When I first started recognizing imposter syndrome myself, I found a lot of “help” online with encouragements like:
For a while, I thought it made sense; just like any problem, it certainly felt like there was something to overcome. Yet, even after reading these articles and temporarily feeling lifted, the dreadful feelings still lingered.
Since then, I’ve found what imposter syndrome really meant – and came to realize that our society unabashedly demonizes imposter syndrome. Indeed, it’s often seen as a source of unnecessary anxiety that impedes progress. Those who experience it are also told they’re infallible! I’ve seen so many encouragements like this online: “You’re just not giving yourself credit! You just need to believe, because you’re good enough!”
While it can be temporarily uplifting, I find this current model – both in how people think and talk about imposter syndrome and about how to tackle it – inadequate. What I found is that in many cases, imposter syndrome proves to be quite beneficial.
Imposter syndrome, working backwards
To better understand imposter syndrome, we need to work backwards…
Can you recall the last time you didn’t feel imposter syndrome?
Many of us could probably come up with something like this. You’ve been at a job/company for a while and you’ve seen how peers around you perform. You can mostly tell where you fall into the hierarchy and don’t feel so behind others; in fact, you feel that you’re performing at least average or better.
When you dissect the above scenario, three key items pop out.
- That you’ve sufficiently seen how your peers are performing.
- That you can accurately rank yourself amongst your peers.
- That you believe you’re at least average or better.
All three of these points relate to an idea called information asymmetry, which we’ll look into next.
Information asymmetry happens when two or more parties have varying levels of information to one another. In other words, there’s imperfect knowledge shared across a group.
While this is somewhat unfortunate, it’s also just the fact of nature – perfect knowledge does not exist.
Indeed, all facets of human communication look to bridge this gap. Our language, culture, behaviors, etc. are all ways in which we manage this asymmetry. Yet, as Malcolm Gladwell summarizes in “Talking to Strangers”, you’ll never perfectly know or understand someone else; not your twin, your spouse, your best friend from elementary school – nobody. However, by constantly probing and gauging at each other, we slowly build an ever-evolving picture of these strangers’ logos and pathos.
So why does this matter for a discussion on imposter syndrome? Because it’s exactly the information asymmetry that drive the anxiety coupled with imposter syndrome. When you see people – coworkers, influencers on social media, or friends on LinkedIn – showcasing their “expertise”, your mind automatically assumes it’s only a glimmer of their talent and immeasurable knowledge. You tend to over-exaggerate their achievements, when In reality, that person may know merely 5% more than you. In fact, that same person may even be useless at everything else in their lives (extreme, but sometimes true)! It’s this behavior – where we tend to see the tip of the iceberg and imagine the glacier reaching deep into the sea – that influences how we feel about ourselves.
A stranger’s glacier is unknown to us; we probe and observe it over time to measure how deep it might be, but just like how we can’t fully understand anyone, its true depth will always remain a mystery.
Realizing this, at least for me, was incredibly liberating. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel confident in some of my abilities, but rather overplaying some of the achievements of others. This doesn’t mean that I no longer respect others’ achievements – rather, I recognize I’m often working with incomplete knowledge. Those who I initially find inspiring for need to earn trust from me, as much as I need to earn trust from them (vice-versa with those who I may not initially find inspiring).
Perception and Measuring
Now, let’s move on to bridging the information asymmetry. Let’s remind ourselves on when we feel imposter syndrome – it’s when we believe ourselves to be less than others in similar or tangential positions. Notice that it’s a belief – you may be right or wrong; a big part of the anxiety comes from not being able to reconcile this belief due to the lack of information that you have, both about yourself and others. Indeed, imagine you can find out, with a snap, how you measure amongst your peers; would you still feel that anxiety? My theory is that no; imposter syndrome wouldn’t exist.
Thus, to really rid of this awful feeling – it’s not about about ruminating and turning to encouraging online articles that will tell you you’re doing great – it’s about learning how to measure yourself.
Take note of the following in your measurements:
- Years of experience (YOE).
- Natural inclination toward a topic.
- Ambition & drive.
Again, you’re never going to completely figure someone out – but by taking some of these items into consideration, you’ll build a better understanding of how someone performs and why they perform at that level. There’s not a science to this, but once you can do this well, you can both imitate the virtuous behaviors of those who are in better positions than you (therefore bridging your own gap), or avoid behaviors that might hinder your own growth. Use “imposter syndrome” as the signal to start measuring; you’ll quickly realize that it’s an amazing trigger that can help you better yourself. Lean into it and figure out where you stand.
Information asymmetry lies at the heart of why we think the way we do, often to our peril. Imposter syndrome is a signal that you’re working with incomplete knowledge – a signal that you should start measuring.
By measuring, you’ll either be proven right – in which case you should work toward bettering your skill-sets, or you’ll be proven wrong – in which case you’ll quickly find yourself recovering from your anxiety. Develop the skills/tools necessary to measure yourself and others accurately, because you’ll find yourself feeling imposter syndrome throughout your entire career.
Finally, understand that you’ll never fully understand others, and recognize that you may be perceiving the other person’s extra 5% brilliance; don’t mistake it for an ocean of infinite depth.