Is “impostor syndrome” real, or aren’t we all just playing parts?

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By Darren Johnson

Campus News

You may have heard a relatively new term being bandied about called “Impostor Syndrome,” which means a person in general feels that he or she doesn’t deserve success, and is just playing the role of a successful person.

Essentially, they are “faking it.” This apparently causes some people to feel sad.

And, I’m sure, in the academic world, a lot of people may feel like impostors. For instructors or administrators, maybe they feel like impostors because they went to a lesser college than most of their colleagues; the master’s was easy for them, for example. Maybe their degree was from a “soft” program. Maybe they are called “doctor,” but some doctorates are easier to get than others. Maybe a wealthy parent paid their way into a private college where A’s were easy to come by. Maybe their degree is in a field in which they have no practical experience or talent for, but, alas, they are the “expert” in it.

For the student, maybe some of the above is true. Maybe their application essays and other essays were edited by a professional, or, at least, Uncle Bob, who has a degree in English. Maybe the student has strong integrity, barely got through high school, but finds he or she is getting A’s in college. In the classes I have taught, some students have seemed amazed when they (deservedly) have gotten back papers with an “A” on it.

It takes a lot of maturity to get to the point where one realizes that success is earned, and then deserved, but, if it isn’t authentic, perhaps the person really is an impostor.

Before I get too far with this article, let me state that the idea for this piece came from a book a PR person sent Campus News in the mail – “The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success” by Joyce M. Roche, a top Avon executive who went from humble beginnings to earning an MBA from an Ivy League college.

A person named Alexander Kopelman is listed in smaller print under Roche’s name. And the book really is filled out with essays from various CEOs, writing on the main topic. So, in fact, Roche really didn’t write a whole book at all. Maybe she IS an impostor? (Just kidding, Joyce!)

I took the quiz that starts off the book. I rated as having “few Impostor characteristics,” which is the lowest one can score. The highest score means one has “intense IP [Imposter Phenomenon] experiences” that “frequently and seriously” interfere in that person’s life.

But maybe it is good to always question one’s own authenticity; and, maybe if one feels guilt, that increases work ethic. In my own studies of what makes a person successful or not, work ethic and focus seem to be the two key components.

These are signs of IP, Roche says:
1. When People Praise You, You Fear You Won’t Live Up to Their Expectations.
2. You Feel Your Success Is Due to Luck.
3. You’re Afraid Others Will Discover How Little You Know.
4. When You Succeed, You Have Doubts About Being Able to Do It Again.
5. You Believe Others Are More Intelligent Than You.
6. If You’re Up For A Promotion, You Don’t Tell Anyone Until It’s a Done Deal.
7. You Feel You Have to Work Harder Than Others.
8. You Always Have a Backup Plan Ready in Case You’re “Discovered.”
9. You Seek External Validation, Yet Don’t Fully Believe It When It Comes.
10.  You Keep Your Real Life — Upbringing, Degrees, Etc.— Secret From Peers.

But maybe some people really are lucky. They got in at a good time, when the corporation was just starting. Maybe it is good to have a backup plan. Some people get promoted to the point where they find themselves in over their heads – it’s called the Peter Principle. Perhaps they will be “found out” and let go.

More so, we all have bits of luck, we all sometimes have to do things we may not be experts in, we all got the occasional bad grade and many, many people are more intelligent than you and me (unless Stephen Hawking is reading this article – please ignore this paragraph, Stephen!).

People went to better schools than us. And it’s wise not to always trust praise or the promise of a promotion.

On No. 7, sure, we have to work harder than others. That’s a given. It should be that way. I’m not talking just sitting at a desk, but actually filling practically every waking hour with some form of professional enrichment activity. Learn skills, techniques and philosophies that your contemporaries are too lazy to learn. They are off playing golf.

Anyway, not to co-opt what the PR company thought would be a book review – the book, by now, is in the Amazon bargain bin, and is an easy enough to peruse, passable business/motivation book –  let me briefly state, having read many similar books and studied similar issues, how you can avoid all of this negativity.

First, be self-aware. Know who you are. This comes from alone time. It comes from reflecting, meditating, writing and reading (not playing games or watching TV). By knowing who you are, you will present your true self when tasked with work, and know whether or not you deserve to be where you are.

If you are in a position you perhaps don’t yet deserve, can you do the extra work to truly fit the bill? I often say, “I have never done this exact thing before, but I am a fast learner.” Try it, fail a little bit at first, but win in the end.

Second, maybe don’t aim so high so fast. I mean this in a good way. A lot of people get sucked into the Peter Principle vortex. They’re promoted into jobs they thought they wanted, but they are not good at them. They are rendered impotent (but don’t leave because of the higher pay). This is an important question – would you rather be a benchwarmer for an established team or a valuable starter for an upstart?

If you had properly self-assessed, you won’t have ended up a bench warmer. Sure, it is okay to shoot for the moon, but don’t shoot for the sun, as well.

Third, embrace your new titles and awards. If you get an honor or promotion, it’s yours. You’re worthy. Don’t overthink it. Put it on your resume, put it on your LinkedIn.

Last, realize we’re all playing roles. Take pride in being good in whatever you take on. Just like there are no soul mates – or your odds of meeting such a person are one in seven billion if such a thing does exist – a new study (Future Workplace “Multiple Generations @ Work”) suggests that today’s Millennials (born between 1977-97) will have a new job every three years and work in 15-20 different jobs over a lifetime.

There is no way that all of those jobs will fit you exactly. You will need the confidence to assume the role, like an actor about to go on stage. Breathe deep, enter, be convincing. Become the part. You may enjoy it. Kelsey Grammer played Frasier Crane for 20 years.
Whether or not you are an impostor can be judged by the quality of your work. If the final product is well done and authentic, so are you!

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