Oh yes, I’m the Great Pretender
- Global, South Africa
- Arete Advisors, Entrepreneurship, Impostor syndrome, Management, SME, Start-ups
- October 11, 2020
Ever felt like you got to where you are today because you’re lucky? Humility may be a beautiful character trait, but be careful that it isn’t impostor syndrome rearing its ugly head, especially if you are a high achiever.
Queen’s hit song “The Great Pretender” reminds us of some of the challenges of impostor syndrome.
As Freddie sang…“Too real is this feeling of make believe / Too real when I feel what my heart can’t conceal” – of course we know that he was singing about a different topic entirely, but those words are absolutely applicable to anyone who has ever dealt with imposter syndrome.
There is a paradoxical link between humility and impostor syndrome. In most cases we are taught to be humble from a young age, but this can have the unfortunate side effect of making us question whether our success is deserved at all.
Is it the result of hard work and smart decisions, or just the random forces of the universe and it could’ve happened to anyone? The answer is usually the former, but sufferers of impostor syndrome will believe the latter.
In case you are wondering whether the most successful people in the world have the same struggle, numerous public figures including the likes of Sheryl Sandberg, Serena Williams, Maya Angelou and Tom Hanks have publicly acknowledged feelings that clearly point to impostor syndrome.
As we will discuss further on, highly successful people are more susceptible to impostor syndrome than others.
It’s all in your head
We are in an age of exponential technological advancement. In the past decade we have seen the smartphone change the world. In the next decade, we will likely see artificial intelligence do the same.
Despite this, business is still about people, which means that business is rooted to at least some extent in psychology. We have discussed the issues around cognitive biases before and will now consider an equally dangerous phenomenon: impostor syndrome.
Impostor syndrome is the feeling that you’ve only made it in life thanks to luck, rather than talent or qualifications. It may assist in keeping you humble, but it’s also holding you back from reaching your potential.
In the late 1970s, researchers believed that impostor syndrome was unique to women. This is obviously not the case. However, whilst men are certainly sufferers of impostor syndrome, there is research supporting the notion that women struggle more with the issue due to social constructs of how women “should be” – thankfully, this is changing and changing quickly.
Everyone looks forward to the day when gender inequality, perceived and actual, is fully extinguished.
Types of impostors
Our understanding of impostor syndrome has thankfully come a long way in the past four decades, to the point where an expert like Valerie Young is able to identify patterns in people who experience these feelings.
For example, perfectionists feel like failures when something goes slightly wrong. Experts feel like they need to know everything before they start a project, which also makes them hesitate to be a (much-needed) voice in the room in a debate at school or work.
Natural geniuses are used to things coming to them easily, so any accomplishment that requires work will fill them with a feeling of failure.
The list goes on.
Soloists want to accomplish things on their own, avoiding asking for help. Supermen or superwomen push themselves to breaking point to prove that they aren’t impostors; a cruel irony if ever we’ve seen one.
The cause of impostor syndrome is an area of much debate, but many believe that the roots of impostor syndrome are in childhood experiences.
Sometimes you truly have no idea what you’re doing, but those situations are rare. In most cases, the feeling of “winging it” is classic impostor syndrome. You aren’t the only one winging it – everyone is. There’s no A/B testing in real life. There isn’t a playbook for every possible decision.
All successful people find themselves in situations where there is no right or wrong answer; there is only a set of potential actions and forecast outcomes. The answer isn’t wrong, but the forecasts usually are.
Dunning-Kruger effect and why high achievers suffer more
The Dunning-Kruger effect explains how difficulties in recognising one’s own incompetence can lead to inflated self-assessments. The more skilled you are, the more likely you are to realise that you don’t (and cannot possibly) know everything. This causes you to doubt yourself and feel less worthy.
Academics believe that impostor feelings occur in 70% of people, but the percentage feels much higher in high-performing and successful people. If one considers the traits of impostor syndrome alongside the Dunning-Kruger effect, one can reasonably deduce that higher achievers are more likely to doubt themselves and therefore attribute their success to chance.
It’s a perfect example of “ignorance is bliss” and provides an explanation for why so many brilliant people struggle to recognise their own abilities.
Dangerous side effects
Impostor syndrome can be debilitating. Side effects include general anxiety, lack of self-confidence, depression and frustration. These feelings lead to unhappiness among the most brilliant members of our society.
Perhaps the worst side effect of all is the number of dreams that are taken to the graveyard thanks to impostor syndrome. Far too many talented people with great ideas will never take the leap needed to see those ideas come to fruition.
Those who believe that they will always land on their feet are far likelier to take risks. Covid-19 and lockdown has brought untold hardship to many, but it has also forced people to adapt and in some cases completely change careers.
Guess what? Most skilled people landed on their feet and found a way.
Take the first step
Some will call you risk-averse; others will call you cautious and measured. That’s ok. If the impostor causes you to exercise more caution than most, that doesn’t make you a B-team entrepreneur or corporate manager. On the contrary, it makes you an analytical leader who prefers to make informed decisions.
The speed at which you move isn’t important. The important thing is to start. If you have a dream or a great idea, then impostor syndrome will make it difficult for you to take that first step towards your goal. Once you’ve taken a step and tasted some success, you’ll feel more confident about taking the second step. It only gets easier with each milestone reached.
The most important weapon in your arsenal to tackle impostor syndrome is to recognise it in the first place. Not everyone is a Richard Branson or a maverick and the world is a better place for it.
Whatever you do, just don’t let impostor syndrome prevent you from reaching your full potential.
This article is a collaborative effort between The Finance Ghost and Arete Advisors – all rights reserved.