In our lives today, the messages around imposter syndrome are often like this:

“Overcome it” – healthline
“Combat it” – Ted-Ed

In fact, our society demonizes imposter syndrome; it’s something to avoid, a disease that gives us unnecessary anxiety, and an impediment to achieving the best versions of ourselves. And often, the messages talk about how you’re infallible – that you shouldn’t feel such a way, because you’re good enough!

I find this current model – both in how people think and talk about imposter syndrome and about how to tackle it – to be inadequate. Indeed, in many cases, I think imposter syndrome is quite beneficial.

Imposter syndrome, working backwards

In order to better understand how everything ties together, let’s work backwards.

Can you recall the last time you didn’t feel imposter syndrome?

For most of us, it’s going to be a scenario like so: you’ve been at a job for a while and you’ve seen how peers around you perform. You can mostly tell where you fall into the “corporate” hierarchy and don’t feel so behind others; you feel that you’re at least average or better.

In that given scenario, there are three key items to pick out.

  1. That you’ve sufficiently seen how your peers are performing.
  2. That you can accurately rank yourself amongst your peers.
  3. That you believe you’re at least average or better.

Interestingly, all three of these points relate to an idea called information asymmetry.

Information asymmetry

Information asymmetry is when two or more parties have varying levels of information to one another. In other words, there’s imperfect knowledge shared across the 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. As Malcolm Gladwell summarizes in “Talking to Strangers”, you’ll never perfectly know and 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 that comes with it. 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. In reality, that person may know merely 5% more than you – and might even be useless at everything else in their lives. Yet, you see the tip of the iceberg and imagine the glacier reaches deep into the sea – when in fact, it might just be a growler.

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, but rather that I recognize I’m often working with incomplete knowledge. They need to earn trust from me, as much as I need to earn trust from them.

Perception and Measuring

Now, you experience imposter syndrome when you believe yourself to be less than others in similar or tangential positions. However, while we tend to associate the term “imposter syndrome” with the idea that the belief is not warranted – there’s nowhere in the definition that indicate that to be true.

Indeed, you might be right! You might feel like a fraud because – as harsh as it might sound – maybe, you actually are.

In the case of dealing with imposter syndrome, the key is actually figuring out whether this perception is accurate. If you’re feeling incompetent and it turns out that you are, it’s actually quite beneficial since that “feeling” is no longer just a “feeling.” In order to come to this conclusion, you need to learn how to measure yourself, and need to measure yourself accurately. When you’ve done this and have ultimately found out you’re not where you need to be, you have a clear goal and target that you can work toward. That’s a really good thing.

On the other hand, if you find out your perception is inaccurate (that is, you’re very much competent), it’s a much easier transition to relieving the anxiety.

The key lies in measuring – and measuring yourself accurately.

The feeling of imposter syndrome, therefore, is a good thing – if you can build a framework around it. When you have these feelings, it means that you’re not measuring yourself enough or accurately. Instead of letting others tell you, “you shouln’t feel that way, you’re amazing!” Lean into the discomfort and figure out for yourself where you stand. Worst case scenario, you’ll find the feeling is warranted – but that’s so much better than living with an insidious lie that will forever impede your progress.

Takeaways

Information asymmetry lies at the heart of why we think the way we do, often to our peril. In order to really tackle imposter syndrome, you need to develop the skills/tools to measure yourself and others – and do it accurately. 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.