The benefits of Imposter Syndrome
It wasn't into my late 30s that I first truly experienced imposter syndrome. I'd been recruited to do a project that I wasn't an expert in. I really loved the idea of the assignment because I already knew at this point that it was the direction I wanted to go. Still, it was scary. I asked multiple times, "Are you sure you want me!?". Yet the person who had brought me in hadn't questioned me once, nor said anything to me that would make me question myself. It was all me doing the questioning. I felt like a fraud.
I said yes to the project because I was excited that it would be in collaboration with someone else. I told myself that they'd balance out everything I didn't know and would be the guide for the project. It was the crutch that gave me permission (to myself) to take on something scary.
When I started all the paperwork hadn't been signed by the other collaborator so I was instructed to go ahead and start and do the best that I can. Because I already was an imposter going into this project, rather than someone who had been working as a professional in the field for years, this was terrifying.
You can learn anything you don't know.
My first reaction was to freeze and say I can't do this. But then I started. Slowly, but I got going, and it started with the list that would guide what would turn into 1.5 years of work. Little did I know it, but I was building a roadmap.
As I moved forward on the project I knew I couldn't just make it up. It needed to be founded on something. I looked to the competition, but then got immersed in the subject matter from every angle I could discover.
Early on, a colleague who had been working on a similar project in my situation but started months before me spoke the magic words: "Anne, don't worry, anything you don't know you can learn."
With these magic words the heavens opened above. School had taught me that I had to know everything and I had to be tested on it using my memory to prove that I know it. Little by little in the real world I was uncovering that may not be the best model. We shouldn't have to ask for permission to learn something we don't know, but as the resistance in me was strong, I needed these words of empowerment.
Early on the thing in my head that kept me moving forward was knowing that the "expert" would be joining the project. Except that never happened. The partnership dissolved, and now it was on me.
As time passed I focused on diving into the material instead of being afraid of it.
I learned everything I could learn about the subject. I read books and articles, listened to podcasts, and found a friend in the industry who I could ask questions to without feeling judged. The funny thing was I think she really came to love my questions —which often came from words or concepts I'd picked up as a side note in podcast conversations—and helped make her think more critically about her own work and appreciate what she does know.
While initially I'd been fixated on being the expert I was realizing the benefit of being the beginner. Sunryu Suzuki's beginner's mind states that “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert there are few.” An expert may already think they know everything, which is the problem. They're closed to thinking differently about the problem, and often are "too busy" to read that new book or article. Meanwhile the beginner is open to all possibilities.
From the beginner's mind I was closer to the mindset of those using the end product. I understood where they were coming from and what was new and overwhelming. Not being the expert was actually a huge advantage. But it was only an asset because I wasn't afraid to ask questions and admit I didn't know everything.
Nobody tells you, but insecurity and questioning oneself happens to everyone. The real challenge is to ask yourself how you’re going to respond to when it arrives at your door. Are you going to run away and never come back, or see what it may become?
As the months passed my lack of knowledge coming into the project became my super power. I learned everything I didn't know and more. I got paid to learn!
I thrived falling down the rabbit hole of learning. I felt alive. It was like I’d climbed a giant mountain but the view and what was on the other side was better than I could have imagined.
Because I was teaching, I had to understand the material at the next level. If you want to make sure you have a command of a subject, teach it to someone else. Bonus level: do it in 2 minutes or less.
At some point I realized I knew more than many people who were actually working in the field. This was an empowering realization. But because of that beginner's mindset I wasn't naive to think there weren't things I didn't know or come from experience. Still, I pushed through and asked as many questions as I could to those who had lived it. Curiosity killed the imposter.
This phenomenon led to the realization that because I felt like such a major imposter, it's also what led to my biggest growth professionally, and personally. I had to ask myself: was I only now experiencing imposter syndrome because I hadn't challenged myself enough in the past?!
Growth is something I'd heard talked about, but don't think I had fully grasped. Nor did I realize just how much one can grow and the trajectory you can take when you accept and embrace that you don't know everything. When you give the person who feels like a fraud the tools to overcome it.
I'm not talking about being an over-achiever, I'm talking about challenging oneself to get on the path where you want to be. This rarely (never??) happens without taking a risk. It takes trying, and trusting. Instead of running away from what scares us, when we embrace it with open arms, the reward at the end is something you're able to see and feel. You don't need outside validation because you know you came, you conquered.
It’s important to remember even the loudest and most confident people don’t know everything either, they just carry themselves like they do. While this may not be in your nature, ask yourself what would happen if you did start to act like you were at the top of your game. How would that affect your mindset? Can you use projection to minimize qualities of the imposter??
This tale is not the only time I experienced imposter syndrome. The next time it came back I more fully embraced it. While I had not officially done this kind of work before, I had all the experience under my belt to set me up for success. I also now knew I could learn anything I didn’t know. Know what else gave me more confidence? Seeing someone else do the work before me and realizing how sub par it was.
We often take for granted what we’re capable because we live in a bubble surrounded by people like us. Break out of that and you realize all effort is not created equal. This boost in confidence can also help you conquer the imposter inside you. It doesn’t magically happen, it comes from putting in the time and doing the work. When you do, you’ll feel it, and it’s a good feeling.
A tool for growth.
Imposter syndrome isn’t always a bad thing. Consider how it can help you grow and transform in ways you never imagined.
As an individual, start before you're ready. You never know until you try. Only through doing can you make a fair judgement of what you're capable of. And I'm 99% certain that you're capable of more than you ever thought possible, even if there are bumps in the road, or if you feel like a fraud. Know you are not alone in feeling like this, but don’t let that stop you.
As a manager this may mean that you need to trust the talent that you see in people even if they don't fully see it for themselves. You can be the force that leads to greater outcomes. Keep believing. And make others believe too.
No matter what position you’re in, it's OK if you don't know everything or how to do everything. I have faith in you. You can do this even if your head says otherwise. You also know more than you give yourself credit for, so consider a mindset shift.
Remember, life isn't a solo act, so asking for help is allowed and encouraged. In fact, it could benefit us to get out of our heads more.
What is imposter syndrome and how can you combat it? - Elizabeth Cox (TEDed)
Growth vs. fixed mindset - Carol Dweck (Brain Pickings)
3 tips to boost your confidence (TEDed)
The power of vulnerability – Brené Brown (TED)
The secrets & lies of feeling like an imposter (Courage & Spice podcast)
Anne Ditmeyer is a creative coach + consultant who offers 1:1 sessions and coaching to help get you where you want to be. You don’t have to go it alone.