Ever achieved a business milestone—a successful book launch or an income goal perhaps—and thought “I just got lucky”? Or maybe you worried that someday people would realize you weren’t as smart or as competent as they thought you were?
That inability to “own” your accomplishments could be imposter syndrome. This occurs when people attribute their success to outside factors instead of their own talent or hard work, according to Valerie Young, a leading expert on impostor syndrome and author of “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.”
As Young’s book title suggests, women often experience imposter syndrome, but they’re not the only ones. Some very successful men sometimes feel like a fraud too. In a New York Times interview about his Broadway debut, Tom Hanks said he could relate to his character who felt lucky rather than talented. After receiving a $2 million signing bonus with the Toronto Blue Jays, baseball player Daniel Norris wondered “who am I to deserve that?”
Here are a couple of groups that commonly suffer from imposter syndrome, along with Young’s explanation of why:
- Creative professionals such as artists, actors or writers are judged by subjective standards that can mess with their sense of self. Those in the creative professions often conflicting critiques of their work, too. One person might say a performance is emotionally intense, while another might say it lacks that emotional honesty. Famous creatives who’ve reportedly experienced imposter syndrome include Maya Angelou, Kate Winslet and Tina Fey. Yes, even celebrated poet and memoirist Maya Angelou fears being “found out.”
- Solo business owners don’t have bosses to given them an annual performance review or coworkers to bounce around ideas with. Without that feedback loop, it’s easy to loose perspective and question your talents.
- Professionals in a field where their race or gender puts them in the minority. “A sense of belonging fosters confidence,” Young says. “If you’re a woman in commercial real estate and there’s not a lot of other women, that can compound [imposter syndrome].”
- Anyone whose competence has been stereotyped. “You could be the youngest person on a team and people make assumption about your competence,” Young says. Sometimes people also stereotype different ethnic groups and their competence, which can also contribute to imposter syndrome.
Of course, everyone has skill or knowledge gaps, but not everyone considers those gaps or potential failures as a source of deep shame. People with imposter syndrome do, however. “No one likes to fail,” Young says. “To somebody who doesn’t feel like an imposter, that’s just normal life but if you feel like an imposter [failure is] unacceptable in your rulebook.”
Here’s how to combat imposter syndrome and keep it from stymying your personal and professional success:
1. Think Like an Entrepreneur
“If you want to stop feeling like an imposter you have to stop thinking like one, which is really good news if you are in business,” Young says. Not all business-owners consider themselves entrepreneurs. But the ones that do have a leg up on combatting imposter syndrome because entrepreneurial thinking allows business-owners to take calculated risks and pivot when something doesn’t work instead of getting bogged down by setbacks.
“There’s no shame in failure; failure is the opportunity to begin again,” Young says. Understanding that you can pick up the pieces and try something new can make you less inhabited about putting yourself out there and owning your accomplishments. Being wrong once in a while doesn’t make you a fraud; it makes you human.
2. Get Outside Input
Young recommends that solopreneurs pair up with each other to have a Monday morning check-in meeting. “You’re each going to take 20 minutes, talk about what you’re doing that week and where you need help to have that accountability touchstone,” Young says. Another way to get that outside feedback and avoid isolation is to hire a business coach, she adds. Or you could tap into free business resources such as SCORE.org if you’re in the U.S. One caveat: Try not to compare yourself to your accountability partner or others or you may start feeling inadequate all over again. Oftentimes we see someone’s successes but we don’t see all the times they failed or had to start over.
3. Reframe Competence and Failure
Become more aware of negative thoughts so that you can reframe them rather than replaying negative self-talk on an endless feedback loop. Your inner critic isn’t helping anyone, but it can be challenging to silence that voice if you’re used those thoughts. When faced with an unfamiliar challenge, your first response might be “‘oh my gosh, I have no idea what I’m doing,’” Young says. “You need to reframe that as ‘boy, I’m really going to learn a lot.’”
One way to gain perspective and think like a non-imposter is to pretend your situation is in a movie rather than something you’re experiencing personally. “If I could call in the script writers, what would they think and do in that situation?” Young asks. “Focus more on effort than ‘being smart,’” she says. “We can’t know everything but we’re always smart enough to figure it out.”
About the Author: Freelance journalist Susan Johnston Taylor covers entrepreneurship, small business and lifestyle for publications including The Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur and FastCompany.com. Follow her on Twitter @UrbanMuseWriter.