Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud.”
That’s the first sentence of a Wikipedia entry on the subject of impostor syndrome, which is a term that describes the sense that you’re really not accomplished or skilled enough for the career or job that you have and you feel like a “fraud” simply being there.
I know that feeling. I felt it extremely strongly when I first got a job after college. I was employed to write some software to organize and present large data sets, and I knew from the first moment I was completely in over my head.
I didn’t know the database system we were using. I didn’t know the operating system that our server software was running on. I didn’t know the language or the coding environment. I didn’t really have much domain knowledge of the data, either, and the person that was supposed to be an expert in that area was suffering through a personal crisis and wasn’t offering any help at all.
I felt lost. I felt like I was a complete fake who should never have had that job. I was embarrassed to come into work in the morning. I was absolutely sure I was going to be fired when my contract was finished.
What happened? Our tiny team, with me writing almost all of the code, produced a demo version of our software in two months that was good enough to make my boss’s boss ask twice in a big meeting whether this was actual software or just an animation. Four months after that, we publicly rolled out our “beta” version to the world about six months ahead of schedule. It was a resounding success and the project is still alive, almost a decade after I walked away from it.
None of that changes the fact that for the first year – even after those initial successes – I still felt like a massive impostor. Nothing external ever changed that feeling – no matter how many positive reviews our software received and no matter how many times it popped up in publications and no matter how many outside reviewers and other folks seemed to be thrilled about what we were doing. I still felt like a three year old being marveled at by mom and dad because of a misbegotten Tinker Toy creation.
In some ways, that feeling was good. It kept me hungry in many ways. I never ever felt really secure. At the same time, it kept me from making difficult choices I needed to make. It amped up my constant stress level. It also stopped me from being as much of an advocate for myself as I should have been. The bad aspects of impostor syndrome outweigh the good ones.
For me, it took years for that “impostor syndrome” to finally go away.
If any of this story feels familiar to you, my only advice to you is this: You can ditch it. You can get past that feeling of being an impostor, and you don’t have to “fake it until you make it,” either. Here are seven things I did to help me kill the impostor syndrome, which was one of the best career steps I’ve ever taken.
Stop focusing on unknowns and what-ifs and focus on the actual task in front of you. When you feel inadequate at a job, it is easy to get stuck on problems that might crop up that are beyond your ability to handle. You might visualize a disaster of some kind or a big programming task or a request from a supervisor that you have no idea how to handle and the mere thought of it makes you feel a bit panicked.
Don’t. Don’t worry about daydreams and possibilities, at least not in the course of your day-to-day work.
Instead, focus on the task in front of you. What do you need to get done today? What do you need to get done in the next hour?
Most of the time, you should be perfectly capable of pulling off that task. And the next one. And the next one after that.
Along the way, two things will happen. One, you’ll learn a lot more about the demands of your job than you expect. You’ll constantly be learning, in fact, if you’re open to it.
Two, you’re going to start establishing a standard of excellence in the things that you do so that your supervisors are much more lenient when you do run up against things that you struggle with.
The task at hand is what matters. Execute it well.
Make a list of what you feel you don’t know, then use that as a self-education guide. If you feel like there are major areas of knowledge and skill that you are lacking at work, simply list them down somewhere. Make a Google Doc and keep adding topics to it that you feel you don’t understand.
Use that as your study list. Spend an hour each evening studying a topic on that list in a focused fashion. If you have downtime at work, tackle topics on that list; your supervisor is going to be thrilled that you’re spending downtime studying Python libraries instead of looking at a fashion website, for example.
As you start knocking down those topics you don’t understand, you’ll feel more and more comfortable in your role at work. That list will probably never entirely disappear, but enough items will vanish that you’ll stop feeling so much like an impostor.
Make friends and spend time with “the smartest people in the room.” One great strategy is to really look deeply at the people in your workplace (and your local professional community) and determine which people are truly the most competent people around. Which ones really know their stuff and can handle problems?
Make friends with them. Spend time talking to them and getting to know them. Go out to lunch with them. Discover their hobbies and take an interest in them.
For starters, you’ll learn a ton from them about everything from the technical aspects of your work to the ins and outs of the workplace.
For another, they’re likely to be a great ally for you if you do run into something way over your head.
For another, they often end up being a helping hand when your career is ready to take another step. Often, it’s not the technical wizard that gets promoted, but the person who can talk to the technical wizard.
Having highly competent friends is always a good thing.
Take big problems that seem overwhelming and break them down into bits you can handle. One of the big reasons that people fall into a sense of “impostor syndrome” is that they’re handed challenges that are bigger than they’ve ever handled before and the problem itself seems overwhelming. A work project that takes a year to complete can seem completely overwhelming at first and can make a person feel like this is way over their head.
The key with any big problem is to start by breaking it down into little problems. Start breaking down this big problem into smaller and smaller pieces, until you’re faced with something you know you can handle, then do that part. Once that part is completed, re-evaluate things and see if there’s now another part that you’re capable of completing. Keep repeating that and soon you’ll have a firm grasp on everything that’s left.
Yes, it won’t be easy. Yes, you’ll probably make a misstep or two early on that carries consequences later. That’s okay. Keep breaking down the big problem and working on the smaller pieces.
Recognize that no one knows everything and that many people are putting up a strong front that exaggerates their knowledge. When you’re talking to peers, you might get a strong idea that they are very, very knowledgable and competent. They seem to know how to handle big projects and use a lot of technical terms.
Here’s the thing to remember: they’re likely showing off a bit. They’re trying to display that they’re highly competent and knowledgable in order to make themselves feel as good as possible, so they’re likely putting up a “front” to some degree.
If that “front” seems overly impressive to you, that doesn’t mean you’re not competent. It just means that they’re doing a good job of projecting what they want to project.
Don’t worry about them. Focus on yourself. Focus on what your job and your next career step requires of you.
Accept help. When you’re stuck on a challenging task, don’t be afraid to ask others for some assistance (perhaps one of those “smart” friends you made earlier).
People often choose not to ask for help when they need it, either out of a sense of pride or out of a sense of not wanting to be seen as incompetent. If you want to succeed in your career path, you have to discard that sensibility as soon as possible.
Ask for help, whether it’s in the workplace or online anonymously or somewhere else. Let others help you. Use that help to get through the problem and learn more. It’s a big step in moving past a sense that you’re an “impostor” in this job, because you’ll learn that doing a challenging job well is a team effort.
Keep a journal of your successes. It’s easy to get caught up in our most recent successes and failures, and a string of difficult moments can leave us really feeling down on our success.
To remedy that, I recommend keeping a “success journal.” Each day, simply add a new entry at the end of a document that spells out your five big achievements and successes that day. Keep it going and then, when you feel like things are struggling, look at it. Remember how often you’ve succeeded and how much you’ve achieved.
You’re not an impostor. You’re a success.
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