I had a phone call with a friend in February--to say he was desperately worried is an understatement. "I don't think I can do it! I just don't think I can," cried my friend, Marco, in the call. "Can't do what?" I asked.
"I was invited to be on the board of a small organization developing new approaches for organizing food distribution to areas in the city where people can't access the food bank easily. Many of the people are disabled or elderly."
And why couldn't he do it? "I just don't have the experience and the overall understanding of what it takes to be on a board. They might realize this if I take the position--I don't want to be found out in such a public way. The jig will be up!"
Marco's reaction to something new--and thinking about his first board position--was a little intimidating at first glance. This reaction is shared by many people, no matter the gender, race, age or experience. It's a fear of the unknown, a fear of not being prepared...all of this is called the Imposter Syndrome. It's the feeling that you haven't earned your success. You haven't prepared enough. You are not good enough. That maybe people appreciate your charm, but don't realize that your accomplishments just aren't substantial enough. Just maybe your success has been a matter of luck.
"Snap out of it." After a conversation together, Marco came to realize that with his blend of non-profit marketing experience, his interest in the mission, and his volunteerism on the food bank farm, that he probably was a very good choice for the position. He could relate to what they were trying to do. Because he was from an economically challenged background, he had a passion for the cause. He realized that he had many ideas, many contacts and could bring those to the table.
I knew that Marco had already been promoted multiple times in his own organization and had regularly received outstanding reviews during his annual performance appraisals. Marco and I discussed how unfair he was being to himself--he already had all the proof he needed.
All of us need to give ourselves some credit and realize what we can do and can't do. He came to see himself perhaps a little differently.
In life few of us are free of this issue--in fact, it's estimated in the International Journal of Behavioral Science that 70% of people experience these imposter feelings at some time in their lives. It is the internal belief and worry that you may not have the training, the talent, the insight to succeed in other situations--perhaps it was simply a lucky break all those other times. This type of fear arises as well when it is time for the individual to make a speech, introduce new ideas to a crowd, showcase a new program that you have developed, outline a new fundraising approach.
Many people are worried about it, including those you wouldn't expect:
Tom Hanks: After playing a middle aged American businessman who was sent on a business trip to Saudi Arabia in the 2016 file, A Hologram for the King, Tom admitted that he related to the character's sense of self doubt. "No matter what we've done, there comes a point where you think, "How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?"
Maya Angelou: Maya admitted that at times she often felt like a fraud. "I have written 11 books, but each time I think, "Uh, oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out."
Michelle Obama has even admitted, after eight years in the White House, to having feelings like this when she was unveiling her new book this past year.
Imposter syndrome expert, Valerie Young, who is the author of a book on the subject has found patterns in people who experience feelings of being an imposter:
Perfectionists set extremely high expectations for themselves, and even if they meet 99% of their goals, they're going to feel like failures. Any small mistake will make them question their own competence.
Experts feel the need to know every piece of information before they start a project and constantly look for new certifications or training to improve their skills. They won't apply for a job if they don't meet all the criteria in the posting. They worry about how to cope if they ask a stupid question.
Natural geniuses, when they have to struggle or work hard to accomplish something, they think this means they are not good enough. They are used to skills coming easily and when they have to put in the time, that provides proof to them that they are an imposter.
Soloists feel that they have to accomplish tasks on their own, and if they need to ask for help, they think that means they are a failure or fraud.
Supermen or superwomen push themselves to work harder than those around them to prove that they are not imposters. They feel the need to succeed in all aspects of life--at work, as parents, as partners--and they may feel stressed when they are not accomplishing something.
Do any of these categories begin to sound a little like you when you are feeling a little fraudulent at work or at home? Recognizing this issue is the first step towards combating that feeling of being an imposter. You simply cannot ignore your past success and chalk it up to luck. Life doesn't work that way.
I know that for sure. Even after I had raised millions of dollars for two different organizations I was never sure that I would be up to the task the following year...perhaps I would not be able to make the goal (one that I usually set myself). I worried that the next year or the next position would be it for me. As Marco said, that the jig would be up.
But that didn't happen, every year got that much more productive. When I realized I had the imposter feeling, I worked hard to eliminate that from my repertoire, mostly by sharing these fears with trusted friends. And looking at my accomplishments objectively.
So, what happened with Marco?
He did join the board of the organization and he did it in the nick of time. This all occurred just before the covid lock down. When the lock down began his skills were in strong demand every day. He threw himself into the volunteer work and people needed his help in so many ways that he never looked back.
As a board member with the new organization, he took a central role in organizing the group's ability to help people who were now in even more serious need. His talents were so well respected and his input so highly valued that the organization, after just a few months, actually offered him the role of Executive Director. He didn't take the job, but it had nothing to do with his feelings of being an imposter. Not at all.
This work had given him such confidence that he has since left his job and moved on, this time as the Executive Director of an even larger organization. From there he will command more resources and be able to make an even larger impact within the community.
And he left the imposter syndrome in the dust.