Impostor syndrome lite
I got a LinkedIn in-mail the other day. “Hello content creator,” it said. “If you want to engage your readers, this is what they want to read about.”
One, two, three.
Bish, bash, bosh and Bob’s your uncle.
Because of course the audience is singular and unified and they all want to hear the same three things from everyone. I am guessing here. As the message wasn’t exactly personalised. It called me Mark, among other things.
And on that magical list of three topics my audience apparently wants to hear about was ‘impostor syndrome’.
LinkedIn encouraged me to write about it.
So here it is.
If nothing else, as a warning against carpet-bombing people with undifferentiated suggestions. Because I bet what follows below is not what the friendly LinkedIn marketing team had in mind.
Impostor syndrome is real.
When I first got to Cambridge one of my peers said to no-one in particular over lunch one day: “Do you ever wonder if you are an administrative error and someone will knock on your dorm room door one of these days and tell you it’s time to pack up and go home?”
We all nodded.
All of us.
Every single last one.
Since then, I have often gotten opportunities that felt overwhelming and made me feel eeeeeek am I up to this?
I have also not gotten a look-in for things I was so perfect for, that they might as well had had my name, shoe size and height as requirements. Things that I was definitely up to and up for and right for.
I didn’t even get a look-in.
And that messes with your head and your heart, of course.
And if you are prone to some self-doubt, those times when you seemed like an obvious match and didn’t get called up and called in, they feed the doubt. Voracious monster that it is.
And when the big breaks come, you will get a moment of ‘oh mamma’. Both because a little bit of trepidation is a healthy thing. And because every time you didn’t get something you were right for wreaks havoc with your self-esteem. It’s only natural.
Years of experience teach you that there is always more at play than you and your performance. But it takes a while to learn that. And it doesn’t always silence the doubt.
And that’s OK.
A bit of doubt. A bit of a flutter in the chest. It’s normal.
And frankly, if you are about to throw your hat in the ring for an opportunity, if you are about to open your mouth and challenge the direction of travel of a negotiation, then having a moment of self-doubt is not a bad thing.
Provided it’s not crippling. Provided it doesn’t silence you.
‘You are the expert in this’
It’s late November 2006. It’s bloody cold. It’s dark because I have a full-time job by now so my PhD defence has to happen after hours. I am tired. I am nervous. Mostly I am scared that I don’t have it in me to go another round if they instruct major corrections (they didn’t). Four years of work culminate in this: two venerated professors, a badly lit upstairs room at the London School of Economics, bad coffee and a decision with no appeal. My fate is in their hands.
As I am about to walk into the room my supervisor said, “Remember: you are the expert in this.”
“You have spent four years on an original question that nobody had tackled before: that’s a requirement to get a PhD topic approved.”
“So by definition nobody, and I mean nobody, knows more about this than you. You are the expert. Remember that as you go in.”
I gave a hollow laugh and said, “Jesus… is this what being an expert feels like?”
And he just said… “Yes.”
I passed. No corrections. This expert now had a badge and a floppy hat.
Weeks later, over a drink, my supervisor and I chatted about this again. Self-doubt, he believed, is the last bastion against the sort of arrogance that makes you a jerk.
Nobody wants to work with a jerk.
And that’s what your PhD is. Your entry card into academia. You get it, you are now a colleague. They would rather you weren’t a jerk.
Let’s just say, it doesn’t always work.
But it is absolutely true that you can be a global leading expert and have self-doubt.
In fact, you ought to have some self-doubt. What got you here won’t get you there. The world keeps getting smarter. Are you moving at pace?
Crippling self-doubt is obviously a problem. And I do not advocate for that in the slightest.
Incapacitating doubt that keeps you away from the fray is obviously something to be battled – though not necessarily by whispering quietly to yourself ‘you are enough’.
It takes more than that if the doubt is ever-present.
Pervasive doubt is a millstone around your neck. I totally get it. I have seen it in many talented people and it is a serious burden.
But a little bit?
A little bit may be a very good thing.
I thought of that and him, my PhD supervisor, a few years back when I heard a summer intern tell his boss that he would not do a piece of work because he wasn’t interested, he had no capacity and it was not, and I quote, his area of expertise.
My first thought, I admit, was a very inarticulate ‘you are 17. You have no area of expertise, you toddler’. And before you go up in arms about podcasting and YouTube content creation and all the amazing stuff young people can be experts in, this was transaction banking. So, no.
My second thought, barely more coherent, was ‘OK, this is what entitlement looks like’.
My third thought took a bit longer to form.
And it went from a grudging admiration for the ballsy attempt at faking it till you make it to the realisation that my supervisor was right about nobody wanting to work with jerks. Because of course the rules of engagement in a corporate are such that you have to dance the dance. And that kid’s arrogance and total lack of impostor syndrome created work and problems for a whole raft of people, making him most definitely a jerk.
The impertinent youth’s manager and their managers were called in to assess whether the intern was adequately briefed and managed. HR was brought in to review the internship rules and milestones. And because the person in question was a minor, his parents were invited to sit in on the sessions.
They didn’t come or respond to the invitation and the youth was totally unphased throughout the process. In the end, he shrugged and did a part of his assignment in what was left of his internship while the HR team and functional manager were dragged over hot coals over whether they had managed the situation appropriately.
I don’t know what went on in those meetings, and although I know the devil resides in the details, I also know I will take a little bit of self-doubt over wanton self-assurance any day.
While this drama was going on (the functional manager was a friend), my own intern, Brian, was confident enough to don an elephant suit and walk the corridors of the office. But he had enough self-awareness to ask what we were trying to achieve and how we would know it was working.
Self-doubt isn’t about timidity. It’s about assuming you don’t already know all that there is to know.
I don’t want to see anyone held back by the constant fear that they are not good enough but, frankly, I do want to see people who continuously ask themselves whether they are good enough. Because the fastest way to becoming the jerk nobody wants to work with is to dispense with the question.
Keep your standards high boys and girls. Particularly of yourself. Don’t relax into your success. Build up people’s confidence, not by exterminating their self-doubt, but by celebrating it as a force for good. A force that propels learning and constant betterment. A force that accepts that you are not already the best you can be and therefore there is scope for learning, reflection, improvement, feedback and counsel.
Don’t normalise arrogance.
Don’t reward cockiness.
The world is not divided between people crippled with self-doubt and those thinking they are ready to run the show because they said so.
But if it was, if that was the choice, I would pick those doubters any day and twice on Sunday.
They will work ten times as hard, they will turn everything into a teachable moment, they will laugh at themselves and be open to feedback and, when it’s all said and done, they will not be the jerk nobody wants to work with.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!