Do you feel like a phony? A fraud? That a lot of your good fortune is just that – a lot of luck that you didn’t fully earn? Do you feel no matter how hard you try, you’ll never fulfill the potential you were told you had when you started working?
Welcome to Imposter Syndrome Land. Don’t beat yourself up too much about it, though. It’s not all bad. It even can be cured!
For one, you’re far from alone. It’s estimated you’re among the 7 in 10 people who have the syndrome at one time or another. Think about that. If Imposter Syndrome is so common, doesn’t it tend to create a level playing field? If so many think they’re not as effective as they should be, none of those people really has that much of an advantage over you. Everybody’s walking around – or slumping at their desk – feeling inadequate and insecure.
I can make you feel even better about your Imposter Syndrome by telling you that having it puts you in the same category as famous people like Jennifer Lopez, Natalie Portman, Tom Hanks, Serena Williams, Facebook honcho Sheryl Sandberg, and even that Einstein guy.
If you noticed that list is mostly female, it reflects the origins of Imposter Syndrome, which stretch back to 1978. That’s when a couple of psychologists identified it as behavior noticeable specifically in successful professional females.
To me, that’s no coincidence, when you consider how, for forever, the world of business has been dominated by men – a lot of insecure men at that – who found it in their own best interests to limit the advancement of their female colleagues or subordinates.
For women, the Imposter Syndrome is the logical extension of the Glass Ceiling Syndrome. If you systematically suppress someone’s upward mobility, it’s only natural they will start to question their own capabilities.
I’ve not only never felt that way about women workers. I look at it the opposite way, and there’s a chapter in my book, Fisch Tales: The Making of a Millennial Baby Boomer (Forbes Books, August 2019), to prove it. The chapter title alone says it all – “Bob’s Club Is No Boys’ Club.” As I write in the book, “I don’t see gender as a sign of competence or work ethic. I tend to trust female instincts more than I do male instincts.” The only explanation for men creating a work environment that leads to women laboring under Imposter Syndrome is that those men fear they can’t compete with the opposite sex on a level playing field.” And if they think that way, they’re right – they’re not competitive on their own merits.
Nowadays, Imposter Syndrome equally affects men as much as women. Regardless of which gender a person is who copes with Imposter Syndrome, the scary name aside, it’s not entirely a bad thing.
In the introduction to my upcoming book – Get a Life: Your Roadmap to Rule the World (Forbes Books, January 2023) – I write, “If you make the most of what life can offer, you’ll want to do more, and you’ll feel that there is always more to do, but not always enough time to do it. This Book Is Not for the Timid. This book is for the Obsessed.”
That sounds to me like a pretty good description of Imposter Syndrome, don’t you think? It’s about fearing you’re not living up to your potential, that you’re an underachiever. I can see the silver lining in that. Do you? If you feel you’re coming up short, it says you are ambitious. But don’t get carried away beating yourself up. That’s when things can really start to go downhill for you. Think positive. Imposter Syndrome might just mean you want to be better, but are frustrated by not knowing how to get there.
(By the way, other chapters in my forthcoming book that touch on the characteristics and causes of imposter syndrome are “Get A Vision,” “Everybody Needs a Buddy,” and “Success Is for the Brave.”)
There are social scientists who believe not having Imposter Syndrome may indicate the person actually is an imposter. You better believe that I’m not buying what they’re selling. I have never felt like an imposter, and my business record of success speaks for itself – from taking a struggling retailer to a 1,200-store national apparel chain to taking it public to taking it private at a $1 billion valuation.
SWEAT EQUITY PAYS DIVIDENDS
To get there, I didn’t work any voodoo. I did it with sweat equity and a shitload of research for anything I undertook, whether it was planning to ask for something from my bosses or, when I was the boss, needing to get my team to line up in support of my vision and strategy.
That means when I spoke up and promised we would succeed, I didn’t have doubts. Why? Because I did whatever it took to become an expert on what I was talking about and doing. Then, I went out and I produced those results! That’s how you fight back against Imposter Syndrome.
If I was over-confident, it was because I was over-prepared. Others who act over-confident put on a good show, but don’t put a lot of substance behind it. I’ve seen my share of those Imposters.
I have to admit that I didn’t fully appreciate how big an issue Imposter Syndrome has become, in particular among students and young adults – until I spoke with students at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), where I sit on the college’s Foundation board, endow scholarships (through the Bob Fisch Graduate Student Award Program), and mentor students on a regular basis through Fireside Chats and other mentoring platforms, both in groups and one-on-one.
Students are worried about Imposter Syndrome. At a recent forum I held at FIT, featuring members of my Millennial Advisory Board, I called out students’ names at random – much to their surprise, and even shock in one case – and I emphatically told each one, “You are very important. No one is more important than you!”
My point was to impress on them that each of us owes it to ourselves to be proud of our accomplishments and the accolades that we earn. What sometimes gets in our way is another kind of syndrome that is discussed in Get a Life: Fear of Success!
If you think Fear of Success sounds like a contradiction, I encourage you to read about it more fully in Get a Life to understand why it is a very real problem for some people.
How is Fear of Success any different from Fear of Failure? It really isn’t. They intersect, because in order to succeed, you have to face failure along the way. So, if you have Fear of Failure, you also likely have Fear of Success, because you’re not willing to fall down and rebound from setbacks, even though that is what it takes to rise above mediocrity.
SPEAK UP TO MOVE UP
One of my goals, when I mentor, is to instill in people the importance of confidence and the ability to speak up. Those are the people who get the big jobs and the big bucks. If you feel under-appreciated, whose fault is that?
Even if you do believe in yourself, it’s not enough if your confidence doesn’t translate into outcomes that help your company. Do you know who your audience is? It’s the people in your career who can make you or break you. Are you conveying the right message to the right managers?
There’s an essential flip side to that, by the way. Are your managers conveying the right message to you?! People in charge must never lose sight of the most important assets any company has – the associates who form the backbone of any business. I mean you!
If you’re not getting constructive feedback when something you did goes south and positive reinforcement when your work deserves praise, you might want to consider changing your place of work. If you’re not being conditioned to think outside the box and to risk failure – the father of success – those are signs of faulty management.
If management isn’t nurturing and showing empathy towards its most important assets, they are not only contributing to Imposter Syndrome. They are encouraging it!
Whether it’s Quietly Quitting or Imposter Syndrome, sitting in the corner feeling sorry for yourself is for losers. I won’t waste my time mentoring those people. I can’t help them if they won’t help themselves. How? By taking action. Putting it on the line!
My general advice to Imposter Syndrome sufferers is to overcome the mental blocks by taking a stand – and by believing in yourself! Be your own power! Feel good about who you are. Don’t make excuses for yourself and tell people who try to put you down to go to hell!
A key realization to reach is that you know more than you think you know. I call it Tribal Knowledge, which is covered in depth in Fisch Tales. It’s not about pedigree. It’s about passion, work ethic, experience, willingness to always learn, and not being a know-it-all. Stay curious – at all times.
Part of my Tribal Knowledge superpower is reading people, understanding them, and pushing them to envision and reach their own potential. In other words, my idea of being a successful and sought-after mentor is to help people get rid of Imposter Syndrome!
Both of those behavioral conditions circle back to the self-defeating attitude that “I’m not good enough at this job (or project) to constantly beat myself up over it and try so hard, so why bother?”
If that’s how you feel, it sounds to me more like an excuse than a syndrome. You’re letting yourself off the hook, so you don’t have to push yourself every day.
So get moving and, like I told you a minute ago, tell that Imposter inside you to go to hell! You can do this. See, I bet you feel better already.