“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.