Just because someone appears successful on the outside doesn’t mean they feel like a success on the inside.
It’s that nagging feeling that you’ve somehow stumbled into your plum position by accident and you’ll be found out at any moment. And when they come to show you the door, you’ll think “Well, that’s fair enough I guess.”
If this sounds familiar, then you know what it’s like to experience impostor syndrome. I’ve felt that way many times in my career, and it makes me think we all have… we just haven’t said it out loud.
You’re not alone. Thousands of people are feeling this way right this very minute. Even massively successful people.
Take Atlassian co-CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes, for instance. (Full disclosure: I work at Atlassian.) Here’s a guy who, along with dorm-mate Scott Farquhar, started a company straight out of university with a telephone, a $10,000 credit card, and a burning desire to not wear a suit to work. Fast forward 18 years, and he’s one of the wealthiest people in Australia.
So you’d think he feels pretty confident when he turns up to work every day, right?
Wrong. He’s is very candid about the fact that he often feels like of a fraud in his professional life, and to some extent, in his personal life as well.
When hitting the eject button isn’t an option
Like most entrepreneurs, Mike has a low tolerance for bullshit. His approach to dealing with impostor syndrome is to stare it straight in the eye, then flip it on its head: use it as a driving force for self-improvement.
When you get that “oh crap, I’m in over my head” feeling, plunge yourself into deep-learning mode until you feel your head emerge above the water line. Turn impostor syndrome into an asset. A motivator.
The key is not fooling yourself into thinking impostor syndrome is something you can defeat once and for all. (Maybe someone else has figured out how to do that… if so, please share your secret!) The trick is to harness it and parlay it into personal growth.
For example, about a year ago, Mike saw a few tweets from Tesla about how they could end South Australia’s energy crisis with the industrial-scale batteries they’d developed.
Not thinking too much of it, he fired off a few tweets of his own to see if they were for real about this.
Tesla will get the system installed and working 100 days from contract signature or it is free. That serious enough for you?
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 10, 2017
All hell broke loose. Reporters were chasing Mike down, asking him for his “expert opinion” on a topic he knew nothing about.
But he didn’t want to slink away and risk damaging the prospects for renewable energy just because he’d mouthed off on Twitter. So he soaked up information on solar-storage batteries every minute he wasn’t running the company, reading to his kids, or sleeping.
It’s not about proving to everyone else that you are an expert. It’s about proving to yourself that you’re capable of becoming one.
(If you’re wondering how that story ends, South Australia received bids from Tesla and 90 other companies for renewable energy and storage systems.)
Don’t keep your impostor syndrome bottled up
Side note: opening up to your colleagues about your impostor syndrome should not be considered harmful. And if you’ve seen people in your office get burned for that, you might consider finding a less toxic place to work.
In fact, the more successful you are, the more important it is to be candid about it. That level of honesty from company leaders fosters a culture of trust and psychological safety, which is crucial for the company’s growth.
There’s also a good chance that you’ll help lift someone else out of their own bout with impostor syndrome. The realization that someone they view as successful (i.e., you) doesn’t have all the answers either is comforting. Knowing you’ve made this far with imperfect knowledge gives them hope that they can make it, too.
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