‘Am I good enough?’
It’s a question that even the most capable and confident of us asks ourselves from time to time. It’s typically a healthy question that socially and emotionally intelligent people ask, but it can also be a reflection than manifests as a sliding doors moment — ‘hell yes, I have this’ — or the corrosive self-doubt that can spiral into inertia and indecision.
In business and in life, self-doubt is natural, but it can become unhealthy when the devil on your shoulder is consistently overpowering your rational self-belief, impacting your ability to deliver and grow. The emergence of impostor syndrome is sometimes unexpected, intruding at the most inconvenient of times. No-one is truly immune.
Impostor syndrome is an internal experience where one doubts their capabilities, despite evidence to the contrary, manifesting as a fear they’ll be found out as a ‘fraud’. It’s a phrase common in leadership dialogue and discourse, as the business world adapts to an increasingly competitive startup and gig culture and the subsequent ‘accidental’ nature of some modern business leaders. Impostor syndrome can look different depending on your personality, background and circumstance, with researchers claiming up to 70% of us experience it at some time in our lives.
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One of the many limiting effects of impostor syndrome is the drain on courage and confidence — this impacts job promotions, effective networking, a desire to put yourself forward, and the list goes on. People with a growth mindset and high expectations of themselves are particularly susceptible to impostor syndrome, struggling to internalise and own their success, however successful they actually are. Researchers have suggested it is linked to expertise and perfectionism, especially in women and academics.
Chronic ’impostors’ typically don’t believe they deserve achievements, obsess over missed opportunities, downplay their success as ‘no big deal’ or claim it wasn’t them but a ‘team effort’ accounting for their success. They may tell themselves nobody believes they’ve earnt their achievements or that it was really all due to good luck. ‘Impostors’ may hold irrational fears about failure, holding themselves to impossible standards that they wouldn’t apply to others. It’s important to recognise low self-esteem and low-confidence are not causative of impostor syndrome, in fact, many high achievers in significant leadership roles wrestle silently and regularly with this.
I recently had the unique opportunity to speak with businesswoman, syndicated columnist and author Arianna Huffington on this topic on a recent visit to the Thrive office in New York. She, like many powerful business leaders, has dealt with the complexities of impostor syndrome as a seemingly inevitable side-effect of building a global business.
In my experience as a female founder and chief executive, self-doubt has been a close companion at times. Often, it’s a productive reflection that keeps me grounded, but sometimes, it has led to missed opportunities and a deeply negative impact on my small growing businesses and my self-belief. So I was curious to know if someone as globally accomplished as Arianna ever looked in the mirror and asked: ‘Am I enough?’ In fact, she was well acquainted with the voice of self-doubt, which she described as her “obnoxious roommate”.
Stemming from this eye-opening but reassuring encounter, and the tremendous skills I rediscovered and developed as a participant in the Thrive program hosted by Monash University’s Business School, here are my key pieces of advice for anyone looking to build and grow a successful business and how they can deal with their obnoxious roommate.
1. Balancing act
Many ‘impostors’ push themselves to work harder than their peers to prove (usually to themselves) that they are not impostors. Their need to succeed overrides the need to maintain a healthy balance in their lives. Arianna advocates micro-steps to achieving a better balance: keep them small and very achievable to begin with, to lay down small changes to your neural pathways and thinking patterns. I started with bringing my bedtime forward by 20 minutes on a mission to get more sleep.
Impostor syndrome is often triggered when we come out of our comfort cave, spending most of our time implementing and exercising our expertise rather than experimenting, learning and challenging strategy. Trialling new ideas and concepts in the market, feeling the push back and challenge from customers, collaborators and investors require courage.
My impostor syndrome is always triggered in these situations, particularly when I’m seeking feedback on a new concept — because it’s not a real product yet, it feels fake and it’s easy to doubt yourself when others don’t readily see the potential that you see.
‘As a leader, your job is to spend more time thinking about strategic risk, not operational risk,’ a mentor once told me. Lean into the discomfort. ‘If you don’t back yourself, why would I?’
With that in mind, it’s important not to cast business plans in concrete. Practice prototyping as a means to test strategic and operational risk while remaining open to a little push and pull.
2. Save face
From employee to collaborators or investors, expertise and experience play a big part in how others judge your abilities and your business. It’s easy to get stuck in your own head and lose sight of the fact you are not your job or business. Our purpose plays a key role in our identity and ‘who we are’.
Arianna shared a wonderful concept: ‘be-do-have’ rather than ‘do-have-be’. This had a really profound impact on my thinking about who I am relative to my business, particularly as a founder and entrepreneur.
It works like this. The emphasis is on being yourself first, rather than what you do or have as the value driver. This terrific formula is a perfect antidote to impostor syndrome. Try having a conversation with someone new where you don’t reveal to each other anything about what you do — instead, focus on who you really are. It’s very hard to separate what we do from our narrative about who we are.
Warning: this is fertile ground for the obnoxious roommate who has been fed on a diet of achievements, rewards and benchmarking against peers. Consider you and your job, research, business or family as two separate entities. Focusing too much on linking our identity with what we do makes it incredibly hard when circumstances change — being retrenched, going on parental leave, retiring, businesses failing. I am guilty of this and now try to frame my response to the question ‘what do you do?’ as a way to introduce who I am rather than the job or role that I play. It’s really hard.
3. Don’t be an island
Fear of networking is a big issue for ‘impostors’, particularly when your self-belief is under friendly fire. The thing is, relationships and networking are business-critical. They stimulate a flow of ideas, allow you to track and keep pace with your competitors, and keep a finger on the pulse of your industry.
As tempting as it is to get on with business as usual and stay in your cave, listening, sharing, collaborating and partnering are where the challenging ‘big ideas’ and scale work happens. Rewrite your mental patterns with micro-steps. Tell yourself that it’s OK not to know, that it’s OK to describe yourself as an observer, here to learn. No-one really feels confident and comfortable at a networking event or doing a ‘meet and greet’. Just turning up is putting your obnoxious roommate back in their place.
4. Sustainable scaling
Values-based growth is a concept that is quickly gathering a global following among micro-businesses all the way to large corporates, and is about tapping into the strengthening push for a more proactive approach to sustainability in every aspect. The UN Sustainability Development Goals are not just a reporting tick-box, they are an excellent foundation upon which many businesses are starting to frame growth targets. It’s easy to feel like an impostor when starting to work with sustainability goals as many of us are unfamiliar with the language and methodologies. You are not alone, even though it feels a little forced. I am going with an ‘L-plate’ approach as I learn and grow in my knowledge and start applying it to my business.
Consider any unintended consequences of your technology or service offering and consider ways to offset negative impacts. From small companies right through to large corporations, ethical business practices are becoming non-negotiable, so define your ethical framework and values-based approach early on to ensure growth happens in a way that matches your beliefs and reflects your be-do-have approach.
You can’t evict the obnoxious roommate. They will be there rent-free for the rest of your life, but rest assured, we all have one in our lives — even Arianna Huffington.