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Imposter Syndrome




I didn't come from academia, so when we started GetSmarter and I was engaging with University faculty every day about their areas of research, and I had major imposter syndrome.


Part of my work was to engage with faculty to explore the opportunity to take their deep expertise, and turn it into an online course which could be accessible to many thousands of students. In my mind, this meant that I should know enough about their field to lead and guide them through this process from start to finish. Because I wasn't an expert in any of these fields, in preparation for my first meeting with a faculty member, I worked tirelessly to try and get to know their academic field. I would read all of the research they had ever published with the hope of being able to speak to them "peer to peer" and then guide them as to how their course would be delivered online.


To say that this tactic didn't work would be an understatement - a few weeks of diligent reading was no comparison to years of deep immersion in a particular field. Trying to engage "peer to peer" was not not only unrealistic, but also awkward and unproductive. I was pretending to be something that I wasn't, and as humans, we can feel it when the person we're engaging with is not being authentic. It's subtle, but present, and it typically leads to a lack of trust between people.


After a few failed attempts, it became abundantly clear that I needed to change tac urgently.


Rather than trying to engage peer to peer, I realised that I needed to own my "beginners mind" in their field, and become an expert at asking good questions. I would still do my research beforehand, but rather than pretending to know more than I did, my focus for these early conversations with faculty was to bring heartfelt curiosity to their world and their discipline, and try to help them shape and package their expertise in a way that would be accessible to fellow novices like me.


This new approach worked... really well.


Imposter syndrome is something we all deal with from time to time. Every time you make a status shift in your career, relationships, sport and so on, you will experience imposter syndrome. Anyone who isn't narcissistic should feel this.


When you make a status shift, you're a beginner relative to your peers at the same level, and comparatively, you're unlikely to know what you're doing. Showing up in these circumstances can be uncomfortable, and will certainly touch on any insecurities you already have. In these circumstances, it's tempting, as I did in the example above, to armour yourself with bravado in order to pretend that you know more than you actually do, or are more competent than you actually are, but it's a very poor long term strategy.


What I experienced in the example above, and have continued to experience throughout my career every time I level up, is that your new peers and colleagues deeply appreciate curiosity and humility, and are nauseated by people who presume more knowledge or competence than they actually have.


This dynamic plays out in so many areas of our lives:


- Are you 25 years old and have just started dating a 35 year old partner, and are now hanging out with their 35 year old friends? If so, don't try to compete on life achievements, experience, knowledge, travel etc with people who have had 10 more critical years to experience and achieve these things. Rather, use this as the chance to ask lots of good questions and fast track your own learning and trajectory from people with 10 years more experience than you.


- Have you just been selected for a new sports team in the top league for your age group? If so, don't pretend that you're not nervous before the first big game, rather, ask your new peers how they deal with pre match anxiety and fast track your own learning and time to competence.


- Have you just landed a promotion at work and need to manage other people for the first time? Not only other people, but people who used to be your peers? If so, speak openly to your new team members about the fact that you are new to management, and are going to be learning as much as you can, but also asking them for regular feedback and support as you grow into this new role.


What an incredible quirk of humanity! Provided that you're in a functional environment, the people around us actually reward us for our aspirational curiosity and learning. It doesn't make you a liar or a fake to take on a new position at work, or any other area of your life that you're not yet fully qualified for.


Growth is deeply embedded in our DNA and psyche, so let's take the time to get good at growing.


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