Why feeling like an impostor is good for you

by Peter Shallard

Impostor Syndrom in Entrepreneurs - your inner coach

“You’re not really an adult at all. You’re just a tall child holding a beer, having a conversation you don’t understand.” 

– Dylan Moran

It’s the secret whispered behind the hands of entrepreneurs who are the best of friends. Just writing about this practically feels like a betrayal.

Everyone is afraid of being found out.

Shhh! Don’t utter the truth: That you tricked your way into success and you don’t really know what you’re doing. That you’re just a tall child holding a beer.

That you’re faking it. That you’re secretly an impostor!

Shh! Turns out, you’re just suffering from Impostor Syndrome. And, it’s good for you.

A Georgia State University study titled The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women found that highly accomplished women felt, deep down, like they were scamming everyone with the skills they said they had. These findings were subsequently confirmed in interviews conducted by Susan Pinker.

“Despite accolades, rank, and salary the women felt like phonies.”

Originally believed to be entirely limited to women, further research indicates that the syndrome is prevalent in men also. Men’s simple reluctance to admit such vulnerability may have contributed to initially skewed reports. It is now believed that some 70% of all individuals will feel the effects of the Impostor Syndrome at some time.

Impostor Syndrome is exhibited when competent people find it impossible to believe in their own competence.

This existential doubt, while shockingly ubiquitous, is very valuable to those that experience it. It’s especially valuable for entrepreneurs like yourself.

When self doubt and fear strike your gut and you question if you’re really “any good at this” (or however you might manifest the syndrome), something incredible is happening.

You’re experiencing the real time effects of holding yourself to an extraordinarily high standard of performance, in both your profession and life itself. Unrealistically high standards for oneself are a characteristic associated with successful entrepreneurs.

In conversations with clients, I often describe it as an internal drill sergeant or as the character Pai Mei from the Tarantino film Kill Bill. Pai Mei is notorious for ruthlessly holding his students to impossibly high standards. This mentoring manifests in constant testing and insulting. Great is never good enough.

All entrepreneurs contain within themselves a kung fu master who knows not to let ego go unchecked. That part of yourself has a full time job: Knocking you down a rung or two so you try harder and get better. Again and again.

To embrace the feel-good opposite of the Impostor Syndrome is to invite disaster. 

The other end of the spectrum is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their abilities much higher than average.

It seems that there are two types of people in the world. There are those who fear being “found out” as an impostor, who never feel good enough. Then there are those that are clueless ignoramuses, living in self congratulating fantasy built on the quicksand of incompetence.

Meanwhile, Dunning and Kruger hypothesize that actual competence may weaken confidence. As we get smarter and better at something, we start to become more humble and aware of our shortcomings. As always, we can count on Shakespeare for an appropriate quote.

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

As the Shrink for Entrepreneurs, I’ve counseled countless clients through attacks of Impostor Syndrome. This happens regularly only  because I’m fortunate enough to service a phenomenally talented customer demographic.

The problem, for amazingly talented entrepreneurs deep in the grips of this existential doubt, is that the performance boosting positive side effects are forgotten. I propose we permanently reframe Impostor Syndrome as a welcome blessing: It’s a positive driving force that keeps us humble and always improving.  

Self doubt is good for you. My concern goes out to those who never experience it.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark David Fourman May 29, 2013 at 9:56 am

Nice article Peter.

I’d agree with you that feeling like an impostor motivates entrepreneurs. In my coaching I’ve found that many of the most successful people I’ve worked with feel deep down that they’re impostors. That motivates them to strive for ever-greater success.

There are down sides to this as a motivational strategy though. First off all it’s just plain stressful to always feel like you’re underachieving and may get found out one day. But more importantly, I think this syndrome saps satisfaction. More and more success is never enough. There’s always more that has to be achieved in a vein attempt to feel good about oneself.

If the goal of an entrepreneur is external success, then this is a great motivator. If the goal is satisfaction, then it almost never works out.

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Peter Shallard May 29, 2013 at 10:11 am

Mark this is great perspective to add to the dialogue. Thanks for commenting.

Many of the folks I’ve worked with experience waves of Impostor Syndrome. It’s rarely a full time sensation – you’re correct, that’d be debilitating! I think it comes and goes, probably as folks push through plateaus and find new levels of performance to strive for.

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Tammy May 29, 2013 at 1:38 pm

Peter this is a great article. As entrepreneurs we all experience the imposter syndrome, but this is the first time I’ve read anything to suggest it’s actually a good thing. Thanks for sharing!

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Peter Shallard May 29, 2013 at 1:53 pm

That’s the point Tammy – this is widely misunderstood. Of course, my reframing of it as positive is just a hypothesis. Part of why I published this was to see if it resonated!

Thanks for commenting 🙂

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Anne T Stone May 29, 2013 at 3:41 pm

This post resonated with me, but when trying to look for more research to follow up this often cited research, I couldn’t find anything past 2006. Is it that it’s out of favor? is it that it’s mainly been identified as a women’s issue and as with many of those, has not gotten more attention? Thoughts from anyone in this research discipline?

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Peter Shallard May 29, 2013 at 3:44 pm

I think the main reason there hasn’t been *much* research into this is that… validating the hypothesis doesn’t really change much. The study I referred to is a cute research project for someone’s thesis but it doesn’t go much beyond that in terms of practical application.

In fact, I wrote this post because I (with my audience of entrepreneurs) might be one of the few people who can take research like this and help people with it. It soothes and reassures entrepreneurs who’ve really struggled with Impostor Syndrome, but for the “civilian population” it’s really just another fun fact.

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Anne T Stone May 30, 2013 at 2:14 pm

I find wrestling with this topic fascinating. In terms of practical application, I did find a study related to medical education (mededuc.com) which supports Mark Fourman’s point: it’s stressful to feel this way. There was a correlation with perfectionism as well.
Interesting to think of entrepreneurs and medical professionals among society’s ‘high performers’ dealing with this type of stress on top of everything else.
We want our medical professionals to be ever improving and perfect-as-can-be to a high standard. We also want our high performers to have more energy and a positive mental state to do more of what they do, better.

It seems like stress would have a negative impact over time. Mark’s point that internal vs. external motivation is the nut to crack… Interesting that sometimes caring about ‘what other people think’ can stymie and other times, listening to what other people think with internal ‘permission and acceptance’ could validate and reward.

“Strong associations were found between current psychological distress, perfectionism and impostor feelings within each programme and these character traits were stronger predictors of psychological adjustment than most of the demographic variables associated previously with distress in health professional students.” http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1365-2923.1998.00234.x/abstract

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Peter Shallard May 29, 2013 at 3:52 pm
Wendie May 29, 2013 at 5:21 pm

I have to say that I am greatly relieved that I am not the only one to feel this way. I have always been very confident in my career, but since starting my own business, I have to admit that I have felt this way a few times and am Oh so grateful that it passes. I find it to be a horrible feeling, one that I have never experienced. I think to myself once in a while “I cant believe that these people call me to help improve thier business. Who am I fooling? I cant do this.” Then, I push myself harder to make sure that I am up to date on the latest…”fill in the blank” and off I go, with my briefcase full of new concepts, idea’s and solutions. Peter, Once again, your wisdom has assisted me in overcoming what I percieve as an obstacle. Next time, I will recognize it and use it consciencly to my and my clients advantage.

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Peter Shallard May 29, 2013 at 5:52 pm

My work here is done. Thanks Wendie! 🙂

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Phil May 29, 2013 at 7:23 pm

Peter, Long time reader first time poster. I dont usually reply to your articles which i receive regularly – heaven forbid – but this one is worth breaking the habit for. I actually think this at regular intervals – almost getting panic attacks – then have to slowly bring myself back out of it. Sometimes i actually need people in whatever team i working with to reinforce for me! So thanks very much for posting this. Great read.

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Peter Shallard May 30, 2013 at 11:13 am

Hey Phil, I consider it a massive personal victory to have enticed you out of the shadows. I wish more readers commented like this.

So glad to hear that naming this beast has been useful.

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Neil Kane June 2, 2013 at 9:04 am

I heard about the impostor syndrome some years ago when I heard Olivia Fox Cabane talk about it at Renaissance Weekend. It really resonated with me. No doubt I’ve experienced it. I can’t say, however, that I agree with Peter that it’s a good thing. The farthest I’ll go is possibly to concede that it’s characteristic of high achievers and conscientious professionals. But what’s wrong with being a master or expert in your field and not having to fake confidence? Really being at the top of your game and knowing it (without being arrogant)?

The archetypal version of the guy in control is this great character from “The Man Who Wasn’t There”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kGmuhsxCCk

And here’s the best scene ever about internalizing success (the business analog of the creative visualization that athletes do): Act as If from “Boiler Room”. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oTFU9c9MrkE

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Tanya Geisler June 4, 2013 at 11:47 am

Hiya Peter –
I love that you are hosting this conversation here. Bravo! It’s time a light was shone on it. I did a TEDx talk on the very spectrum you address (you can watch here if you’re so inclined: http://bit.ly/10Uv8SF) :: impostor to authority…or, as you say Impostor Syndrome –> Dunning-Kruger Effect. I cited John Lennon:: “Part of me suspects that I’m a loser and the other part of me thinks I’m God Almighty”. Illusions at both ends, non?

It’s a rich conversation and I’m glad it’s happening.
My very very best,
Tanya

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Peter Shallard June 4, 2013 at 11:57 am

Hey Tanya, this is terrific thanks for sharing!

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