This summer, I created a program to help a group of up and coming entrepreneurs learn about mindset. These are real deal founders; they have funding, products, and are full time working on their companies. Interestingly, when asked which topics they’d like to cover, self confidence and impostor syndrome ranked among the most requested.
I set out to create a lecture outlining the science on impostor syndrome. In truth, I never felt like it was something I experienced personally, and I further expected to find that the term itself was typical pop psych colloquialism without much meat on the topic. I was wrong on both counts. The literature proved to be fascinating, conceptually and empirically. More than that, I found that I have been dealing with impostor syndrome’s negative effects for much of my career.
What is impostor syndrome?
The research on impostor syndrome reveals some fascinating mental machinery. Namely, impostor syndrome refers to the inability to internalize the appreciation of our objective talents, coupled with a hyper-focus on external factors that we think lead to our success. It compares ourselves to others by emphasizing others’ strengths and minimizing our own. Thus, we lose track of the true feeling of a job well done as we deflect the positive feelings, and focus on the pain we avoided because we choose to “fake it till we make it.”
Worst of all, impostor syndrome forms an illusory connection between anxiety, dread, and perfectionism, to our successes. We may feel a momentary relief after a victory, but our mind clumps that relief WITH the negative stuff and reinforces the idea that we succeeded BECAUSE of those narratives, rather than in spite of them.
The truth about achievement.
The truth is that success happens when we accentuate our skills and strengths, dive deep into our curiosity, connect with others, and enjoy the process. In so doing we see the direct connection between those hard won virtues and the success that ensues. Pain and fear inhibit those virtues, but our internal narrative may not always see it that way.
So never ever say “fake it till you make it.” By definition, if you’re making it, you’re not faking it!
Sometimes I look at my very non-linear career and think, ‘wow awesome’ and other times I think, ‘what a mess, what am I even doing here?’ I hear of people asking “why is a there a neuroscientist in a business school?” I didn’t realize the extent to which I had been battling my own impostor syndrome, and I had fallen into the trap of thinking that either I was “lucking out” by procrastinating and being successful, or that I had to work myself into total burnout to maintain a competitive advantage — both are incorrect. I’m going to work on remembering that I am lucky to work on projects I find intensely interesting, and that neuroscience research on entrepreneurs can help solve problems of burnout, toxic startup culture, and enhance creativity. These are purposeful outcomes that can give me energy.
Four aces and a joker.
To help battle my impostor syndrome, I came up with an exercise called: “Four Aces and a Joker.” The goal of the exercise is to think of four things that we can take true pride in as real personal victories. Our aces are reminders of past results that came from learning a ton, and in service of achieving something for which we can take pride in having completed. These four aces are joined by a joker, which is the card we use to keep in mind a humbling moment, a gentle mistake that we still overcame but that reminds us that we are not trying to paper over pitfalls, but to honor them as being integral to the process of self-learning.
As cliche as it sounds, reminding myself to “enjoy the process” has been working some magic. I’m not sure how many people feel like impostors from time to time, but I very much hope this helps.