Earlier this year I was sitting at a round table in a conference session listening with rapt attention to a woman who is at the top of her game in my field. She’s the co-author of one of the most widely recognized books on career development, and she has been speaking, writing, and consulting for many years. Her session was incredible. It was inspiring and interactive, and I could see everyone in the room was energized by her presence, her knowledge, and her passion.
After the session, I approached her to introduce myself and tell her what a great job I thought she did. She accepted the compliment graciously and asked me to save her a seat at lunch so we could chat some more.
Over lunch she said something that stunned me.
“I get so nervous when I come to these events because I can’t believe people want to hear what I have to say.”
This from a woman who is a legend in the industry.
At some level, she confessed, she has always felt like she wasn’t quite good enough to be called an expert. With so many other smart, talented people publishing books, giving great presentations, and coming up with new ideas, it’s easy to feel like everyone is smarter and more successful.
This is impostor syndrome, and it’s surprisingly common among people, particularly women, who trade on their expertise. It’s that feeling that you don’t really know enough and that someone is going to expose you for the fraud you know you are.
The thing is, if you think you might be out of your league, you’re pretty normal. In fact, 70 percent of Americans reported feeling like an impostor at work, and some of the most famous experts in the world—from Albert Einstein to Marie Curie—reported having these feelings throughout their life’s work.
We live in a world where social media constantly inundates us with images of people at their best. From LinkedIn announcements about new positions, accolades, and awards to Facebook posts showing smiling, happy, successful people, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that others are doing better. But the truth is that people don’t post everything that happens. We only see the wins and rarely know about all of the losses.
How do we avoid these feelings? While you may not ever be able to completely eliminate the nagging worry that you aren’t quite good enough, here are some ways to keep your focus on the right things.
Keep a List of Wins
It can be easy to forget when you’re having a tough day, month, or year, that you have done some great stuff. Keep a list of your best work. Whether it’s an award, a lovely e-mail from a client thanking you for your work, or a creation that represents you at your best, keep track of those successes.
If Emma Watson Can Do It…
Even the most successful women in the world, including Oprah Winfrey, Sheryl Sandberg, and, yes, Emma Watson, experience this feeling of being inadequate. Yet they still get up and pursue their dreams. So should you. Recognize the feeling for what it is—something that we learn through our culture and something that’s reinforced by social media, but that is not actually true. Once you know what it is, you can remind yourself that it’s not actually true.
Real Impostors Don’t Get Impostor Syndrome
There are people out there who are con artists and frauds, pretending to be something they are not. I’m guessing that’s not you. If you’re feeling like an impostor, paradoxically, it means you’re not actually faking it.
Life is tough enough without adding extra stress by believing you’re not good enough to be where you are or that other people are doing better. We’re all on a journey that lasts a lifetime, and we’re all going to have some successes and some failures along the way. But, in the end, it’s about setting your own goals and recognizing that you define your own success.