In the summer of 1999, when I was 21, I received a phone call that would change the course of my career. It was Professor Sally Carless from the Monash University Psychology department. She was calling with the news that I had been offered a place in the Doctorate of Organisational Psychology program. Rather than jump for joy, my very first thought was ‘there has been an administrative error’. And for the first few months of my study, I half expected someone to email me about the mistake that had been made.
I learnt there is a term for this type of thinking: impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome is a way of thinking whereby you doubt or fail to acknowledge your accomplishments and worry that you will be exposed as a fraud.
Impostor syndrome has periodically reared its ugly head at many pivotal points in my life. Several years after the ‘administrative error’ incident, when I was 26, I was headhunted by Leo Burnett to move to Sydney and work as a senior strategist. I remember landing in Sydney and worrying that once I started my new job, my boss would realise he hadn’t read my resume properly and I would be returned back to Melbourne (this never happened and I stayed in the role for three years).
With every year that has passed in my adult life, I feel like I have ever so slowly removed myself from the shackles that impostor syndrome envelopes you in. Every once in a while, I’ll achieve something, and rather than attributing it to luck or other people’s doing, I’ll actually attribute it to me.
But at other times, I’ll be pulled back to my 21-year-old self. Like I was last week.
It was Tuesday late morning, and I had just logged on to check my emails for the day. There was an email that had ‘congratulations’ in the title. Naturally, I assumed it was someone congratulating me for inheriting two million pounds from my distant Nigerian relative. But no, I wasn’t about to get rich quick. It was the Australian Financial Review informing me I had been named one of this year’s 100 Women of Influence. It’s a list that aims to identify women who are championing change in business and society.
I read the email — and then read it a couple more times. Just like when I was 21, I assumed I had ended up on the wrong distribution list and this news was meant for someone else. Turns out I was wrong. It was actually meant for me.
‘Seriously,’ I thought to myself, ‘Has nothing changed?’
As I began to reflect on my reaction in the days that followed, I realised that all my life, I had been waiting for confidence to embody me. I was waiting for the day that my achievements would somehow warrant feeling unequivocally confident.
But this day would never come.
Instead, I realised (with the help of a Seth Godin blog) that confidence is a choice, not a symptom. And it is up to me to choose confidence.