Fake it till you make it: how imposter syndrome can elevate your game (even if you’re not the world’s greatest expert)
Adele is a well-known singer and performing artist. She is also perhaps slightly less well known for her stage fright – she says that even as she gets more experience, her stage fright gets worse. Some recent news articles suggests that she may even have trouble doing future tours because her stage fright is so bad. Just like even the most famous and experienced performing artists continue to have stage fright, we experience fears and doubts when we have to perform in front of potential clients. This is called imposter syndrome.
What is imposter syndrome?
Have you ever been in a situation where you are expected to be the expert, but you feel like a fake? That's imposter syndrome – you feel like you're faking it, you dont have the right to be where you are, and somehow, someone is going to find you out and show you up for the imposter you are.
Imposter syndrome is nothing other than stage fright.
We have to perform, but we feel that we could make a mistake and embarrass ourselves. Performing artists have to deal with this every time they step in front of the camera or onto a stage.
Here's the good news: we get stage fright – or feel like imposters – because we're supposed to. We're hardwired to crave acceptance from our social groups – whether we're performing artists or specialists in a particular field.
We all feel like imposters at least some of the time.
You're not alone – we all experience imposter syndrome at different times in our careers. We sometimes feel that someone if going to appear on our doorstep with a clipboard and start asking us questions, eventually revealing us for the frauds we are.
Imposter syndrome is most scary when we have to present ourselves as experts – we dont believe that we have the expertise, or the experience, to do what we're advertising. We're afraid that someone is going to show us up as a fraud.
But over time, as we get more experience and practised at what we do, it gets less and less.
Why is imposter syndrome such a bad thing?
It's very natural to feel like an imposter. Until we have tons of self-confidence we will always be tempted to feel like we don't quite have the right to be where we are. And even then the fear can creep up out of nowhere and leave us short of breath, sapping our self-confidence and making us speechless.
At its worst, imposter syndrome can hold us back completely from doing what we're really good at. If it gets this bad, it is a debilitating emotion that holds us back from accomplishing small and great things.
Imposter syndrome can sap our self-confidence, which in turn makes us appear uncertain. And when we appear uncertain, we appear as less of an expert than we really are. Customers see that insecurity and lose faith that you can actually help them solve their problem – even if you are an expert.
Why is it also a good thing?
Like stage fright, imposter syndrome can also be a good thing. At the very least, it gives us focus. It raises our adrenaline levels, gives us the energy and focus we need to perform at peak levels.
If we don't feel some nervousness when we have to deliver our services, we become complacent – we actually care less about what were delivering. And when we become complacent and care less, the quality of what we do deteriorates – and before you know it you are no longer the expert.
Feeling like an imposter also shows that we care – we care about ourselves, we care about our customers and we care about the quality of the work we deliver.
So some level of stage fright or imposter syndrome is good – we need the adrenaline to keep us sharp, stay focused and deliver at the top of our game.
How can we overcome bad imposter syndrome?
It's not all about you.
The very first step in overcoming bad imposter syndrome is to understand that it's not all about you. When you walk into a first meeting with a potential client, they are hoping that you can help them solve a problem. So focus on understanding the problem (and not on selling yourself). It's only when you have a better understanding of the problem that you will know whether you can help them anyway. Only after that you can turn to why you may be the right person to solve the problem for them.
It's natural to feel like an imposter.
Understand that it is completely natural to feel like an imposter. Even seasoned experts have to deal with it on a regular basis.
Accept that you are going to make mistakes.
We all make mistakes, and we have to learn to cope with it. We learn more, faster when we make mistakes and have to solve them. After all, "expertise" is not only knowing where to go, but also knowing where not to go – and that is what makes you valuable.
I had the pleasure of working with a team of highly experienced (read: older) and skilled experts some years ago. We used to tell our clients that our claim to fame is that we've gotten it wrong more times than anyone else. We could not only explain where to go, but also what would go wrong if our clients went in the wrong direction.
None of us have all the answers.
You have to be able to stand up in front of a client and claim – with confidence – that you're really good at solving their kind of problem. But you also need to be able to say that where you dont have an answer, you will find out.
We're all always learning, and it is your specialization that makes you the expert.
Learn to stop underestimating yourself.
Every single one of us is good at something that other people are not – and that is the expertise people are engaging us for. You are good at what you do – and the more you do it the better you get. The more you work with clients the more you will realize that you are indeed an expert.
The more you specialize in a niche market, the faster you learn about your niche and the quicker you become the acknowledged expert.
But what happens if there is someone in the room who really is an expert and makes me look like an imposter?
Let's assume that you actually know something about the topic you're talking about. So you have some level of expertise – that is why you're in the room in the first place.
Every now and then we do run up against someone who is clearly more experienced at a particular topic than we are – and I love meeting those people. They have perspective and experience that we can learn from. Acknowledge their expertise and win them over to your side – because you have unique expertise as well.
Keep in mind that you're in front of a client and your job is to determine if you can help them solve that problem. So if there is already a high level of expertise in the room, why are you there? Is there something that they don't know how to do, some skill that they're lacking? Or are they just short of manpower? Focus on answering these questions and the other expert will most likely become an ally.
But every now and then there is a smart-arse in the room trying to show us up. The only way they can usually do this is by attacking the messenger – not the problem. So steer the conversation back to the problem – show the client that you are there to help them solve that problem as quickly and efficiently as possible and you're not about to play politics. And if the behaviour persists – do you really want to work in a poisonous environment where that kind of behaviour is tolerated?
So let's wrap it up.
Imposter syndrome is nothing other than stage fright. We all suffer from it at least some of the time, and it can have both positive and negative effects. We need to overcome the severe bad effects it can have on us, and recognize that the positive effects are an advantage.
You can overcome imposter syndrome by:
- Focusing on the problem rather than on yourself.
- Accepting that we all make mistakes and the number of mistakes we've learnt from distinguishes the experts from the novices.
- Learn to value your own capabilities and stop underestimating yourself.
- Keep on learning in your own area of specialization.
We all need to deal with imposter syndrome at least some of the time.
The actor Laurence Olivier developed severe stage fright late in his middle age. But he overcame that fear and became one of the most revered actors of all time, eventually earning a knighthood and becoming known as Sir Laurence.
Just like great performing artists, actors and public speakers have to learn to deal with stage fright, we have to learn to deal with imposter syndrome. It takes practice and becomes easier with time as we develop our expertise and self-confidence – but a little bit of fear is not necessarily a bad thing.
What to do next
Give yourself a break. Ask a few trusted friends how good you really are at what you do. (Don't ask your mom – she thinks you're amazing at everything.)
Be prepared to be amazed – but be equally prepared to hear something less complimentary. You may just find out that you're actually a lot better at your specialty than you gave yourself credit for.