How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome: Remember The Why

imposter syndrome
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Why you do something is more important than what you do

Imposter syndrome is a psychological condition but one that can be summed up very simply: it is about feeling a fraud. It is the fear that we cannot live up to other people’s expectations or that we do not deserve our position, accolades or the praise people give us. We are scared of being found out; our weaknesses and failures are laid bare. 

Ironically it is high performing people with multiple accomplishments that most suffer from this mindset. This is not necessarily surprising. As Albert Einstein observed:

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”

Albert Einstein

And there is more. Unless we are delusional, we all know we are imperfect, that we could be better. That is a fact. But it becomes a problem if we then assume that this knowledge makes us unworthy or unfit. It is this negative assumption that leads to imposter syndrome. 

So, what do we do to re-set our brains? The critical shift comes in remembering that what we do or what we know is less important than why we do what we do. It is our values that define us, not our job title.

Personal identity and how it is affected by your values

Our values are pivotal to who we are; they go to the very core of us, to our personal identity.  Values are a foundation to our character and the plumb line of our standards, as well as being a moral compass. Our values drive who we are and what we do.

“We are not in control, principles control. We control our actions, but the consequences that flow from these actions are controlled by Principles.”  Stephen R. Covey

Our exploration and discovery of our principles is therefore a discovery of self.  As one anonymous observer noted: 

“Every one of us has in him a continent of undiscovered character.  Blessed is he who acts the Columbus to his own soul.”

What do we value in ourselves and others?

If we want to understand who we are and what we value it is worth starting with our perceptions of other people. Think about the first two questions you are generally asked when you meet someone.  It is likely to be “what is your name?” (usually meaning your first name) quickly followed by “what do you do?”

What are people really asking when they enquire about what you do?  They are asking about your job, profession, or vocation for sure.  But the fact that this comes out so quickly when we meet people indicates how highly we rate work in our culture and how closely we identify ourselves with what we do.  

What do you do?

I went along with this for many years because, for a long time, it was easy.  I started out in the Army, working as a bomb disposal officer.  This was an easy title, and one I enjoyed using, as it sounded impressive.  I enjoyed seeing the raised eyebrows and the endearing look of respect (that I so little deserved in reality).  

Next, I was a Project Manager, working in the construction industry.  Again, an easy label, although I must admit it sounded less impressive at parties than something with ‘bomb’ in the title.  But hey, I was married by then so who was I trying to impress anyway?  Well, everyone actually!

The real challenge came with my next job, working for a rapidly growing church.  My job description was constantly evolving and therefore it was hard to describe exactly what I did, especially as I was not actually a church minister.  I found that introducing myself generally required a long explanation.  The process of outlining what I did was just long enough to watch people’s eyes glaze over, stare down their drinks or look furtively towards the exit.

When I moved on again and started working as a management consultant it was not really any easier, as the title ‘consultant’ invokes so many different things.   You may be motivated by helping individuals and equipping organisations, but one has a lot of justification to do when people look at you with an expression that seems to imply ‘consultant’ is synonymous with ‘parasite’!

Training dolphins to be government assassins

And then, at one networking event, I had a moment of clarity.  I started introducing myself in this way: “Hi, I’m Simon, I train dolphins to be government assassins.”  Once again, I had attained the level of eyebrow movement that I have attained as a bomb disposal officer (but I guess more out of surprise than respect).  

Life was easy once again (for a moment at least) but it did make me think. Why do people, including me, care so much about titles?  Why would I be prepared to embellish or even make up something about what I do? What does it say about me? The answers to these questions are pretty challenging.

Are we just what we do?

When people ask what you do, they are actually asking who you are.  They are hoping for an answer that will help them quickly categorise you. It is a simple heuristic – to judge someone by what they do – but it also reveals our cognitive biases

As we walk down a street, enter a room, or sit staring out of a café window we are constantly assessing those around us.  We compare looks, wealth, car, house, job, children, clothes, phone.  Much of our happiness hangs upon these comparisons. 

In conversation, this process continues through things like accent, vocabulary, demeanour, politics, religion, aspirations, and education. When people share their job, we jump to all sorts of conclusions. And herein lies another irony; by making these judgements we can also make other people suffer from imposter syndrome too!

I have been guilty of this. I remember back to when one good friend of mine, a talented musician and artist, told me they were going to become a lawyer. I was shocked. I could not link what I knew of my friend – this warm, creative, caring soul – with my (quite negative) perceptions of the legal profession. But when I heard about why he wanted to become a lawyer, how he wanted to help those in need, I started to get it. Now, many years later, he is a senior partner in a law firm. I can see how his creative approach to his work and his love for people brings healing to broken situations. I can see why he pursued that career.

We judge others but suffer from imposter syndrome too

As proven above, many of our initial assumptions can be wrong. We try to make a value judgement in a fleeting moment, judging the book by its cover.  Not surprisingly this process reveals more about us than about the other person because how we classify others speaks volumes about how we perceive ourselves.  If we are putting someone else in a certain box or on a certain level what does that say about our own self-worth or social position?  I for one did not think I had a pride problem until I thought about this!

And pride can take us even further. We all have roles that we play, and we often wear masks that represent an aspirational self. We build up a persona to hide our imposter syndrome.

We present the idealised version of self that we want to show to the world, rather than the real us.  If you think you are exempt from this, then just reflect upon how you present yourself on social media. Is it your whole self, or a carefully curated representation? 

It is not what we do, but why we do it

So, if we want to overcome imposter syndrome we have to be brutally honest with ourselves. We need to ask, how do we want to be seen and why do we care? We can challenge how we see ourselves, as well as how other people perceive us, if we examine why we do what we do. Remember, the why is more important than the what. Think about your own work situation and role:

  • What passions and dreams led you to what you are doing now?
  • What do you love (and hate) most about what you do? 
  • How does your job fit into your longer-term vision of success?
  • How does your work impact what you care about?
  • If you could do anything, what would that be?
  • What do you aspire to achieve through your vocation?
  • Where do you want to get to in your career and why?

Don’t shy away from the answers. We may not be in our dream job. That does not mean failure. Sometimes we just need money to support our family, but that reveals how we value those we love. Other times we are doing a role as a stepping-stone to something else. We are conscious of the role not being the endpoint. 

But we need to ask these questions and examine our motivations. If we don’t we can forget why we were doing the job in the first place. I have coached people who have become successful in their field, promoted to high positions, but unhappy. When they stopped to ask questions like the ones above, they realised that their career was based upon other people’s expectations, not their own. Don’t fall into this trap; ask the questions now.

Re-thinking how we value ourselves and others

We are all at risk from imposter syndrome and assuming that we are not good enough. And there is some truth in that; that is why it is such a powerful belief. None of us is perfect. We can all be better. So, flip the negative side of imposter syndrome to a more positive one. This other side is about having a growth mindset, continually learning, being willing to fail but improving through experience. It is also about being humble. A humble character stops us from being full of pride and gives us greater respect and empathy for others.

If we want to shift our mindset, we need to shift our focus from what we do to why we are doing it. Our identity is tied to our vocation but it is not the job title that defines us: it is the reasons that motivate our work that is important. Our passions, principles and values say more about us than any job title.

And next time you meet someone, go ahead and ask them their name and what they do, but follow up with questions to find out some more. Get curious about why they do what they are doing. Get into a conversation about what people are passionate about; not just a competition over job titles.

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