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Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

ImpostorBack in the early 90’s, while working for Andersen Consulting in New York City, I was asked to give a presentation to a client project team that was creating a complex software system. They were struggling with the testing process. The project team was told that I was one of the Firm’s foremost authorities on software testing. The reality was, I had only done a few projects where testing was involved. I was certainly not an expert. I was truly a novice.

Because of my lack of experience, I was nervous. REALLY nervous. I pulled together a presentation based on what I had done the previous few years, sprinkled with ideas that made sense to me, but I’d never used before. Basically, half of the presentation was made up.

I presented my thoughts to the 50 people on the project expecting to bomb.

But, to the contrary, the response was quite favorable. They loved what I said. Several people told me that my presentation explained why their previous approached had failed.

I was happy for the client. It started them down a path of a successful testing program.

But for me, it started a psychological downward spiral.

Imagine being in my shoes. How would you feel?

Maybe you would be thrilled. But I felt like an impostor, a fraud, a con man.

And this feeling became all too pervasive over the coming years. It did not matter how much knowledge I would accumulate or how many accolades I would receive. I would diminish these readily. Although by most standards I was truly an expert, deep down I still felt like a fraud.

About 20 years ago, I discovered that my feelings were caused by a psychological phenomenon called the Impostor Syndrome, a term first coined by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in the 70’s. I’ve suffered with it most of my adult life, only recently quieting that annoying voice.

And I’m not alone. Many successful individuals have admitted to dealing with this affliction from time to time including Sheryl Sandberg, Meryl Streep, Tina Fey and Denzel Washington. The pressure to be an expert has grown to the point where I suspect a lot of people deep down inside question their own knowledge.

But these beliefs can be quite limiting. It means you are always on high alert, waiting for someone to discover that you are a fraud. It holds you back from fully engaging with the world for fear that you will be found out.

For me, it meant that I was constantly afraid that people would challenge my philosophies. Every bad review (even if it was only 1 bad for every 100 positive reviews) was like a dagger through the heart, and confirmed in my mind that I was not really the expert some people thought I was. Although my speeches were good they weren’t great. I was never fully myself on the stage because this would feel too vulnerable.

A few years ago, I realized I could no longer take these negative internal conversations. I decided that my success and happiness were significantly limited due to these impostor feelings. My work suffered because I was tentative and did not take risks. Every day I waited for the other shoe to drop.

When I tackled these internal conversations head on, I discovered ironically that there were no shoes to drop. My work improved. My speeches were even better and my ratings soared. Clients began hiring me back over and over again. I raised my fees significantly with little pushback. My business grew substantially.

I truly believe that my negative internal conversations limited my success in the external world.

We’ve all heard the old expression, “What you resist persists.” I fought the impostor syndrome. I didn’t want to admit it to myself. And I certainly did not want to tell others.

But funny enough, when I started sharing this with others, its grasp started to weaken. I learned that many of my incredibly successful colleagues suffered from the same problem. By openly acknowledging it, it no longer remained a deep dark secret. And over time, the feelings diminished. The change did not happen overnight, and the conversations, although quieter, are not gone. It appears to be a never-ending quest to silence the voices.

And so I share this with you today, hoping that some of you “impostors” out there realize that although what you are feeling is quite natural, it may be holding you back.

It is time to free the shackles and fully share your gifts with the world.

P.S. If you are someone who suffers from the Impostor Syndrome, please drop me a line to share your story (anonymously). Write me at impostor (at) 247innovation (dot) com. Please put “Fellow Impostor” in the subject so that it bypasses my spam filter.

  1. Steve,

    Yes.

    Can’t tell you how much I’ve struggled with this, too. I’ve often felt like like a yo-yo. I go all out creating content, sharing ideas, and thinking I’ve finally nailed it…only to snap back to feeling like an imposter at the slightest hint or feeling that I’m not as smart as I thought I was (or as smart as someone else). Then I recoil and want to quit, thinking “who am I to be the expert?” So I go silent for awhile until I get the nerve to step out into the spotlight again.

    Lately, I’ve been letting it go as well. It’s like I don’t really give a shit anymore. A counselor laughed when I told him that and he said it’s because my ego is dying and I no longer need that kind of validation. He said to expect exactly what you’ve experienced: a newfound authenticity and truth and unprecedented level of “success” because of it. Not necessarily financially, but maybe that, too. Definitely a new level of confidence, ease, and fulfilment.

    Thanks for sharing. Nice to know I’m not alone.

    • Mark, I’m glad you’ve been able to “let it go.” That’s huge. It took me a long time to do it…and wanting to do it was not enough.

      For me it has not been about needing validation. It has been the opposite. I was getting validation I didn’t think I deserved.

      Imagine a movie. The rest of the world sees the finished product in all its glory. I see the cutting room floor and the “fake” CGI graphics.

      Thanks!

  2. Hi Stephen. Hope all is well. Your post brings back memories from our shared Andersen Consulting / Accenture days. There is a hgh incidence of Imposter’s Syndrome among us consultants. I often refer to it as Consultant’s Disease! The longer we consult in the executive suite the more vulnerable we become to delusions of grandeur, thinking we are capable of doing our client’s job better than they can themselves. Of course it isn’t true. Advising and doing are two very different things. Self awareness is a beautiful thing. The non-debilitating form of Imposter’s Syndrome keeps us humble and always working to get better faster. Happy Holidays.

    Saul Kaplan
    Founder and Chief Catalyst
    Business Innovation Factory

    • Thanks for the comment Saul. Great perspective. Yes, the impostor can keep you humble and in action (the humble part has always been important to me). The key, as you point out, is it can’t be debilitating. That’s the challenge.

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