(Photo by Flickr user Alan Levine, used under a Creative Commons license)
Imposter syndrome: that nagging feeling that you’re under-qualified, over-esteemed and on the verge of being found out as a fraud. While imposter syndrome may disproportionately affect women and minorities, it is pervasive. Almost all of us are self-identified frauds.
And that’s a good thing. Really.
When it comes to leadership, we value curiosity, humility and empathy. These qualities all assume that their bearers do not believe that they know everything. When we learn about a new subject, we initially overestimate what we know. The more we learn, the more we realize how much we don’t know. This gulf gets larger, not smaller, with experience. If you feel like an imposter now, then just you wait.
And that’s my problem with the current conversation on imposter syndrome. It’s not that it doesn’t exist. It’s that we treat it like it’s a bad thing.
Rather than trying to squash our imposter syndrome, we should use it as the tool that it can be.
Like many other psychological phenomena, it has the power we lend to it. As long as you don’t let it paralyze you, imposter syndrome can be a harbinger of growth rather than disaster. Some people even consider it downright motivational.
The next time you feel like the talent S.W.A.T. team is about to bust down your front door, think about why you feel like a fraud. Use the nausea as a signal that there’s something to learn. Speak from your own unique experience, but more importantly, ask questions. Learn things. Be present. Then do the imposter syndrome-inducing thing anyway. Ride the nauseating wave. Be the kind of person that you want to be, even if you’re screaming on the inside.
It may help to remember that people are hiring you or following you because of what you can do. What you can do isn’t just a compilation of individual knowledge points, or itemized tasks. It’s about the connections you draw from those knowledge points, and how you move forward. It’s not about what you know. It’s about how you think.
The alternative to riding the imposter syndrome wave is “faking it till you make it.” Which is fine, until you realize that you (and everyone else) have been faking things for years at a time, and we’re stuck in the mire of an inwardly insecure tech community with a veneer of arrogance. Acting like we know more than we do in the name of jumping self-doubt hurdles will only hurt us.
Rather than trying to squash our imposter syndrome, we should use it as the tool that it can be. Through remembering that we are humans with human limitations, we can foster a culture of empathetic and responsible leadership. We can have a community of people who don’t have all the answers, but they’re going to do their absolute best to get them.
Those are some imposters I can really get behind.
Briana Morgan is a health planner, data geek, and tech enthusiast. If you liked this article, you’ll love the imposter syndrome panel at ELA Conf, a conference for women in technology coming up on Nov. 20-21. You can read more of Briana’s opinions at brianalmorgan.com.
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