Living in Silicon Valley and being surrounded by so many accomplished people can shake the confidence of just about anyone. For me, learning to step out of the shadows of giants and forging my own path was a big part of getting over my imposter syndrome. Each one of us is special and has a unique story to tell. Stop worrying about others and focus on creating your own story.
8. Get naked. OK, maybe not physically naked. But seriously, opening yourself up and sharing vulnerabilities makes managing your imposter syndrome easier. When you share your experience and stories you help others. You can do this through writing, speaking, creating videos or just by talking to people you know. As a coach, it’s incredibly important for me to be open, authentic and to share my experiences. Opening up meant writing about things that were incredibly hard and personal for me . It forced me to “get naked.”
9. Provide value. Kyle also talks about this in his piece on Startupbros.com and I couldn’t agree more. Providing value in my case is actually linked to opening up. Helping others is a fantastic way to overcome your imposter syndrome because it creates a cycle of positive feedback. As you help others by sharing your own experiences you get positive feedback in return which further helps build your confidence in yourself and makes you feel good. Not all of us can be coaches but we can become mentors, sports coaches, assistants, PTA members and give back to our communities.
10. Knowledge is finite. This is especially true if you work in technology or another industry where knowledge is constantly changing and evolving. If we can recognize that none of us has all the answers and feel safe asking others for help once in a while, we can come to accept that none of us is ever truly a subject matter expert.
11. Just do it! The biggest barrier to building self confidence often is inaction. Sometimes you just need to get out there and try things. OK, it might feel crazy and it might not work but there is a saying that “It’s better to regret things you have done, than to regret the things you haven’t.” Even if it doesn’t work out, you’ll be relieved knowing you made a decision and took action.
12. Actions define you. I’ve seen people succumb to imposter syndrome because they hide behind degrees or business cards. The way to annihilate your imposter syndrome is to be confident in your actions and what you’ve achieved. Just because you work at Google or raised your series A from Accel, that doesn’t define you as a person and should things not work out (God forbid!), it won’t all of a sudden invalidate everything you’ve achieved professionally or personally for that matter.
13. List your accomplishments. Seriously, list all of them. As a startup founder, you’ll be surprised at how long the list might be and some of the things that you’ve actually done. Don’t just limit these things to your startup either. When you have to raise kids, run marathons, graduate college, help build an encampment at Burning Man. Whatever. List the things you’ve done and take a good, hard look at it. Still feel like fraud now?
14. Get help. If all of the above isn’t working for you, seek out help from people close to you or consider seeing a therapist or a coach. We all have things that we simply can’t solve on our own. Understanding that is part of what makes it human. Also, in the same way that helping others helps us, allowing others to help us also makes them stronger. That way we all get stronger together.
Recently, I met with a potential client that had been wanting to start blogging for some time. We discussed what might be stopping her from taking the first step to writing her first post and in reality it was all in her head. There wasn’t a good reason for her not to do.
So you know what I did? I challenged her right there on the spot to start writing that first post.
And guess what? 24 hours later she wrote me an email to tell me she had sent the rough draft of her first post to a friend to get his feedback. See that? It’s really not that hard. Stop doubting. Start doing!
I’m issuing you a challenge!
Write below in the comments something that you believe your imposter syndrome has been holding you back from doing. Maybe it’s quitting your job to start something you love. Maybe it’s signing up to get a personal trainer at your gym. You might even be thinking of making your first hire. Remember how I mentioned that sharing your challenges is so important? When we share our challenges we make ourselves vulnerable and we also invite others to help us.
So share your challenge below or drop me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re a bit embarrassed (though sharing it here is far more valuable to the community as a whole). I challenge you!