by Jim Bruce
[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Jim Bruce, Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Do you ever hear voices in your head saying that you can’t do “that”? That, if you try, you will surely fail, embarrass yourself, destroy your chances of promotion or success, etc.?
In my coaching sessions, I’ve sometimes had a coachee say, “I feel like a fraud, like a fraud, an imposter.” “Why so?,” I ask. After some discussion it always turns out that the coachee feels like any success – recognition for a job done well, a promotion, being assigned to an important project, admission to a prestigious education program, etc. – must have been a mistake. The success must have occurred because he or she was lucky, the timing was advantageous, others must have been thinking you were more intelligent and competent than you believe you are, etc.
If you’ve had these thoughts, you are not alone. Fully 7 out of every 10 people feel like imposters at one time or another, sometimes quite often.1 Here are just a few of those people:
• Albert Einstein: “[T]he exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
• Sheryl Sandberg: “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud.”
• John Steinbeck: “I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.”
• Jodie Foster: “I always feel like something of an imposter. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
• Maya Angelou: “I have written 11 books, about each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”
I suspect that many of you who are reading this essay can identify with these quotes from Einstein, Sandberg, Steinbeck, Foster, and Angelou. I know that I can.
Clinical Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the name “imposter syndrome” in 1978 referring to a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear, of being exposed as a fraud. They found that people with an imposter syndrome remained convinced that they don’t deserve the success they have even when there is adequate internal evidence of those accomplishments.2
James Heskett,3 writing in the Harvard Business School Newsletter Working Knowledge, said “Research shows that some people who experience imposterism allow it to build to such an extent that the fear of failure takes over, making it harder for them to succeed as they battle feelings of low self-esteem, second-guess themselves, and experience performance anxiety. Some may actually suffer serious depression.” (Should you want to have some objective measure of where you stand on imposterism, Dr. Clance provides a self-evaluation test here.)
In those times when you, like me, feel that you are an imposter, it’s easy to feel anxious and stressed, have low self-confidence and self-esteem, second-guess yourself, and doubt your capabilities. And, in these times you reflect and dwell on your mistakes, failures, and corrective feedback, and you increase your fear of failure. All this leads to reluctance to try new things, to take on new initiatives, to learn new difficult subjects, etc.
Here might be an appropriate place to stop and reflect on yourself. Does this, even in a small way, describe how you perceive yourself at some times?
So, now with this understanding of what feeling like an imposter is all about and an understanding of how you may see yourself, what might you do to improve? Let me comment on three approaches:
First, it has been noted that individuals who experience bouts with the imposter syndrome are more likely to have a fixed mindset and would benefit by working to develop more of a growth mindset.4,5 You do this by recognizing that you have a choice — you either believe that your talents and abilities are fixed and limited or you believe that you can “step-up” and stretch yourself and extend your abilities. Instead of saying, “I’m not _____” or “I can’t _____,” I say, “not yet,” and go to do the hard work of learning and developing that skill. Ask yourself what it would take for you to learn and develop an actionable plan that you schedule time to work on.
Carl Richards6 provides a second, related approach to addressing the imposter syndrome. He argues that when you experience an “imposter” attack, invite it in, remind yourself why it’s there and what that means. And, continue doing your work, improving as you go along. Richards says that “… when I start to hear the voice in my head, I take a deep breath, pause for a minute, put a smile on my face and say “Welcome back old friend. I’m glad you’re here. Now, let’s get back to work.”
Finally, Eric Barker7 believes that overcoming your feelings about being an “imposter” lies in an understanding of your self-efficacy, the perceived ability — belief, not an objective measure of ability — to succeed at a given task. In other words, do you believe you can successfully execute the assignment? Skills are important. However, if you don’t believe you can accomplish the task, you likely won’t even try.
So, consider beginning today to bring your “imposter” under control. First, recognize it for what it is, a fraud. Second, determine what skills you need to develop in order to move forward. Third, diligently work to develop those skills. And fourth, begin to deliberately move forward at a pace consistent with your existing skills and the new skills you are working to acquire.
While you may never completely conquer your “imposter,” you can develop a better understanding of it and a way to be successful as you work recognizing it for what it is.
Make it a great week for you and your team. . . . jim
1. Jim Bruce, Impostor!, Tuesday Reading, March 2016.
2. Megan Dalla-Camina, The Reality of Imposter Syndrome, Psychology Today, September 2018.
3. James L. Heskett, How Do You Hire an “Impostor”, Working Knowledge Newsletter, Harvard Business School, February 2016.
4. Jim Bruce, Mindset, Tuesday Reading, February 2016.
5. Jim Bruce, more about Mindset, Tuesday Reading, February 2016.
6. Carl Richards, Learning to Deal With the Impostor Syndrome, New York Times, October 26, 2015.
7. Eric Barker, This is How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome: 4 Secrets from Research, Barking Up the Wrong Tree Newsletter, January 2020.