What I Learned from Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome or “imposter phenomenon” was first described in a research paper in 1978, but I can recall the term really rising to prominence when it was attached to Sheryl Sandberg’s name in her book, “Lean In”.

What had always been “lack of self-confidence” to me, finally had a name (and a description) that completely captured the way I’d felt for almost my entire career.

Impostor syndrome: a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. (source: Wikipedia)

I consider myself a reasonable and rational person. With a combination of good context and supporting evidence, I generally assess situations correctly, and with confidence.

But that has never been the case with my own accomplishments. In my mind, my achievements were always a heaping helping of luck served with a side of great timing. I couldn’t feel grounded in the fact that my hard work had paid off. No matter what I achieved, I couldn’t feel satisfied or that it was a result of my input. Instead I thought — one day soon, everyone will find out it’s all BS. A fraud. A show.

In an effort to overcome my own impostor syndrome, I attempted to break down the evidence and examine it as though I was helping one of my own clients. To remove “me” from the equation. Here’s what I’ve learned over the past year:

Luck and timing are real (sort of)

I think my dad said it best when he told me, “The better you are, the luckier you get.” As I’ve examined my own career and spoken with top performers, executives, and leaders — one thing has become really clear. People often attribute good decision making to “luck”, because they are not always able to effectively describe why they made a decision or why they made it at a particular time. Sometimes they attribute a decision to “luck” or even “instinct”, but as I’ve peeled the layer back a bit, it’s clear that most of these decisions are made in a process-oriented, diligence-first way. The process and diligence is often so automatic, that it feels like instinct. It’s not.

You’re probably more talented than you think

Impostor syndrome tends to impact top performers because they struggle to express how and why they perform the way they do. Because they can’t quite “put a finger on it”, they revert back to luck. Following this logic, they conclude that they’re fraudulent and it’s only a matter of time until the luck runs out, and they’re exposed. It’s an unconscious refusal to assign credit appropriately. A mental rearrangement of the facts.

As more wins and accomplishments pile up, they aren’t able to clear the cobwebs and look at their achievements for what they really are: high performance. So, if you’re questioning your own legitimacy, write out your personal and career accomplishments and ask yourself, “If a stranger shared these accomplishments with me, would the logical conclusion be that they are all a strike of luck and therefore a fraud?” Probably not. You’re likely more talented than you think.

The curse of granted knowledge

Granted knowledge is when you’ve learned something and have known it for so long, that you can’t imagine other people not knowing it. To me, this is an extremely important component of impostor syndrome.

Let me give you an example: I signed my first consulting client a few years ago. The client was the CEO & founder of a VC-backed health tech company. When he signed the agreement, I was simultaneously excited and completely terrified. What was I going to teach a CEO? I remember preparing for hours to make sure I was ready to have the most robust conversation about SaaS sales in history. I had workbooks, notepads, excel sheets of information and formulas. I was ready.

When I walked in and sat down with the client, we started going through his sales funnel, and I was surprised to find that he didn’t know what MQLs, SQLs, or SALs were. He didn’t have a funnel. He wasn’t measuring conversions. He didn’t have sales technology. I sat there with my mouth agape. Needless to say, this has been a very similar story in many of my engagements. Remember that the information you’re familiar with is not always common knowledge. You know more than you think you do.

The stuff you don’t know? They don’t know either

I’ve been building SaaS sales teams for over a decade now, and I’m still learning new techniques, skills, technology, and process every single day. The amount of knowledge available to us is unlimited and growing. The processes you can install get new acronyms and get more complicated every 6 months. It’s impossible to keep up. That’s ok.

It doesn’t matter who you idolize, whether it’s a particular sales leader, CEO, or internet personality. They’re all probably very smart, and know a lot about their industry & business. But they don’t know everything. I’ve discovered many times that when I sit down with a well-respected thought leader for the first time, we’re in the same boat. We’re trying to solve similar challenges, figure out complex problems, and we end up trading failures and lessons learned.

So stop worrying about what you do and don’t know, and believing you should know it all. That’s a tall order. Instead, start thinking about how you actually approach not knowing something. Focus on curiosity, diligence, and your work ethic. Those are the things that matter much more than what you know.

Ponder your accomplishments

It all comes back to the question I posed at the beginning. “If a stranger shared these accomplishments with me, would the logical conclusion be that they are all a strike of luck and therefore a fraud?”

Take the time to review your accomplishments and celebrate how far you have come. Sales managers with impostor syndrome are likely to view their successful teams as luck and won’t stop to think about where they were as leaders five years prior — pounding the phones as top SDRs.

Look back! Be good to yourself. Smile when you see the upward trajectory of your career. Make this a quarterly or bi-annual commitment to yourself. I’m process oriented, so heck — put a reminder in your calendar right now. You’ll begin to see that you are truly worthy of praise and the label, “high performer”. The real deal.

The Snowball Effect

I think I finally have my impostor syndrome under control. I believe in myself, and when I look back on my accomplishments, I feel really satisfied. I no longer believe I’m lucky or simply instinctual. Instead, I know the effort and energy I put into my career has resulted in great wins.

The interesting thing about impostor syndrome is that when you finally beat it (or contain it), you’re able to view your own career through more of an external lens. You start to gain confidence. You begin to truly believe that you’re destined to succeed as long as you continue to work the way you always have.

Those beliefs and that confidence snowball together to create an unstoppable force of positive energy that helps you achieve things you never thought were possible. That’s when you start really winning.

Impostor syndrome will always be there. Under the surface. Ready to strike. I hope this post gives you a little ammo to handle it.

Justin Welsh coaches SaaS founders and sales leaders to accelerate recurring revenue toward $50M. You can learn more about him at www.theofficialjustin.com

Former startup executive turned self-employed tinkerer.

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