“The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” – Albert Einstein
Aside from their fame, do you know what Kate Winslet, Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Chris Martin have in common? What about the likes of Mary Angelou, Don Cheadle and Emma Watson? As surprising as it may seem, each of these people has suffered from imposter syndrome, and if you’re a high-achiever the odds are that you might have too.
Affecting almost 70% of working professionals at one point or another, imposter syndrome is the nagging voice in the back of your mind that tells you you’re a fraud, you don’t deserve to be where you’re at in your career and you’ll soon be exposed as the sham that you really are. It’s a workplace phenomenon: top professionals who’ve scaled the career ladder struggle with the paranoia that they’re not actually qualified and their work is no good. Imposter syndrome cripples employees with self-doubt, chips away at professional confidence and leads to unfounded feelings of inadequacy. It’s a professional plague, but fortunately it can be combatted with a minor attitude adjustment.
Give yourself some credit
Many high-performers are insecure about their professional acumen and are unable to internalise their own achievements. The mantle of being an accomplished professional with a reputation for expertise can be one which is hard to live up to, and it’s understandable why pressure might lead to anxiety. To quote Dr. Margaret Chan, Chief of the World Health Organisation, “There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.”
When these career insecurities rear their head, you have to take a step back and give yourself credit for the things you’ve achieved professionally. Look at the value you’ve added to your job roles and remind yourself of the various projects you’ve completed successfully that could just have easily as failed. Unless you’re Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can, there’s just no way that you’ve been able to wing it for your whole career – acknowledge your own skills!
Accept that a degree of luck is involved in everyone’s success
In the words of Donald Trump: “Everything in life is luck.” Although hard work and talent are the biggest components of any accomplished career, only the most arrogant professional would claim that luck has played no part whatsoever in their success. Having a stroke of career luck doesn’t make you an imposter and it certainly doesn’t mean that you’re not competent enough to do your job. It simply means that you’ve worked hard enough to reach a position where the final ingredient required to accelerate your career is a little timely good luck. Own your success, embrace it and never excuse it away as luck.
Understand that a lack of knowledge is temporary
The majority of people who suffer from imposter syndrome have substantial professional accomplishments to their name, and as such are perceived by others as being specialists. Being perceived as a specialist and knowing everything under the sun, however, are two very different things. Even more importantly, unless it’s a core competency, not knowing something doesn’t mean that you’re a phoney who should find a new job several levels below your current station. It simply means that you’re temporarily at a loss – a situation which can quickly be remedied.
Know that we’re all in the same boat
Plainly speaking, not many people feel like they know exactly what they’re doing in life, either personally or professionally. Most of us are just doing what we can with what we have to keep pushing forwards. That means that hiccoughs, failures, doubts and fears are all a perfectly normal part of most life journeys: not a sign that you’re an imposter.
Thinking that you’re the only person out there who feels professional uncertainty is not only delusional, it’s also somewhat self-obsessed. To some extent, we all feel like we’re wearing a mask at work and you won’t be alone in worrying about your skills and experience. As C.S. Lewis said: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” Remember that the next time you start worrying that you’re some kind of bogus cheat and concentrate your efforts on your work instead.
Don’t compare yourself to anyone else
Whenever you compare yourself to somebody else, you’re inevitably comparing your internal anxieties to their composed exterior. Aside from its fruitlessness, comparing yourself to others will not make you any more or less qualified for your job. Instead, you’ll give yourself an unfair standard to live up and fuel your frustrations.
Thinking logically, feeling like an imposter is part of natural process of building up your expertise and climbing the career ladder. As you rise, you’ll come across senior, talented professionals and will pit your doubts against your grandiose perceptions of these people. Since they were once in your shoes and almost certainly felt (or indeed still feel!) their own professional anxieties, comparing yourself will achieve nothing whatsoever.
Bertrand Russell once wrote that: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” If you’re suffering from imposter syndrome in your career, it might be comforting to remember these wise words and acknowledge that your doubts are a sign of your own intelligence rather than your inadequacy.