Serendipity works, or at least it has started working more often in my case of late. I have been planning this article for a long time (but it got delayed due to work commitments) and few days ago I was talking to a friend about some of my experiments in computer vision (AI related) and he suggested that I should write or talk about it. I was trying to explain him that there are far better experts and what I am doing is not extra-ordinary as such. He showed me one ‘Imposter‘ illustration and it did drive home the point.
Personally speaking, for the most part of my career as a techie, I have worked with exceptionally bright mentors and seniors; so it was quite natural for me to feel “I hardly know anything about XYZ…“, given the depth of their knowledge and insights – and I was driven by that feeling of ‘not-knowing-much’ to learn and figure out more. I still continue to feel that way often. Although, I didn’t feel like a fraud (quite common irrational belief in imposter phenomenon), I often wondered if I really belonged there. But let me try to unfold ‘imposter syndrome’ more systematically.
What is Imposter Syndrome
Impostor syndrome or impostor phenomenon can be explained as a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Despite their achievements and plenty of examples of their competence, individuals experiencing impostor syndrome feel inadequate and believe they don’t deserve it. Psychologist Dr. Pauline Rose Clance was one of the early researchers to study this phenomenon. It is not a disease or abnormality. As psychology confirms, this phenomenon is quite common (about 85% working adults experience this according to one survey in UK) and it has been recognized to affect both men and women equally. (source: Wikipedia)
Among others, people as brilliant and as famous as Albert Einstein and Maya Angelou also felt like being imposters – I was quite shocked when I learnt it for the first time. This is a wonderful short animation (~ 4 mins) from TED-Ed Original lessons by educator Elizabeth Cox that not only explains impostor syndrome but also discusses few practical tips to deal with it. (More on practical ways of dealing with it at the end of this article.)
Atlassian CEO’s story of Imposter Syndrome
This TED video actually got me kicked up about writing this article. Most people working in the software industry know Atlassian for its legendary products like Jira, Confluence and Trello (Trello purchased from Fog Creek software in 2017). Atlassian was founded in Australia and currently it is one of the leading enterprise software MNC. Mike Cannon-Brookes is the co-founder and co-CEO of Atlassian. In this TED talk he discusses his own stories of imposter syndrome and how he actually used it to his own advantage.
This how he honestly narrates his own experience of feeling like an imposter –
Well, I can think of many examples where I felt like this.
Interviewing our first HR manager, having never worked in a company that had an HR department – terrified as I walked into the interview, thinking, “What am I going to ask this person?” Or attending board meetings in a T-shirt surrounded by suits, and acronyms are flying around, feeling like a five-year-old as I surreptitiously write them down in my notebook, so I can look them up on Wikipedia when I get home later. 🙂
Mike talks about their early days at Atlassian, winning entrepreneur of the year awards, accidental conversation with a beautiful woman during his commute, inviting her to the award ceremony and how she became his wife later. His suggestion for dealing with the imposter syndrome can be paraphrased as –
Don’t freeze, learn & find your way through the situation where you feel out of depth.
Mike Cannon-Brookes work is not limited to Atlassian now. He is a technology investor in fintech, software, agriculture and green energy. Interestingly, his casual, uniformed but curious tweet-exchange with Elon Musk (Tesla) eventually resulted in Australia getting world’s biggest lithium-ion battery and Mike’s own journey into clean energy. It is fascinating to listen to this story in his talk itself with his disarming sense of humour, do listen –
Harnessing Imposter Syndrome
As Mike Cannon-Brookes explains, you don’t really “conquer” your imposter syndrome no matter how successful you get – Einstein could be an iconic example of this. The best you can do is to become aware of it and try to harness it. One of the best articles that discusses research based approaches to harness imposter syndrome is from ‘Barking Up The Wrong Tree‘ blog titled – This Is How To Overcome Impostor Syndrome: 4 Secrets From Research. This is an in-depth longish article that explains rationale behind each of its suggestions and it builds all of it around self-efficacy theory by Albert Bandura (I had written about it here in Personality Theories 3 – Self-Efficacy).
This article suggests that one can tackle imposter syndrome using four ways (or as they like to call it, four secrets) –
- Enactive mastery experience – Practice and build expertise, hone your skills.
- Vicarious experience – Watch others (with comparable skills or slightly better) doing it successfully – if they can do it, so can you.
- Social persuasion – Genuinely encouraging supporters to compliment abilities. Validation helps.
- Emotional/physiological states – Reframe your feelings, trust strengths and recall triumphs.
If you’re keen, I would highly recommend reading the original article: This Is How To Overcome Impostor Syndrome: 4 Secrets From Research
Lastly, here is the insightful Venn-diagram illustration that my friend Rohit showed me, which drove home the point. 🙂
Do you have any favourite illustration or comic-strip about Imposter Syndrome? Do share them here in the comments, it would be a nice collection.
- Feel like a fraud? by American Psychological Association
- Impostor syndrome from Wikipedia
- Imposter Phenomenon by Dr. Pauline Rose Clance
The featured image: