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How to Make Friends with Your Inner Imposter

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Amantha Imber for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit:  Richard Drury

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Almost 20 years ago, I received a phone call that changed my life.

Congratulations! You’ve been accepted into the Doctorate of Organizational Psychology program at Monash University.”

“There must have been an administrative error,” I thought to myself. Surely, I was too young, inexperienced, and unknowledgeable to be accepted. Or was I?

Turns out, there wasn’t an error. I really did get in, and a little under three years later, I went on to become the youngest graduate from the program. Today, I’m an organizational psychologist, and I run Inventium, a behavioral science consultancy that aims to help people perform better and be happier at work. I also host the podcast “How I Work,” where I interview CEOs, entrepreneurs, writers, and performers to unpack what that has led them to success.

Through the many conversations I’ve had with people from all walks of life, I’ve learned that I’m not alone in my experience with imposter syndrome — the persistent, nagging thought that tells us that we are undeserving of our achievements. Scientific research has found that up to 82% of people experience imposter syndrome. The other 18% are probably too scared to admit it.

The guests I’ve interviewed for my podcast back me up. No matter how competent or successful they are, I’m often shocked at how many of them continue to feel the same insecurities and fears I felt the day I got my acceptance letter to Monash (even when they become CEOs and land deals). But unlike many of us, they have figured out ways to channel their emotions into something productive. And that means we can do it, too.

Here are four things I’ve learned about how to use imposter syndrome as a force for good.

[Here are the first two.]

Interpret self-doubt as a positive emotion.

When I interviewed Broad City creator, writer, and star Abbi Jacobson, my stomach was doing summersaults. I’ve been a fan of Abbi’s work for years and have seen every episode of her sitcom that ran for five seasons on Comedy Central. At some point, I’d read that she had a severe case of imposter syndrome during the earlier seasons of her show, and I was curious whether she still experienced it.

In short, her answer was yes. Abbi described her experiences with speaking at events or being on panels and feeling entirely cloaked in self-doubt.

“‘What am I doing here? Why does anyone care what I have to say about this topic?’ I’d think to myself. I get very nervous before performances or new things. Like I’m going to be exposed for not being good,” she told me.

But here’s the thing. Unlike most of us who interpret nerves and self-doubt as a bad thing, for Abbi, it’s positive.

“I’m happy that I still get very nervous, even if I maybe shouldn’t be. … I want to always be looking at myself and questioning where I am in my career. I want to be measuring how far I’ve come and know that there’s still so much farther to go. Even if I’m really confident in what I’m doing right now and the projects I’m working on, I still can be so much better.”

Hearing Abbi’s perspective made me interpret my feelings of imposter syndrome in a different light. What if I started to think of my nerves as positive things? What if I reinterpreted them as energy boosters, or proof of how much I care? Now I tell myself that I’m nervous, not because I shouldn’t be here, but because I’m excited to share whatever it is that I am about to say.

Pro tip: The next time you experience self-doubt, try to interpret the feelings as a motivating force. Think of your nerves as reminders that there will always be room to grow. Instead of shying away from experiences that trigger your doubt, deliberately embrace them and remember it that it’s only through challenges that we can improve.

Stop trying to be the smartest person in the room.

Cyan Ta’eed spent many years feeling like she wasn’t as intelligent, as capable, and as good as everyone thought she was. This was despite the fact that she co-founded Envato, a Melbourne-based technology firm that is worth more than $1 billion.

To overcome her imposter syndrome, Cyan looked for role models — people who oozed an effortless confidence. She deliberately sought these people out, spoke to them, and closely observed what they did differently than herself when faced with doubt. One of the qualities they had in common is that they never seemed to worry about asking questions that might make them look stupid. “And I always worried about that,” Cyan confessed.

“I needed to shift my thinking from wanting to seem like the smartest person in the room to wanting to leave the room being the smartest person. And it meant that I needed to ask questions constantly. I needed to not care whether it made me look like an idiot.”

I could relate. There have been many times in my own career when I have shied away from asking questions for the fear of being judged. But shortly after we spoke, I began a new practice: simply asking others what is truly on my mind. In meetings now, when I look around the room and see people nodding in agreement or smiling, I’m reassured that my instincts were right — and asking not only helps me grow, it also helps the person who is still too nervous to raise their hand and speak out.

Pro tip: Instead of obsessing about how others will view you, try to remove your self-censorship. It will only get in the way of your learning. And chances are, other people in that room you’re trying so hard to impress probably want to ask the same question. Remember, you’re doing everyone else a favor by asking whatever you are unclear on or want more information about. Ironically, you’ll probably appear more confident in your abilities and competency because you had the courage to ask what you didn’t know. 

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Dr Amantha Imber is the founder of behavioral science consultancy Inventium and the host of How I Work, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful people.


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