I start a new job this week, so I’ve been experiencing more than the usual amount of something called Imposter Syndrome.
The impostor syndrome, sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments.
For some reason — maybe it’s the rain — this is something that affects people from the West of Scotland (like myself) more than most others.1 It’s so pervasive that it took moving to the USA (land of super-confidence) for me to recognize it. Eventually I discovered that it was something common enough to actually have a name. As I read about it, the following symptoms seemed all too familiar:
Unrealistic expectations. A feeling that everything you do should be absolutely perfect, and that nothing you do can be less than your best work. Sure, this is a good standard to have as an aspiration — but it’s unachievable by anyone. This goes hand in hand with an unhealthy dissatisfaction with things you complete. The results might be pretty damn good, but you focus on whatever went wrong or didn’t turn out great, as opposed to a holistic view of the entire result.
Anything good is luck, anything bad is your fault. This is certainly a more attractive attitude to have than the opposite — that anything good is entirely due to your own merit. But it’s toxic in its own way. It also directly contributes to another symptom:
Constant feeling that success is going to evaporate any moment. I remember a few years ago, when I had no money and not much was going on in my life. There was a sort of carefree feeling about it — it can’t get much worse, ha ha. Nowadays I have so many good things in my life that I find myself experiencing something strange that I never could have at that time — certainty of impending doom. All good things are going to suddenly disappear and the earth will fall from beneath my feet.
It’s really no surprise that so many people have these feelings, when you look at what so much of our culture and media tell us. Take those expectations, for example. How often have we heard perfection lauded as an achievable goal, and how often are our heroes those who refused to accept anything less than perfection? The defining thing people know about Steve Jobs, the iconic CEO, is that he was a perfectionist who iterated and iterated until the products Apple produced under him were industry-changing miracles.
“This never would have happened when Steve Jobs was still around!” is the most-used trope in tech journalism nowadays. Thing is: even Steve Jobs’ biggest successes had their flaws. Back in 2007 Apple shipped the first ever iPhone. It wasn’t perfect — you can tell that it wasn’t because since then Apple has shipped an improved version every year.
They strove for perfection, but in the end they shipped something that was far from perfect — and it was still great.
All of this cultural baggage weighs down on us until we begin to think that we are somehow falling short of perfection through some individual incompetence. Imposter Syndrome.
What about the insane feeling that everything good that happens is luck, and everything bad is your fault? At first blush this even seems like quite a noble way to think. I’m comfortable attributing good results to the hard work of others, or the machinations of providence, or some other unknowable factor. What I really don’t believe in — if I think about it rationally — is luck.
In actuality: you’re never the sole architect of your fate, but you make a significant contribution to it. It’s pretty unlikely that someone who relied solely on “good luck” — that is, a fortunate confluence of possibilities that leads to a favorable conclusion — would do very well in the long run. But something tells you that you don’t really deserve any good that happens to you. Imposter Syndrome.
I’ll be honest: I haven’t managed to banish the symptoms of Imposter Syndrome. But I have found some things that mitigate it:
Remember accomplishments. If I really think about it logically, there are lots of things I’ve been at least partially responsible for that ended up great. They’re on my resume.
Realize that almost everyone feels this way sometimes. Part of the problem is that we tend to assume that everyone else has it together and we’re the only ones who are hiding our inadequacies. We all think this…
Of course, the most helpful thing you can do is to try to recognize Imposter Syndrome for what it is. Like so many mind-ghouls, naming it is the most effective way to knock out the fangs.
Anyway, wish me luck as I pretend to be competent in the short time I have left before it all comes crashing down…
Published on September 23rd, 2013