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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

How to Fight Imposter Syndrome

Self-doubt – imposter syndrome – can block and even destroy the road to achieving expert-level knowledge and innovation. But "real" experts are irrelevant to your success.

If you’ve ever worked hard to hit a goal or reach a big accomplishment only to be overcome by a feeling of, “You don’t deserve this,” or “You’re not going to hit this! You aren’t an entrepreneur/an artist/a designer/a developer/etc!” you’ve experienced Imposter Syndrome. Imposter Syndrome is the feeling of unworthiness for a goal or accomplishment or title and is a toxic mindset that can sabotage some of the most high-performing individuals.

In the cases of young people who feel Imposter Syndrome many times over, it ends up in self-sabotage.I have met numerous people who, to everybody else, have accomplished great things and continue to do so, but who feel as if whatever they do isn’t good enough and that they don’t deserve each step in the game. Especially in the cases of young people who feel this many times over, it ends up resulting in self-sabotage. Eventually, the message of “you don’t deserve this accomplishment” and “you aren’t good enough to get this” wins out if the person doesn’t fight it, day-in and day-out.

So, how do the best high-functioning people fight it? If you have a low-tolerance for self-help fluff, it can feel overwhelming or fake to try to fight it, but there are tools and ways of thinking you can use without falling trap to self-help gurus.

“The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill all the Experts”

(This is a reference to a Shakespeare line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” please do not take it as advice to kill anybody)

In a world so reliant on credentials and scientific planning, it is easy to convince yourself that unless you don’t have the right credentials like a PhD or an MBA, or the right pedigree like coming from a wealthy family, you won’t be able to actually hit your goals and, if you do, then you’re a fraud.

The reality is that the experts are irrelevant to your personal success. The ironic reality is that imposter syndrome is probably more common among so-called experts than it is any other group I have ever met.

Experts are irrelevant to your personal success.Somebody is not born an expert and does not become one simply by jumping through the right hoops and being declared an expert by a grand council of experts. Experts develop over many instances of trial and error, usually over many years. Expertise is developed through deciding to start and stick with something more than other people are willing to. “Experts” are people who actually do, not those who analyze and wait for somebody else to come along and tell them that they are now experts.

So, the paradoxical truth is that real experts are rarely recognized by experts, except for by their peers. Outside of the small group in which they developed their expertise, the outside world is not going to recognize them for all that they have achieved.

An entrepreneur who has made his success in renting cranes is probably not going to receive the accolades of a NYT columnist but probably has more expertise than the columnist in the area of crane setup and rentals. The columnist probably has more expertise in publishing in the New York Times and, by nature of that work, will be received as an expert by more people. That doesn’t make the entrepreneur a fraud — he just doesn’t receive the public recognition of his expertise as regularly.

You’ve probably heard stories about how a famous innovator, thinker, or entrepreneur of your choice started out and how many times it took them before they began to succeed. Ray Kroc had a mediocre-to-average sales career well into his 50s before starting McDonald’s, the strongest brand the world has ever seen. Colonel Sanders supposedly pitched KFC to more than 1000 people before anybody bought his recipe. Walt Disney went broke in his early 20s. Steve Jobs was fired from his own company after several product flops.

What set these men apart from others was their ability to just keep slogging through the hard work. They didn’t wait for anybody to declare them “experts” and probably were not thought of as experts until well after they became very successful.

Don’t let lack of credentials convince you that your success isn’t warranted. Know that even the so-called experts often feel that way. Becoming a real expert is more a function of working harder than everybody else than it is hoop-jumping and pedigree.

“Self-Concept is Destiny”

The psychologist Nathaniel Branden popularized an idea that he regularly referred to as “self-concept is destiny.” Usually used in reference to how people viewed their own romantic relationships, Branden used it to describe how individuals will work hard towards a goal only to unconsciously sabotage themselves once they’ve gotten close to it.

Applied to imposter syndrome, you can imagine the following:

John has had a drive ever since he was young to do great things. At the same time, he’s received messages that he isn’t good enough (whether it be from parents, school, colleagues, religion, etc., does not matter for the example). He’s pushed through these messages for years to join a young company and works hard to make it profitable and high-growth. Just as the high-growth and profitability is happening, his work ethic slacks, he starts to drop the ball, and the company starts to slide into stagnation with him. He’s caught off-guard, astonished at the stagnation but not surprised. In the back of his head, he hears the message he didn’t know he internalized — you don’t deserve this. He agrees, and starts to give up. His work ethic and product start to spiral into a nosedive.

So long as you work honestly and without harming others, all results are “deserved,” regardless of one’s upbringing.I’ve seen this happen several times with smart, hard-working, high-caliber young people I’ve met, and, regardless of the root cause (i.e., school telling them they need credentials to deserve anything, unrequited parental love, a guilt-ridden religious upbringing), the nosedive is the hardest part from which to recover.

There’s no silver bullet to fighting a negative self-concept but the solution starts with recognizing that you may have one. For whatever reason, if you’ve felt that when you achieve something, you don’t deserve it, recognize that feeling and fight it with your whole being. Understand that so long as you work honestly and without harming others, all results are “deserved,” regardless of one’s upbringing.

Start small by setting regular goals for yourself that you have no problem imagining yourself achieving.

Make other people hold you accountable. Choose somebody whom you respect to be a confidant and a coach through this process. Be open with them about what you are trying to achieve and hold them to checking in regularly with you on your progress. Don’t let them let you make excuses and squirm out of your progress.

Keep your skin in the game. People who suffer from imposter syndrome too often keep their goals close to the vest as a way of downplaying their failures when they “ultimately” come. If you project that you will succeed, you have more reason to work harder and succeed.

Change Your State

The state we are in determines how we respond to important decisions. If you are in a negative state after a long day of bureaucratic twists and turns and your feet are sore and you are hungry, you are more likely to respond to a difficult question in a hostile tone or shove somebody in the street at a crowded crosswalk. If you are in a positive state, you are more likely to give a productive answer and simply get through that crosswalk.

Once you are in the nosedive, you are almost always in a negative state. You are telling yourself, “this is not deserved” and “I knew this would all come crumbling apart.” You have to preempt this negative state by having a maintenance routine for yourself that makes it difficult to get that far in the first place.

For every person, this is going to mean something different. For most high-caliber young people, there are certain habits that will help reinforce state maintenance that will keep you well.

Routine is a useful tool that keeps you on track. Having a number of things that you must do every day to  both keep yourself accountable and give you a feeling of having accomplished something is a small step towards personal maintenance.

Exercise is another commonality among the high-functioning, high-caliber professionals and entrepreneurs I know. Very few allow themselves to get entirely bent out of shape. Individually-oriented activities like exercising at the gym or tennis are particularly common, as they allow you to track and test your own personal growth and progress.

Diet is another easy-to-control element that has a major impact on your state. The high-functioning individuals I know all have unique dietary preferences, almost always for personal reasons and not because of their health. They may not eat carbs, or they may not drink, or they may only eat red meat — but the discipline they show with their diet carries itself over into other areas of their lives.

Maintaining a state that isn’t negative isn’t about buying into fluffy self-help nonsense — it’s about exerting control over your life and reinforcing that you are the one in the driver’s seat, not some unseen forces against yourself. When the stuff hits the fan, it will be easier for you to reclaim control than it will be for somebody who just allows their personal maintenance to go with the wind.

This first appeared on the Praxis blog. Praxis is a 9-month startup apprenticeship program that leads directly to a full time job. No college degree required.

  • Zak Slayback is a venture capital and private equity professional and a small business owner. He is the author of How to Get Ahead (McGraw-Hill, 2019) and wrote the foreword to John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down (New Society Publishers, 2017). He lives in the United States and writes at He is a Eugene S. Thorpe Fellow and FEE alum.