Impostor Syndrome

A few weeks ago, a friend scored a big freelance gig. “Huge brand, the CEO reached out to me personally, I can’t believe I was handpicked for this! Feels like I’m in way over my head,” he told me. His impostor syndrome kicked into high gear.

Having been in a similar position several years ago, I shared what worked for me back then: “Just focus on the work. Forget all the names and labels and expectations attached to them. You were chosen for a reason, so as long as you do your best to deliver a great result for your customer, you’re going to be fine.”

Yesterday, in a group call, my friend confirmed everything went well, and, between the five of us, we realized we all still suffer impostor syndrome on a regular basis despite being around a decade or more into our careers. But we’re also doing well all things considered, so perhaps, we mused, a little bit of impostor syndrome isn’t such a bad thing.

Impostor syndrome is not exactly synonymous with humility, but that’s partially where it comes from. You don’t think you’re better than other people, and you want to make those you work with — or for — proud.

Of course, too much of any syndrome is bad. When you drill too far into your own mind, you become paralyzed, unable to deliver. But when we spin in circles, we usually worry about ourselves, not other people. Drop the ego, become other-conscious, and re-center on who the work is for.

Ultimately, however, “when you completely lose your impostor syndrome, that’s when you’re screwed,” one friend concluded. Have you ever met someone who was 100% sure of themselves yet also 100% wrong? Perhaps even across skills and disciplines, none of which they had truly mastered? Impostor syndrome isn’t the greatest feeling, but it’s a whole lot better than the alternative: being the overconfident under-deliverer no one wants to work with.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? The only true impostors are the people who never suffer from impostor syndrome. They’ll gladly cause train wreck after train wreck, too blind to even see they are the source of the problem, not its solution. I don’t enjoy paranoia any more than the next person, but a little bit — sometimes even a good amount — of perfectionism is a trait I’ve observed in nearly all the best people I have worked with.

Don’t worry about being worried. We’re all out of our depth here in this miraculous spectacle we call life. Realize that worrying about how you’re perceived is your ego getting in the way. Drop the me-attitude, and a true attempt at being of service will follow. Stay humble, and focus on the work. Problems come and go — including syndromes — but showing up lasts forever because, as Maya Angelou once pointed out, even if they forget your words and your actions, “people will never forget how you made them feel.”