We all have an impostor syndrome sleeping somewhere, right? This impression of being in a position which we do not deserve? This ominous feeling that our incompetence will soon be discovered and exposed? It’s not quite binary. We’re not always in a context where we aren’t in control, and where we don’t know what we’re doing. But it happens and it fluctuates with time.
In this article, I would like to talk a bit about this elephant that likes showing up in every room. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t once felt this syndrome. The good news is that it’s perfectly fine.
I have long been an imposter
And yet it showed up quite late. I was quite self-taught well before college, and I learned by myself all the stuff I would see in my classes. The result was quite interesting: I often helped a teacher to teach by helping other students. I even often “helped” a teacher to teach, in the sense that they knew more or less what they were doing (them and computers, you know…), so I sometimes “taught” them how it worked. So I was really good at what I was doing. However, I was very cautious about doing anything I did not know, fearing I couldn’t succeed. So it was a lot more contrasting for me.
The sham began the day I was rushed into my Peter principle. That is to say that one day, I became a team lead, and I had to manage 7 people. Nobody had prepared me. Nobody had trained me. Expectations towards my work were generally unclear, and when they were clear, I had no idea how to meet them. I had no one to guide me. I was a complete impostor. And I was stressed 100% of the time. It was not easy …
Knowing to be vulnerable
The impostor syndrome is greatly linked to the feeling of vulnerability that accompanies it. We don’t know what we do, we don’t feel in control, but the expectations towards us persist. Eventually, we must accept that no one can expect us to know everything or do everything right the first time. The first thing to do is to admit that we don’t know everything.
“But Olivier, in the company where I work, it’s risky to do that!”
Yes, it happens. Not all companies are necessarily psychologically safe. But the first person to whom you must admit that you can not know everything and do everything perfectly is yourself. One must give oneself the right to be wrong, and the right not to know.
Adopting a growth mindset
Once we accept that we can not be perfect and succeed all at once, the next natural step is to simply approach these challenges with curiosity rather than fear of failure. It is very important to understand and accept that failure is not the opposite of success, it is its cornerstone. I could spend hours looking for quotes on the subject, I will use only one because I think it is worth all the gold in the world.
Thomas Edison apparently failed thousands of times in the process of inventing the light bulb. Questioned by a journalist who asked him about all these failures, he reportedly answered this:
I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
– Thomas Alva Edison
Some will say that this quote was made up. I don’t care much. It remains very powerful.
Everyone is an impostor
Imagine a company’s president who pretends to be completely in control in his role. This means that all employees are motivated, satisfied, productive, and understand their role.
So that’s great news, isn’t it? I guarantee you that 100% of the people on this planet are impostors. That is they aren’t in control 100% of the time, and must improvise without having any idea what they are doing. And it’s true especially in the world of work. Many people claim to be totally in control. Can you imagine the variables this implies? Imagine a company’s president who pretends to be completely in control in his role. This means that all employees are motivated, satisfied, productive, and understand their role. Nobody resigns, all the customers are happy, nobody is sick, the market is in perfect health, there is no shortage of anything, all the positions are filled, no subway breakdown, no traffic… Those who claim they are in control are probably a perpetual combat to keep or regain control. But being in control 100% of the time? Tell this to a wooden horse, and he will kick you in the shin. It’s pure nonsense.
Let’s use a more concrete example. I work with developers. They are good, it’s their job. They know how to code, they know the infrastructure. However, when deciding on a new feature to develop, they must rack their brains, try different solutions, they are often wrong. There are bugs, edge cases that they haven’t thought of. They must figure out as they go, in a large percentage of their work. We pay them for that.
As for myself, I consider myself a good manager (by my own standards, of course). I would say that I am quite familiar with the big theories of the management, intrinsic motivation, servant leadership, benevolent management. And quite honestly, in 90% of problems I need to address, I have not the slightest idea of the way to go. And yet, we find solutions.
Easy solution: Become a world’s leading expert
Since this blog exists, I have often suggested that people contribute to it. “Would you like to write on the subject?” It seems to terrify people. I spoke with several people. Some have not slept well due to this question. Others simply answer “But who am I to talk about this?” Or often, “I’m not an expert at all, I do not have your experience on this topic!” Indeed, it is quite intimidating to have to talk about a topic that interests us but in which we are not at all expert. I have often wanted to do this, and I restrained myself because other people with much more experience could correct me, tell me that I am wrong. And yet I ended up creating this site, in which I speak about recruitment (although I hire people, I do not have much experience in recruitment), on human resources (I never worked in HR), on leadership (no one ever told me “you are my leader and I follow you”).
And now, I will give you my secret.
Whatever the subject, you are the WORLD LEADING EXPERT on:
– How you feel about the subject
– Your personal experience with the subject
– Your wishes in relation to this subject
– How does this subject affect you personally
And that’s really how I came to write articles like this. Do you think I have read all the books about the impostor syndrome? Think again. Not one. All I’m expressing in this text is my personal experience, my observations, my beliefs, and the results I’ve gathered so far. And when you think about it, what is the worst that can really happen? That no one reads your text? Highly improbable, even on bad days, I still have a lot of readers. They might not agree? It’s possible. But I have never seen or heard anyone say “You are clearly not a leader in this field!” On the contrary, people would be rather surprised to see how readers react and can relate to other people’s experiences.
Are you feeling ready to face your impostor syndrome?
I’m still an imposter, and it’s OK
As I hit my Peter principle in 2014, we are a few years later, and I find myself having a very firm stance on what a good manager really is. Some say “Fake it ’till you make it”. For my part, I simply read, observed, discussed, and finally, I made up my mind. And despite all that, I still don’t have a clue what I’m doing most of the time.
Regarding my blog? I am still an impostor. Every time I start an article, I tell myself that I do it more for readers than for me. To inspire them. To confirm that I’m not crazy, or alone to go through these things. I stopped worrying about it, and I push the boundaries of my growth mindset. I have many projects for Primos Populi, including a book project that will be inspired by my Practical Guide to Becoming a Terrible Manager.
When I wrote the sentence “Stay tuned for the book, coming in 2019”, do you imagine that I felt in control? I made a commitment to you to write a damn book! I have no idea how I’m going to go about it. But in 2019, I will be able to say I wrote a book. This idea is much stronger for me than the fear of writing one. My growth mindset coupled with my desire for antifragility definitely win this internal fight that’s taking place in my guts.
And I would like to finish this text by quoting a passage from Marie Pelletier’s article. This is the first and only article she has written here, which is related to today’s topic: The perks of being an impostor.
Although the phrase “I don’t know” is one that I utter all the time, it is almost always followed by “… but I can figure it out.” Lack of knowledge is not an insurmountable obstacle, more like a small detour
– Marie Pelletier