Everyone feels it at some point in their professional life: I'm a fraud and everyone is about to find out. It's healthy to question your own qualifications and take pause, but then you need to find a way to move forward and regain your confidence.
This post originally appeared on StartupBros
What is impostor syndrome? It's feeling like an impostor when you're not. Like you're a fraud and the whole world is going to find you out. This makes total sense for undercover agents and people selling snake oil. It doesn't make so much sense for people who are trying to make the world a little better or to sell something they believe in.
It's comforting to hear when famous high achievers feel the same way:
"The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: 'I'm a fraud! Oh God, they're on to me! I'm a fraud!' So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud." -- Tina Fey
"There are an awful lot of people out there who think I'm an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I'm so much aware of all the things I don't know." Dr. Chan, Chief of the World Health Organisation
"The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you. It's Impostor Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened the Fraud Police." -- Neil Gaiman
"Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, I can't do this. I'm a fraud." -- Kate Winslett
"I have written eleven books, but 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.' " -- Maya Angelou
Emma Watson, Sheryl Sandberg and Sonia Sotomayor have also admitted to feeling like they will be found out for the frauds they are.
Seth Godin wrote in The Icarus Deception that after a dozen best sellers he still feels like a fraud all the time. This problem is only getting worse as more of us are tied to our online presences; we're in this weird culture where you've got to sell yourself aggressively while remaining "authentic". You think you need to be perfect but you also need to feel free to fail. You need to be yourself and more! Trying to be sincere while being self-conscious of how you present yourself can make you feel like a fraud. Here are the ways I keep going when I feel like a fraud:
17 Ways To Overcome Impostor Syndrome
1. Come off it. Usually I feel like a fraud when I think I'm more important than I am. When you feel like a fraud it's in relation to some perfection that never actually existed. Letting go of some of your excess self-importance will go a long way in helping you feel less like a fake.
2. Accept that you have had some role in your successes. We feel like frauds because we are "unable to internalise our successes". We were given an opportunity that others weren't. And so nothing we achieve after that opportunity was actually deserved.
John D Rockefellar's oldest son felt that strongly. His entire life's work was giving away money that his dad made. Can you imagine the intense impostor syndrome he must have felt? Holy moly.
There are plenty of people born with a silver spoon that still manage to fuck up. They were given every opportunity and never could take advantage of them. Opportunities come to those who expose themselves to them.
It's not all "fair", not at all. But you did do something to get where you are. You said yes when you could have said no (or perhaps in a more challenging situation, you said no when you could have said yes).
3. Focus on providing value. I feel like a fraud when I'm concerned about myself. What will they think of me? If I fail they will shun me. I don't know as much as that other guy, I have no right to say anything on the topic. Blah blah blah. The fastest way to get over feeling like a fraud is to genuinely try to help someone else.
This is hard because what if they hate you for it? What if they make fun of you for trying to help? What if your sincerity is smashed under the laughter of others? Then OUCH! That hurts bad. Not nearly as bad as it hurts to feel like a shell of yourself though. I remember the first time I wrote vulnerably. I had gone through severe depression and had benefitted from reading about others being depressed. I felt obligated to share my story. It's a couple years later now and I still get emails telling me how helpful the letter was to them. Not one person made fun of me for that. At least to my face.
4. Keep a file of people saying nice things about you. I just started this earlier this year and it's been amazing. Every time someone writes that I helped them online I take a screenshot and put it in my folder. When I feel like a fraud I can go look through the stories of people I have helped. There is a mum who's 18 year old boy was shaken out of being stuck because of something I had written. There are a whole series of entrepreneurs who started businesses because of articles I've written. There are successful entrepreneurs that were reinvigorated by something I wrote. There are a whole slew of people at rock bottom who have found life worth living again because of something I wrote. Those things keep me putting stuff out there. Because, honestly, it's easy to forget that writing can do any good. Collect your wins, testimonials, whatever and then visit them when you're feeling like a fraud.
5. Stop comparing yourself to that person. There's no good reason for you to be reading what I'm writing. There are world class biographies of Warren Buffett, John D Rockefeller, and Einstein. James Altucher has had more successes than me. Peter Thiel just wrote a book. Tim Ferriss, Paul Graham, Kevin Kelly… these guys blog! But still, I'm writing this because I think I have something to offer. Actually, when I look at my praise file I have proof that I have something to offer.
When I compare myself to these others it's easy to fall into the trap of "my life sucks compared to that life." You might as well not even do anything! Your life isn't the best life! Emerson said, "Envy is ignorance…" and he was right on. You aren't here to live the life of another person. You're here to do whatever life you can. Turn Facebook off, get off Instagram, stop reading biographies of "successful" people and learn to respect your own experience. You're not a fraud, you're just you.
6. Expose yourself totally. Part of the twisted arrogance that causes impostor syndrome is the (usually unconscious) belief that you have extreme powers that the world couldn't handle. Or maybe it's just that you think you are a freak. You certainly have the ability to offer the world something that nobody else can… but really it's not that wild! You are not nearly as much of a freak as you think you are. Again, come off it, you're just not that special.
Try this: write for 30 minutes the most insane things about yourself. You will never show anybody this. Write your most ridiculous beliefs, your most terrible thoughts, your biggest fraud! Just write gibberish if you think that is crazy. Push into the deepest taboos you hold. Seeing these on paper doesn't get rid of them but externalising things puts them in a more sane perspective.
Alternatively, try stream-of-conscious writing. Write for 30 minutes nonstop. You can't put your pen down. If there is no thought in your head then write "I can't think of anything" until you do. This will constantly put you in touch with what's going on inside yourself.
It's very useful to let your mind wander, and it might help to show you how silly impostor syndrome is.
7. Treat the thing as a business or experiment. Today there is a whole slew of artist-entrepreneurs. We call part of what we do "content creation". There has never been a time in history where so many people have a voice. No wonder we're all suffering from impostor syndrome.
Start treating your art as a business. Not to the point that you start making crap because it's what people like, but to the point that you are honestly trying to serving your area of the market. In a business, if a product doesn't sell, you stop making it.
If nobody shares this post or leaves comments then I'll assume that nobody wants to hear me talk about impostor syndrome -- so I'll stop. I won't wallow in my failure and think the world hates me. I'm running a test. Looking at it this way makes it easier to create the thing freely, even if everything isn't a smash hit.
8. Remember: being wrong doesn't make you a fake. The best basketball players miss most of the shots they take. The best traders lose money on most trades. Presidents are wrong about stuff all the time. The best football teams inevitably lose. Losing is just part of the game. Don't glorify failure, but don't let it make you feel like you're not a real contender either.
9. "Nobody Belongs Here More Than You." That's the title of Miranda July's collection of stories -- which I haven't read, but I agree with it. Why do we feel we don't deserve to be in the game? Because we haven't won it yet? We haven't even tried! Break people down into what they are: expiring meat sacks.
We are all going to die, we just take different routes to get there. One of the most attractive qualities in a person is acceptance. Acceptance of themselves and acceptance of you. If you can admit that nobody belongs here more than you (while maintaining the belief that you don't belong here any more than anyone else) you will find yourself making connections with people in powerful ways.
Do you want to be on your deathbed regretting that you spent your entire life stopping yourself because you felt like a fraud? Maybe you can't shake the feeling that you're a fraud. You can force yourself to move forward despite the feeling.
10. Realise that when you hold back, you're robbing the world. If you walk around feeling that you should be someone else or that you don't deserve to be here, then all your bad vibes rub off on other people. Your stunted expression means that you can't be there for people who need you.
Everyone has doubts, the best gift you can give the world is to move forward regardless of the doubts -- because it gives us the permission to move forward as well.
11. Say what you can. We are often put in the position of "expert." When this happens, people look at you like you should know everything about a topic. We can't know everything about everything though. If I'm in a situation where there is potential to actually be a fraud -- i.e. bullshit about things I don't know -- I just say what I can, as limited as it may be, and be honest with my limitations. People respect this much more. Admit that you don't yet have the answer but you'll find it.
12. Realise that nobody knows what they're doing. Most startups fail. Even the ones that you hear about raising millions of dollars fail all the time. Nobody knows exactly what's going on. There are a ton of people who will tell you they know the answers. These people are liars.
The world we live in is the result of a lot of brave people tinkering, failing, and succeeding once in a while. Nobody knows what's next: some are willing to play ball in the face of uncertainty and some aren't. You're not an impostor for trying something that might not work.
13. Realise that you are not a constant. You're constantly changing. You're constantly becoming a new person. Your opinions change with new information (I hope). You spend six months eating doughnuts and then you spend six months at the gym. Last year you were obsessed with Call of Duty, now you don't understand video games. Maybe you were in a terrible mood this morning. Maybe you're a bit brighter now.
"There is as much difference between us an ourselves as there is between us and others." -- Michel de Montaigne
You are growing into something different. You are getting better. How? By trying to do something better than you actually can. That's not a lie, that's valour.
14. Authenticity is a hoax. What is being authentic? I'm not going to write to my grandma using the same words as I use to write to my sister. I'm not even going to emphasise the same interests I have. You represent yourself differently to different people all the time, without being dishonest.
There is no person you can be other than you. Ever. The impostor syndrome will have you believe that you are being inauthentic, or that you are a liar. If that's true then where is your true self? The impostor syndrome doesn't give an answer because it doesn't have one. Tell it to eff off and realise that unless you are literally lying to people, you are just being yourself.
15. See credentials for what they are. They don't mean much. "Expert" means someone decided to call them that. "PhD" doesn't necessarily mean someone knows more than you, but it does mean they spent a lot of time in school. (And they likely do know way more than you about some very specific topic, of course.)
Don't measure yourself by credentials. It takes the focus away from actually doing good things, and it won't shut up the impostor syndrome for long either if you focus on what credentials you do or don't have.
16. Find one person to whom you can say, "I feel like a fraud." Being able to say that out loud to another person can be a huge help. Especially when they laugh at you for it -- and then acknowledge that they feel the same way.
17. Realise that faking things actually does work. Sometimes faking it doesn't make you a fraud. If you smile, your body will be more generous with happy chemicals and actually make you happier.
When you were a baby you tried to walk and fell down every time. Were you a walking impostor? Who are you to walk!? You can't even do it! It's absurd!
Silicon Valley has been built by people trying to do things that probably weren't going to work. We need them to keep trying. We need you to keep trying. We need you. Whether you feel like an impostor or not.
21 Proven Ways To Overcome Impostor Syndrome [StartupBros]