Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend Ops-Conf, an amazing conference with a group of extremely smart and capable leaders of small tech companies. It hit me pretty quickly that these folks were exceptional people with valuable skills and insights. My first thought was, “Wow, this is awesome!” But then, imposter syndrome walked in and got comfy.
Suddenly “I don’t belong here,” dominated my thoughts. What business did I have among these people? What could I say or do to keep them from figuring out what I already knew? I needed to calm down fast. Maybe they could forgive me for being naive and awkward, but I could never show my face again if I had an emotional breakdown in front of everyone.
The ugly truth
Imposter syndrome is ugly. It negates all of your hard work and experience, and replaces them with statements around luck and good fortune. It also presents us with the thought, “I’m alone in this.” This is arguably the most detrimental thinking because it makes assumptions about those around you: that they can’t possibly understand or empathize with you. This road is dangerous.
Getting it right
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my role in HR and Operations, it’s that we are often wrong in our diagnosis of our own issues. Think of it in terms of a client relationship. Frequently clients come to Test Double asking us to fix “x” problem. After some digging, we learn that “x” isn’t the problem at all. It’s a symptom of something else. Finding and solving that something else will not only fix “x”, but will likely solve many other issues.
This is exactly how imposter syndrome works. The perceived issue is that you have somehow ended up in a room full of geniuses who, at any moment, will realize you can’t even operate an automatic door. The real issue, however, likely has much more to do with your own lack of confidence. This you change.
Deal with it
Back to avoiding a scenario where I’m hyperventilating into a paper bag in front of people I admire — I wish I could say I recited a magical incantation and all thoughts of doubt were permanently removed from my psyche, but no such luck. I had to deal with it.
It’s important to remember that you get out of a situation what you put into it. If I wanted the wisdom these people had to offer, I had to engage with them, self-pity be damned. So yep, I walked up to strangers and tried to find ways to connect. Sometimes it was fun, sometimes I made a fool of myself. But at no point did anyone reject me. Why? Because they are decent human beings.
Our biggest fear with imposter syndrome is being found out as a fraud. You can either hold onto that or choose to be honest with someone. I didn’t announce my feelings to the group, but I did confide in a couple of people. You’ll never believe this, but they felt the same way! What?!
Imposter syndrome affects approximately 70% of us. Also, it is extremely comforting to know that the more you are feeling like an imposter, the less likely you are to be one. This is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. In essence, the lower your ability, the less likely you are to realize your own incompetence.
Playing it cool
Although I didn’t add the most value to the group, I also didn’t need anyone to hold my hair back as I dry heaved. I’ll take the win. I left happy having made connections with amazing people and and am willing to put the work in to strengthen those connections and prepare for next year. This includes being more honest about my insecurities. It’s very likely I’m not alone.