Book Review: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

I was quick to read “Overcoming Imposter Syndrome,” the new electronic book by one of my favorite bloggers, Elizabeth Harrin, as soon as it became available in Kindle format.  If you’re not familiar with the term, Elizabeth quotes Judith Beck: “It’s that sense that you don’t fully know what you’re doing and that you have fooled other people into believing that you are more competent and talented than you really are.”  Of course, it isn’t really a medical condition, and Elizabeth hastens to explain that she isn’t a trained medical professional.  But the phenomenon is real enough, and Elizabeth lists five symptoms, as well as a self-assessment checklist by Geoff Crane, another blogger I follow.  She also references research by Drs. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes into self-esteem, and lists four behavioral characteristics that seem to contribute to feelings of Imposter Syndrome.

Then Elizabeth lists ten strategies for overcoming Imposter Syndrome.  Some of them, such as reading widely, networking, and publishing your writing, are all excellent strategies for improving your knowledge base, capabilities, and resume.   Other strategies address self-esteem: understand what motivates you, challenge yourself, have confidence, accept that there is always someone better than you, and remember that other people don’t notice.  But at this point, I started asking, “What if I haven’t tried to fool other people?  Why should I feel guilty for being who I am?”  As Geoff puts it, “Remember that you’re not a fraud until you do something fraudulent.”  Her last two strategies consider both sides of that question: fake it, and recognize when you should feel like a fraud.  Note that she’s not advocating we misrepresent ourselves; she’s merely advocating for confident behavior, without crossing any ethical lines.

In one way or another, these strategies all attempt to de-legitimize the feelings of inadequacy and guilt, based on the idea that Imposter Syndrome might have some basis in objective reality.  And I think that’s the concern I have with this approach: it seems to accept the notion that we need to be at the upper end of the Bell curve.  In truth, half of us are below average, at least in a normal distribution.  Shall we assume that those folks should feel inadequate?  Wealth is not the only measure of personal success, and neither should knowledge and demonstrated competence on the job be our only driver of self-esteem.  I’d add a few strategies: find your sources of joy and cultivate them, try to understand what people like about you, and change something about your appearance that will make you feel good.  And address your “soft” skills: work at improving your ability to influence others, to be a better listener, and to be a calming influence.  There are a lot of ways to add value, in and out of the workplace.

Of course, I’m not a trained medical professional, either.  But after four decades in the work force, I’ve come to understand that competence and talent isn’t everything.  And the smartest guy in the room isn’t always someone I want to emulate.

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About Dave Gordon

Dave Gordon is a project manager with over twenty five years of experience in implementing human capital management and payroll systems, including SaaS solutions like Workday and premises-based ERP solutions like PeopleSoft and ADP Enterprise. He has an MS in IT with a concentration in project management, and a BS in Business. In addition to his articles and blog posts, he curates a weekly roundup of articles on project management, and he has authored or contributed to several books on project management.