How to Conquer Imposter Syndrome

Last Updated Aug 24, 2011 6:38 AM EDT

Way back in 1967 Simon & Garfunkel sang about 'Fakin' It,' declaring that despite being a wildly successful musician, Paul Simon worried "I've just been fakin' it, I'm not really makin' it." On this one, art beat science, as it wasn't until the late '70s that psychologists got around to identifying "imposter syndrome" where successful people fear they might be unmasked as less competent than they appear.

25 years may have passed since scientists outlined the syndrome, but that doesn't mean that fewer folks are suffering from at. At least, not if a recent blog post by neuroscientist and former TED speaker Bradley Voytek is any evidence. In it, he responds to a Quora question asking for advice for college students. Some of his advice only applies to particular professions (e.g. learn statistics) but the first tip talks about how to address imposter syndrome and could apply to everyone from Paul Simon to, perhaps, plenty of high-achieving but less than super confident readers of this blog. In college, Voytek says, he started to feel "like a hack,"

Only much later would I learn of something called "impostor syndrome". Anecdotally, this appears to be fairly rampant among academics and other "smart" people. At some point during your career, possibly more than once, you will look at your peers and think to yourself, "I'm not as good as they are; I am not cut out for this."

First: listen to that voice. Understand where it's coming from. But be aware that you're failing to recognize your own accomplishments; you're overemphasizing the accomplishments of others and you're vastly underestimating the failures other successful people experience on their way to success.

It's for that last reason that I've been including an entire section in my CV (PDF) called "Failures and Rejections" that includes rejected grant applications, rejected publications, rejected grad school applications, etc. It's important to me that other people know how hard this life, science, and career stuff really is. People should know that often, success doesn't come easy.

Voytek's post is a nice reminder to those that suffer anxieties of being uncovered as incompetent that you are responsible for adjusting your own thinking and that a little careful consideration can help you put things in perspective. It's also useful to have someone point out that the impulse to whitewash all your failures and anxieties from your public persona (on Facebook, for example) has negative consequences for your fellow man, even if it is good for marketing.

If you're still concerned about feeling like a fraud, you should be aware that the research says imposter syndrome isn't all bad, at least if you're a woman. The NY Times has reported research that "found that women who scored highly [on a measure of imposter feeling] also reported a strong desire to show that they could do better than others. They competed harder." For both sexes, "in mild doses, feeling like a fraud also tempers the natural instinct to define one's own competence in self-serving ways," concludes the same article.

Still anxious about being anxious? Psychologists also say that those who are the most confident are often the most incompetent. So take comfort, your stresses, while not exactly fun, at least indicate you're probably pretty smart.

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user Mykl Roventine, CC 2.0)
  • Jessica Stillman On Twitter»

    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.