How to end impostor syndrome (once and for all)

I’ve got a confession. When I need to give the directions Right or Left, I use a shortcut. I inconspicuously create an “L” with my left hand, to ensure I’ve got it right.

(Yes, it’s the same trick I’m currently teaching my 6 year old.)

Thankfully, the Internet confirms I’m not alone with this directional disorientation. Psychology Today lists a series of studies showing that “up to one-third of people experienced frustration with everyday situations that involve the discrimination of left and right.”

This sent me down a Reddit Rabbithole looking for similar #adultingfails, such as:

  • I can’t quickly translate the months and their numbers (jan = 1, feb = 2, etc). I’ve still gotta say the months aloud and count on my fingers.
  • I cannot for the life of me drink and walk at the same time.
  • I can only tie my shoes bunny ears-style.

(That last one made me giggle.)

Now that you’ve just learned about my left vs. right issues, here’s another one for you. There are three words that are utterly impossible for me to say:

“I’m a writer.”

Yup. 6 years of writing every day for 2 hours. Millions of words. Hundreds of blog posts. Bylines at reputable publications. Heck even the former title Contributing Editor.

Yet I still cringe every time I consider saying those three words.

Maybe it’s because I was Computer Science major in college. Or I never went to J-School. Or I secretly don’t think that my writing is that good.

Impostor syndrome is a universal feeling. It happens when you get that early promotion (and are thrust into managing people who are older than you). It happens when you courageously walk away from a reputable career and opt for one without a playbook. It happens when you plunge into a niche topic and – lo-and-behold – you end up knowing more than the layperson.

Show me someone who’s done great things, I’ll show you someone who felt like an impostor doing them.

Building the plane as you fly it

As I ventured into the world of blogging, coaching, speaking and online teaching, I often describe my experience as:

I’m building the plane as I fly it.

So many of my days have been spent learning, testing, tweaking, failing and picking myself back up.

Saying that I don’t really know what I’m doing is an understatement. Yet things somehow continue to move forward. Here are some strategies that have helped me overcome Impostor Syndrome.

1. Stop comparing yourself to others’ highlight reels

If you open Twitter, you’re greeted by epic tweetstorms by 25 year oldCEOs who have cracked the code on everything from product-market-fit to managing remote teams during COVID.

Scroll a bit further and you’ll see 56 year-old Lenny Kravitz who cracked the code on both Covid-workouts and Father Time.

It’s tempting to feel like an impostor when you’re comparing yourself to someone’s highlight reel. (Not to mention their photoshopped abs). It’s also critical to remember that just because we can’t hear their inner monologues of self doubt, it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.

We’ll just never know.

In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca reminds us of the power that arises from staying in our own lane:

“No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.”

2. Recognize the when-then trap is a road to nowhere

I want you to think of your last great accomplishment at work. Maybe you got that promotion a year early. Or you crushed your sales target thanks to an unexpected new lead.

How many days (or minutes) did it take for you to set your sights on the next goal? Meet the when-then trap.

The when-then trap is the optical illusion that we’re one step away the elusive feeling of being at peace with ourselves. One more promotion. One more bonus. One more Lenny Kravitz ab. Yet we’re left with bated breath for a moment that never comes.

Seems like quite the recipe for feeling like an impostor.

We can combat this feeling by savoring and keeping track of our small wins. My approach is to keep a series of short notes, which I call my Jar of Awesome). These notes will re-frame your window of progress, while providing an on-demand reminder that not only are you not an impostor, you’re awesome.

Dr. Emily Anhalt the co-founder of the mental healthy startup Coa calls it a “self esteem file.”

Hold onto the nice things people say about you. When you’re feeling like an impostor, look through it to remind yourself that you have made a difference in people’s lives.

Here’s RadReader and University of Pennsylvania Professor Adam Grant on why this practice can deliver so much joy:

These moments of joy are really important and part of what makes life worth living and what we have to look forward to. Being human is being able to enjoy life.

3. Provide value

I have always found selling icky (and am not particularly good at it). And my impostor syndrome goes into overdrive when I’m asking someone to pay me for a service or product that I’ve created. “Who am I, to ask someone to give me money for this thing I barely know?”

Here, a small pivot can go a long way. Instead of dwelling on expertise (what does that even really mean) I re-frame my focus on delivering value. Delivering value to my students, colleagues and customers is something that I can measure and control, and removes me from the reference frame of being an expert.

Steph Smith’s post you don’t need to quit your job introduced me to a lovely duality: creating value versus capturing value. A deliberate focus on creating value sets you up towards the much easier glide path of capturing value – especially if you’re playing the long game.

4. Accept that you are one

What if I told you that there was no playbook? There is no prescribed way to manage a blossoming career, young kids and remote learning. There’s no time-tested formula taking a fragment of an idea and turning it into a multi-million dollar company.

Maybe… just maybe… everyone is winging it. It doesn’t mean that they are incompetent; it just means that life is a series on-the-fly learnings that usually find a way of working themselves out.

In his final column for the Guardian, the health and happiness reporter Oliver Burkeman reminds us that just because we’re winging it, doesn’t mean that we’re “doomed to chaos” and on the contrary:

It’s that you – unconfident, self-conscious, all-too-aware-of-your-flaws – potentially have as much to contribute to your field, or the world, as anyone else.

He continues that humanity is divided into two groups:

On the one hand, those who are improvising their way through life, patching solutions together and putting out fires as they go, but deluding themselves otherwise; and on the other, those doing exactly the same, except that they know it.

And in that second group, you’ll find the Fortune 500 CEO who still ties their shoelaces using the bunny ears method.

A huge shout-out to Max Moss for suggesting this post idea.

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