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Imposter Syndrome

Who am I to be writing this blog post?

Nobody. I’m sure there are a thousand people out there who would do it better. 

But a friend of mine asked me, not them, so here we go.

First, I’ll define my terms, so we can get a good look at the beast before we kill it. Then I’ll go over several approaches for getting your stuff done despite that horrid little whisper in the back of your head going “Why are you doing this? You’re not good enough! Who the hell do you think you are?”

What is Imposter Syndrome?

This comic from xkcd.com nails it:

The standard definition is:

Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. The term was coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they really are. While early research focused on the prevalence among high-achieving women, impostor syndrome has been found to affect both men and women, in roughly equal numbers. From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome

In short then, imposter syndrome is the cognitive fallacy in which people who are actually quite good at what they do nonetheless feel like a fraud doing it. They cannot say “I’m good at my job” or “I deserve to be taken seriously as an expert in my field.”

People almost never have an accurate assessment of their own skill level.  At the other extreme, the Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias which deludes incompetent people into thinking they are more competent than they really are. This is caused by their own inability to perceive their own incompetence; they are literally not fit to judge their own level. As I see it, we all live on the continuum between incompetent overconfidence, and competent uncertainty. A lack of confidence in your own infallibility is actually a mark of skill and experience, and it is normal for your ability to perceive your own level of skill to change relative to the skill itself. As I tell my students, as you get better, your ability to see your mistakes gets better too, and so if all goes well there will never be a time when you think you’re actually doing it perfectly. Get used to it!

The best illustration of this is from Mark Dalessio, which shows the normal development of an artist (or practitioner in any field).  He is using drawing as the example art, but it applies to everything. This version has been reworked from his original idea:

People suffering from imposter syndrome are just stuck in the pink bit, where your ability to evaluate is greater than your ability to make art.

Distinguishing between knowing your flaws and Imposter Syndrome

Let's be quite clear about the difference between imposter syndrome and feeling that you need to develop your skills. I'm a big fan of the Aristotelian model of virtue, where virtue is the midpoint between two vices. In other words any virtue taken to an extreme in either direction becomes a vice. If you are completely confident in your amazing expertise then you are as deluded as if you are completely confident of your amazing ineptitude. Virtue lies in between, where you can accurately assess your strengths and weaknesses, and work to strengthen your weaknesses and take advantage of your strengths, and thus get better at the thing you're trying to do. 

Dealing with irrational fears

Imposter syndrome is an irrational fear. Despite external evidence of your competence, you have an irrational fear of being exposed as a fraud. Irrational fears are not easily dismissed by reason or evidence. If you are suffering from imposter syndrome then being suddenly presented with evidence of how competent you truly are isn't necessarily going to help. What may help would be reframing those feelings, and reframing the situation, to enable you to accomplish the thing that you are trying to accomplish, despite the imposter syndrome. 

In my own experience of imposter syndrome, over a decade of gradually accumulating evidence that I was actually good at my job eventually did away with the idea that I wasn’t a very good martial arts instructor. Getting a PhD for my research finally put paid to the feeling that I wasn’t very good at the academic side. It would now feel false and weird to pretend I’m not an expert in my field. But oh lord it took a while. So the accumulation of evidence might help, but it might also just make you feel worse, because of another godawful cognitive bias, confirmation bias, which is your mind’s tendency to notice and believe in evidence that confirms your existing opinions, and overlook or discount evidence that contradicts your opinions. So sufferers of imposter syndrome will remember every mistake, and forget the victories. 

So who is this Windsor fellow to be telling me any damn thing? 

To be read to the strains of the incomparable Freddie Mercury:

Let’s go back to my first question: “who am I to be writing this blog post?”

My actual thought process was this:

“This problem is very common, and I have some experience of it, so while no doubt there are many more qualified people to write this, none have my own specific experience or approach, and so this may not be a complete waste of your time. And besides, Naomi asked.”

Naomi is Naomi Dunford of IttyBiz. She interviewed me for her ‘Write a Book With Me’ course, and imposter syndrome came up in the conversation. I wrote this post because she asked me to.

See what I did there? Though it may be true that there are others more qualified, I can still do it because:

 a) I have a unique personal perspective, 

b) I think if you experience this problem you might be better off with this post than without it, and 

c) I have a gatekeeper who said it’s ok. If you look through this blog, there are dozens of posts that begin with a question from a reader, or something like that, which is always true, but also a really handy way to get me over the imposter syndrome barrier.

These are the three main mental tricks I use to get round the problem, but each have their own strengths and weaknesses, so I’ll unpack them.

What is my experience?

When I started my school in 2001 I was 27 years old, completely unqualified, and with very little experience. This was a classic recipe for imposter syndrome. Though I was unqualified to teach historical swordsmanship, there were no qualifications available, and the sense that I was not as good as my students deserved lead me to study a lot, train a lot, and travel a lot to meet other instructors, and invite the best of them over to my school to teach seminars. It was a very sharp spur to growth.

Though feeling like a fraud was a good driver of improvement, it also led me into some awful mistakes. That's the real problem with imposter syndrome: it either stops you doing things altogether, which would be disastrous, or it drives you to make mistakes because you're coming from a position of inferiority. I was desperately looking for somebody to say “yes Guy, you have permission, here’s a pat on the head.” There was nobody really out there who was qualified to say that, but I went looking for them anyway and sure enough, nature abhors a vacuum. I fell in with some people who gave exactly that kind of pat on the head but they were unfortunately not really qualified themselves in this field, and not only that, their whole approach was so different to mine that it was very counter-productive. Instead of growing and developing under their unqualified gaze I just felt even more inferior and useless and dreadful. 

Keeping your students off-balance is a power play that some kinds of instructor use to keep students in their place. I was discussing this one night in a hotel room in Detroit with three of my instructor friends, and one of them looked at me and said “Guy why do you give so much power to people who obviously don't like you very much?” That floored me. It was clear that I was giving my power away, and as the head of a school it was completely inappropriate, because giving away my power was basically giving my students power away at the same time. Whatever power they had invested in me I was passing on without their permission to these people. This was bad in all sorts of ways.

Younger martial arts instructors often suffer from imposter syndrome, especially if they have not been properly trained to teach, and it is very often what leads them to being aggressive or bullying in class. The behaviour is usually driven by some species of imposter syndrome. They feel they have to be on top of the class and remain on top of the class to feel safe from being exposed as a fraud. And if anybody threatens their authority in any way then they have to beat them down quickly, because their entire sense of self is at stake. This explains much but excuses nothing.

Outside of the world of martial arts, you can see the same pattern, with imposter syndrome creating bullies, or preventing people from acting at all. I think we can agree then that imposter syndrome is a Bad Thing. So what do we do about it?

Will they be better off with this or without this?

This, to my mind, is the key solution. When producing anything (a book, a class, whatever), the question to answer is not “am I the best person to do this?”, or “will this be perfect?”

The question is “will my readers/students/whoever be better off with this or without it?”

This comes up a lot for me when my students are readying themselves to start teaching. They know perfectly well that within my school there are many people who could teach that class better; people with a decade more experience, or even full-time professionals. Their gaze is in the wrong direction, looking ahead at their teachers, instead of back at their students. If the question is rephrased as “these students need a beginners’ class tonight. Guy and co. aren’t here, so it’s either me taking it, or we cancel. Would they be better off with my class, or no class?” the problem disappears. This is why I get students teaching as early as possible, with the bar set at “can you maintain a safe environment?” not “can you transform these students into master swordsmen in record time?”

It’s a much smaller problem for writers. Does anyone ever thank you for your advice on this topic? Do you get emails in which people ask for your help? If so, then there will definitely be people out there better off with your advice than without it. 

Using a gatekeeper

Naomi asked me to write this. I know it could be better. I know there are others far more qualified to write it. But I’m not the gatekeeper, she is. Problem solved. Of course this has its limits; it’s not actually Naomi’s responsibility what goes up on this blog, and it’s my name on it, not hers. But as a permission-giving exercise, it works.

In some cases, it can be very useful to delegate the evaluation of your work to others. Traditional publishing houses do this: they expect agents to send proposals to editors, who run it by their board: three layers of gatekeeping. But with bloggers or independent publishers like me, there is no gatekeeper. Cue massive “how do I know I’m good enough?” self-doubt across the board.

This is where your friends, martial arts teacher, or a professional editor can come in handy. My students start teaching before they feel ready, because practically nobody ever feels ready. But I train them for it, and they can safely leave it up to me to tell them when they’re objectively good enough (I encourage them at this point- I would never require them to teach a class). It is not usually a freelance editor’s job to tell the client whether the book is good enough or not. But if you find an editor you can work with, it is a service you can request from them. Mentors are good for this in every field. Friends are less good at gatekeeping, because they love you and think you’re great. A bit like your mum. To be believable, they must be able to tell you your work is crap, so it's better to ask colleagues or acquaintances. Anyone you know well enough to ask, but who is not risking a long relationship if they don’t like your work and your feelings get hurt (which they will, because your work isn't perfect, and if they are any use, they'll show you the flaws, and that's painful but necessary).

Some further reframing ideas to get around the problem:

I’ll take writing a book as an example (because I’ve written a ton of books, and because I originally wrote this post for the students on Naomi’s book writing course).

1. You can only be exposed as a fraud if you publish the book, so don't set out to publish a book, set out to write a book to develop your own expertise. The reason I wrote my Duellist’s Companion was that I knew I needed to have a solid understanding of a historical rapier system and I figured the best way to organize my thoughts, research, and training would be to start writing a book about it. The book would drive the training. That’s exactly what happened. Two years later, I had the completed book, and I had a thorough working knowledge of Capoferro’s rapier system. 

2. Imposter syndrome will then only prevent you from publishing, which is why you don’t have to publish. You could just show it to a friend of yours, someone who you know reasonably well, someone who you like whom you know likes you (whether you deserve it or not). Let them tell you what's good about it and what's bad about it. And you still don’t have to publish it. Based on your friend’s suggestions you might improve the book enough that a few more people could read it… and so on. If publishing is intimidating, don’t think about it; write the book to help one friend, not to spread it far and wide. When it’s finished, then make a decision about whether any other living soul will ever see it.

3. None of it’s original! I’m not original! Yes, plagiarism is fraud. But if you're quoting from anybody or if you're inspired or influenced by anybody, just make sure that they are abundantly acknowledged in the book. Then there's no problem. You may be assembling a whole bunch of other people's ideas into your own understanding of the topic that you're writing about. But you may find that the work you have done assembling the information makes it useful to others… it would just be selfish not to share it, right? Most cookbooks are full of recipes the writer did not invent.

4. It’s your story. There may be a hundred other books out there on your topic; there are certainly lots of other blog posts on Imposter Syndrome. But how many written by a professional swordsman? You bring your own unique vision, personality, and approach to your topic. It’s yours. And some people will prefer your voice to all those others out there.

Let’s continue by looking at some of the ramifications of the problem:

So what if you aren’t that good?

When you get behind the wheel of a car you take everybody else on the road’s lives in your hands. As well as your own and those of your passengers. And yet you do it. In martial arts, the worst case scenario is a student gets killed or badly injured. But publishing a book, now that’s scary? C’mon. Let’s get some perspective. The worst case scenario for writing a bad book is that it gets published, becomes popular, and then gets revealed as a pile of crap. Very embarrassing, and way worse than it never being published, or being published and not selling much. Unless your book deals with life and death situations (do NOT give medical advice if you’re not a doctor, or automobile maintenance advice if you’re not a mechanic), then the worst case scenario is exposure as an incompetent. 

But if what you’re afraid of is being seen as better than you are, then being exposed as incompetent will actually come as a relief. Now everybody knows, and your imposter syndrome turns out to be not a cognitive bias, but an accurate assessment of your level. That’s a win, right?

The role of qualifications

Imagine you’d spent the best part of a decade in medical school, and are finally qualified as a doctor. To be sure, you’d be very aware of your lack of experience; you’d be a junior doctor. But a doctor nonetheless, and it would be absurd to pretend otherwise. Qualifications that are attained through sustained effort and with an examining procedure that it is possible to fail can go a long way towards curing imposter syndrome, or at least providing a workaround.

Qualifications as a whole do three things:

1. They protect the patient. In fields where real harm can be done, rigorous training and examination are essential. Would you want to fly in a plane serviced by someone who just rocked up to the airfield with a bag of tools and a cheesy grin? Or by a qualified mechanic?

2. They protect the profit margins of the qualified. The higher the barriers to entry, the more you can charge. It’s simple economics.

3. They give you permission. Literally, a pat on the head and a “you got this”. This is especially true in areas where no qualification is strictly required to practise. This is why MFA degrees exist: to give wannabe writers permission to write that great American novel. And that’s also why there is absolutely no correlation between having an MFA and writing good books. Readers don’t care about your qualifications, unless they are directly relevant to the topic. Do you have any, if they’re available? Or do you just want a qualification to make you feel better about your sense of being a fraud?  

Other opinions

There are many, many, blog posts out there dealing with this problem. One of my favourites, because it’s short, sharp, to the point, and totally different to how I think about it, was written by my virtual assistant Kate Tilton. She offers three rules to live by, which are: 1. What I feel is not always the truth, 2) What I do is not what I will always do or who I am, and 3) Being one thing today does not mean I won’t be anything else. If they strike a chord with you, go read her post!

It’s never a bad move to invoke SCIENCE, so you can begin your academic study of the phenomenon on Pubmed here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10626367

Adulting

It used to be that ‘adult’ was a noun, not a verb. But I’ve noticed that over the last decade or so people have been using it to describe behaving as an adult especially when they don’t really feel like they’re grown-ups: “I made a healthy breakfast and got the kids to school on time. Adulting achievement unlocked!” 

This is imposter syndrome writ large: “I may be 40, employed, married, a parent, with a mortgage, etc etc, but I really feel like I’m about 12 and the whole big world out there is full of super-organised grown-ups and I’m not really one…” 

But here’s the thing: practically nobody feels like a proper grown-up. 

Lois McMaster Bujold’s book A Civil Campaign (1999) has a brilliant passage on this. One of the main characters, Ekaterin Vorsoisson, is speaking to a couple of younger women (the ellipses and italics are in the original): 

“Adulthood isn't an award they'll give you for being a good child. You can waste… years trying to get someone to give that respect to you as though it were a sort of promotion or raise in pay. If only you do enough. If only you are good enough. No you have to just… take it, give it to yourself, I suppose.”

(From page 268 of the paperback edition, if you want to go read the whole conversation. Or even the whole novel, it’s fantastic space opera.)

The difference between subject matter experts (or adults) with imposter syndrome and subject matter experts (or adults) without imposter syndrome is simply the ones without it have given themselves permission to be good at what they're doing. It is perhaps the most powerful thing you can do for yourself. 

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

3 Responses

  1. Awesome, Guy.
    As someone with more degrees than is certainly reasonable (ummm… imposter… ) this article was really great for me. Only learned of Imposter Syndrome a few years ago at RWA conference… and have been living it for longer than I care to know.
    Thanks. Sharing it out.
    xx
    Lizzi

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