‘Show them how smart you are’ wasn’t a very successful way to make friends
Most people think of Imposter Syndrome as expressing itself most simply as “I don’t belong here,” as in “I’m not worthy of this success, am all a fraud, and will eventually fail.” For me it was a bit different. My belief was that I did belong, but barely, and in order to maintain my place, needed to constantly remind people/show that I was smart. Needless to say, this inner voice isn’t a healthy one when trying to work on teams and inspire trust.
I’ve written before around my own challenges outrunning the ‘failure tiger’ nipping at my heels for so many years and how that finally resolved. Now I wanted to get a bit deeper on the Imposter Syndrome side and the two hacks which calmed my anxiety. Assume zen pose…
1. What Would 18 Year Old Hunter Think About Where You Are?
Through a lot of my 20s/30s the meta-question of “am I doing enough? accomplishing enough? fast enough before I’m X years old” was a cerebral echo.
Sometimes people would tell me to calm down, seek balance and so on but this only caused me to think they were trying to make me complacent. “Yeah, whatever,” I’d think while listening to their wisdom, “that sounds fine if you don’t want to succeed but I’ve got plans! [or some variation of that]”
Or I’d hear “when you’re older you won’t worry about having worked one hour less. You’ll prize the [family, religion, hobby, whatever] that you made time for.” But all I imagined was old Hunter forever sitting alone in a room by himself, eating canned peaches and listening to baseball games on a cheap transistor radio. #FailureTiger
What ended up working wasn’t picturing myself in the future, but going backwards to my childhood. “If 18-year-old Hunter saw 35-year-old Hunter’s resume, what would he think?” The answer was he’d be pretty friggin’ excited! He’d think life was awesome and what a privilege it had been to work on interesting projects with interesting people. And how this would likely create several decades more of opportunities for his 40s, 50s, and beyond.
18-year-old Hunter wasn’t stupid. Overconfident, a bit smug, poor grooming habits maybe. But not stupid. And so I decided to trust 18-year-old Hunter more. If he was proud and excited by what present-day Hunter was up to, then maybe I should listen to him.
2. Are You So Good That You’re Fooling All These People?
I’d been lucky to meet lots of people along the way that I considered to be smart and accomplished. Way more so than me. Not mentors, I always disliked that word, but maybe role models? Or people I admired? A reasonable number seemed to tolerate me, perhaps even, gulp, like me? Respect me? Trust me? So I asked myself how did this jive with my own self-doubt.
“Hunter,” I told myself, “let’s review: you believe these people are really smart and perceptive. And you also know that they seem to accept you as someone worthy of their time, attention. So, do you think you’re fooling them all?”
I liked this question because, perversely, the Yes or No answer gave me comfort. Albeit it to different degrees and one much healthier than the other.
If the answer was “No, they couldn’t all be fooled by you” then I wasn’t an imposter. I belonged!
And if the answer was, “Yes, you are such a talented psychopath that while you’re not classically intelligent and don’t deserve to be a part of these circles, you’re able to fool them for long periods of time,” well, then I still got included. Note: I actually think these sorts of people do exist/thrive for periods of time — Talented Mr. Ripley anyone?
For the record, I assume the former, not the latter, as a personal truth.
None of this is meant to imply that I’m totally free of my Imposter Syndrome tendencies but they’ve lessened substantially and I have these two mechanisms for ongoing support. And that means a lot.