Impostor syndrome is that feeling, no matter how qualified or knowledgeable you happen to be, that you are faking it in the workplace, that you are somehow not as competent or brilliant as the people around you, and that you will be found out at some point. This is something that a great many people experience, perhaps more than we know and it can make working life a lot harder as we must constantly strive to prove our inner critic wrong about our comparative set of abilities. It is not necessarily a bad thing though, as we will explore below.
Famous People with Impostor Syndrome
Even the most famous and successful people in the world struggle with this feeling. The best-selling author Neil Gaiman relates a tale about an event he attended where there were many of the “great and the good”, and he was feeling a strong sense of impostor syndrome and wondering why he was there. A best-selling author who felt inadequate when compared to his peers.
An elderly gentleman standing next to him remarked that he also felt out of place there because everyone there had done something remarkable in the fields of art, science, writing or invention and he felt like he had just followed orders and gone where he was sent.
The elderly gentleman in question was Neil Armstrong, one of the most famous men on Earth and the first man to set foot on the moon. He took that “small step for man” and that “giant leap for mankind” but he was still filled by the kind of doubts that plague normal people when they think about their jobs.
Even the acclaimed writer and poet Maya Angelou had her self-doubts, saying: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”
It’s not just best-selling authors and astronauts who struggle with this, politicians do as well. Nicola Sturgeon, the first female First Minister of Scotland talked openly about the particular pressures that women face in public office and her own struggles with impostor syndrome in a series of interviews a couple of years ago.
Why Impostor Syndrome is Good
Many of the people who have been mentioned as having talked publicly about having impostor syndrome have also been very career driven people who have carved out very successful careers in their various areas of interest.
Ultimately, impostor syndrome arises in most cases when someone is challenging themselves and pushing themselves forward in a particular direction. It is often when people are doing the things they are passionate about and want most to succeed at. There is an element of having moved outside of your comfort zone that is at play, but that can be a way to promote healthy changes in your life.
When we gain experience at anything, we always begin to develop an understanding that the subject is more complex than it appeared from the outside and we realise how much we didn’t know when we started. We begin to look at what we do with a much greater depth and granularity and because we feel like this knowledge is new and shows how much we didn’t know, we sometimes feel strong impostor syndrome at this point. Sometimes though, it is actually an indication of how far we have come and the progress we have made instead.
There is considerable anecdotal information to suggest that people who experience impostor syndrome will often be motivated to prove to themselves that they can do the job and to mitigate against the day that their colleagues “find them out”. To avoid this eventuality they will tend to over prepare ahead of meetings and put a lot more conscious thought into what they do, rather than being people who ever wing it. Preparedness is the way that they stay ahead of being “discovered” as the fraud that they feel themselves to be.
Habitually going into meetings well-prepared is actually a hallmark of being a good, conscientious employee who takes their job seriously, as opposed to being someone who isn’t giving 100%. As a direct consequence of this, many people who have impostor syndrome end up being proposed to senior positions, where they continue to feel self-doubt and proceed to work harder than many others to ensure that they manage to sustain their success.
Keeping Yourself Grounded
In her interview referenced earlier in the article, Nicola Sturgeon talked about her fear of failure and how impostor syndrome actually motivated her to try harder and to ensure that she was always at the top of her game.
She said: “I just think it is natural. Even though I have been in politics for a long time, I have been First Minister for four years, there will be days when I think ‘should I even be here? Is somebody about to find me out?’ While sometimes over my career I’ve thought it would be good to be a bit more self-confident and have less of that feeling, I wouldn’t like to lose it completely because I do think it is important you keep yourself grounded.
There have been academic studies of impostor syndrome that have come to the conclusion that impostor syndrome is good for you in that it can actually make you better at doing your job. The fear of failure or the perception that others might “find you out” can help to hone people skills and become better at building interpersonal relationships.
Professor Tewfik from MIT Sloan described her findings: “My research shows that experiencing this phenomenon can make you more adept at relationships, which is a key ingredient in career success. In one study doctors in training who had more-frequent impostor thoughts were significantly better at handling sensitive interactions with patients, which led those patients to give them higher interpersonal-skill ratings.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
Here at the Embracing Future Potential network, we want to see you succeed, and now that you know impostor syndrome can be a healthy thing in the workplace, you may want to bite the bullet and look for the job of your dreams. If you need to refresh your CV, we can help and we also have you covered with tips for writing a covering letter, as well as how to excel in job interviews.