I was recently promoted to executive vice president in a company where I started as an entry level coordinator right out of college. I took advantage of the company’s training and generous education reimbursements, got an MBA, and rose steadily. I never dreamed I would get this far, and I am thrilled about it.
Until I am not.
I have excellent mentors and feel very good about my plan in my new role, but in the quiet hours of the night I have serious doubts. I worry that someone will do a double take and ask “What is she doing here?” I worry that someone will look at my college record and realize I did two years at a community college (to save money and live at home) before going to University. I worry that someone will find out I didn’t get a 4.0 average in my MBA program. I worry that I am the emperor with no clothes and that someone will realize it.
My partner laughs at me, telling me I am being irrational, but I just can’t shake this feeling. Is something wrong with me?
Feel Like a Fraud
Dear Feel Like a Fraud,
Every so often, a topic flares up everywhere I look. In a week’s period, I heard the same theme from a colleague, a couple of clients, and an old friend. The theme is imposter syndrome.
That, my friend, is what you are suffering from.
Imposter syndrome might be defined as being dogged by a feeling that you aren’t quite as good or quite as smart as others think you are. It shows up exactly the way you describe: feeling like a fraud and worrying that someday people are going to figure out you didn’t deserve to get the award or the promotion or to have your book published.
I first encountered it decades ago, in my early twenties, when my then-husband was working as an actor in a new play by a very successful songwriter and playwright. They were hanging around together during the endless tech rehearsals and got to talking and she admitted she felt like a fraud and had no idea why she had been so lucky as to have received so much recognition. She said she worried that one day soon everyone would collectively wake up and realize she had no talent at all. I was struck at the time by how horrible that must feel and worried what it meant for people who hadn’t achieved any success or recognition at all. I mean, if someone that successful felt that way, was there any hope for the rest of us?
Around that time, someone shared this Winston Churchill quote with me: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
That quote kept me going, striving through crappy job after crappy job, and it sustains me to this day.
Much later, when I became a coach, I learned how common imposter syndrome is among very successful people. In my experience, it is remarkably common among folks who have undeniable achievements. It is not a sign of a mental health issue or even low self-esteem—rather, it’s a sign of impossibly high standards and of big dreams and ambitions.
The strategy that seems to work best when imposter syndrome rears its head is to talk about it with people you trust. Your partner laughing at you isn’t helpful, so find others. I suspect you will find that others share a similar feeling—people you think of as brilliant, hardworking, and wonderful! So it kind of reflects back that if others who are crushing it feel that way, absurdly, it is probably okay that you do, too. It will almost certainly give you what you need in terms of perspective.
Ultimately, I think it is probably healthy for us to sometimes wonder Am I doing my very best or am I phoning it in? Are we challenging ourselves to go the extra mile or are we coasting? Did we really work for the last stellar performance or did we get lucky? Maybe a little of both? There is no shame in any of it, as long as we are telling ourselves the truth.
I do think some feelings that come with imposter syndrome are mixed up with the confusing concept of who is deserving. Good things happen to terrible people. Terrible things happen to good people. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. For folks who have a strong religious grounding or spiritual practice, what we do and don’t deserve can seem pretty straightforward. But even those folks can have a strong “why me?” response to any event, good or bad. There is no way to establish what anyone really deserves. Personally, I have given up on the whole idea of what I do or don’t deserve because it ultimately seems subjective.
Martin Seligman, in his book Learned Optimism, affords some useful insight on this. Seligman’s theory is that we learn to interpret events from our parents. Natural or adapted optimists tend to interpret bad events as random or the fault of someone else and good events as a result of their own hard work or good decisions. Pessimists tend to do the opposite. An example of this is someone coming out of the grocery store to find that a shopping cart has rolled into their new car and dented it. An optimistic person might think, “Wow, what is it with people who can’t put their carts away? What a bother!” while a pessimist might think, “Oh no, I should never have parked here, this is all my fault!”
I am not advocating we all blame others for our misfortunes, but there is probably a middle ground in which we can look at, and learn from, the part we might have played in what happens to us. It is true that people should put their shopping carts away, and it is also true that it probably makes sense to be vigilant about where we park when we care a lot about our car.
Which brings us to our collective confusion about luck. What is luck? Why are some people so lucky and others not at all? There is no law that defines who gets to be lucky. But I can share this observation about luck: to get lucky, you must at least have goals. Everyone who has goals attempts and fails. Everyone who has goals is wrong sometimes. Everyone gets lucky sometimes and everyone has strokes of terrible luck. So here is the other quote that has always stayed with me: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” (This one is widely attributed, so I am going with Seneca.)
As far as I am concerned, the only answer is to keep plugging away, keep your eye on the goal, do your best, and pray for good luck and the stars to align. And when they do, try to enjoy it. Don’t second guess it. Just say “thank you” and strive to be worthy of your good fortune.
So go ahead and enjoy your new role, knowing that you got it because you impressed enough people with your smarts, your work ethic, and your effectiveness as a leader. And go ahead and be grateful for the recognition. And keep doing your best, not because you are afraid of being found out but because it is simply what you do. A little self-doubt can be healthy. You should worry if the feeling of being not quite good enough keeps you from trying to do something you want to do and think you might be able to do. If you find it holding you back in your new role, it might be something to work on with a therapist.
Honestly—in my experience, anyway—the people who never feel any self-doubt are the ones who should be worried.
Finally, here are a few things I know for sure:
- No one cares that you did two years at community college. Anyone with a brain knows that is just smart. You graduated with your undergraduate degree. Period.
- No one cares what your GPA was in your MBA program. You got yourself a graduate degree. Period.
- All anyone cares about is that you bring your education, smarts, and work ethic to the job at hand, and that you take your leadership position seriously.
- There is absolutely nothing wrong with you. I promise.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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