How I Overcome Imposter Syndrome

Austin L. Church
June 17, 2016
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I first heard the term imposter syndrome from Carl Smith at ConvergeSE. Carl didn’t have to explain what the term meant. I understood it intuitively: “Oh, that’s what I’ve been wrestling with for the past four years.”The Counseling Center at Cal Tech defines “imposter syndrome” as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in the face of information that indicates that the opposite is true.” (You can read more on the history of the term here.)Though I have many accomplishments of which I am proud, I feel inadequate sometimes. There you have it.

The Inner Critic & Naysayers

At least two parties contribute to Imposter Syndrome—the Inner Critic and naysayers.The Inner Critic in my head observes my mistakes and piles commentary onto them. Recent examples include the following:

  • “With your account balances looking like that, you have no business calling yourself a ‘business growth consultant.’”
  • “By setting up those Facebook ads incorrectly, you wasted money, and you missed opportunities.”
  • “You just spent months creating Earn What You're Worth, and no one is going to buy it.”

Real people then seem to verify the Inner Critic’s claims:

appiness guide
  • The ex-business partner who told me that he thought my first app idea was silly.
  • The customer who bought my Appiness guide, emailed to say I wasn’t successful enough to teach him anything, and demanded a refund.
  • The pastor who poked fun at my workshop on meeting creative goals, saying, “But you haven’t even published a book. Ha ha ha.”
  • The CEO of a SaaS company who, after we declined his terms, told other investors that my co-founder and I didn’t understand how difficult it was to build enterprise-level software.

Let me be clear: These naysayers weren’t diabolical. They weren’t plotting my demise. In fact, they probably believed that they were just “telling it like it is.”If you commit to doing anything unusual for someone of your background, gender, race, faith, education, or experience, then outspoken strangers, irate customers, and Internet trolls will come out of the woodwork. With grim satisfaction, they will serve up plates of cold Reality: what you can’t do or aren’t capable of, what you’re doing wrong, what you don’t understand, and the painful consequences that will result. Even the people closest to us—friends, family, and business partners—will join the Inner Critic's chorus.Naysayers believe they are speaking truth, and we have a choice to make: Will we believe them? Will we give credence to their criticism and power to their predictions?


Photo Credit: Jess Pac via Flickr

Stringing Your Rosary

We must be vigilant. Otherwise, discouraging conversations, deflating emails, and unfair tweets can crystallize into core memories. Our core memories become our stories, and our stories define our identities.We tell our stories to ourselves the same way my Catholic friends pray the Rosary. As we touch upon past moments of tenacity, triumph, tangible success, our stories impart fresh strength. They help us to fight back fear and vault over uncertainty.Or if we invoke the Inner Critic, then he, in turn, calls up memories of weakness and failure. Our stories become our shackles. We shuffle forward with heavy steps. We expect more setbacks and flinch even when someone reaches out in kindness.The problem is, the Inner Critic often lies. And even when he speaks a shred of truth, he brings it to a false conclusion. What he says is seldom most true. His temporary truth may not be true in an hour—let alone in a year.I was once new at business, and due to my inexperience, I wasn’t very good at it. I attracted difficult clients and earned less than I was worth. So I had a choice to make. I could believe that whisper—“I’m no good at business”—and let it define me and determine my future.  Or I could strive to improve myself. I could begin telling a better story.

“Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp.”

– Robert Browning, “Andrea del Sarto

You're an imposter until you're not.

Now we have reached the weak root of the Imposter Syndrome: Once an imposter doesn’t mean always an imposter.

Music City Marathon

What if I had internalized that soon-to-be-untrue truth? What if I had formed it into a bead and strung it onto my rosary? What if I had spent subsequent years reciting a script about a writer doomed to fail at business?Seven years later, I’m better at business. This is true in part because, back then, I recognized a half-truth with a half life. Like radioactive isotopes, certain truths decay over time.Someone in my family once said, “Churches just aren’t long-distance runners.” What if I had believed that naysayer? I might have slept through my sixteen-mile training run the next morning. I might have flaked out of the Music City Marathon the next month. But I didn’t. And I didn’t. I beat my target time, and I’ve been running long distances ever since.We Churches aren’t long-distance runners until we train to be. The truth is a truth until it decays into untruth. You’re an imposter until you’re not.Don’t you find that encouraging?

Back to my business pursuits…

  • That first app idea that my business partner at the time thought was silly? Mustache Bash made $1200 its first month, and it kickstarted a mobile app business that generated roughly $250,000 in revenues in three years.
  • The Appiness app marketing guide that pissed off one customer? Dozens of people told me how helpful it was, and I ended up selling $20,000 worth of copies.
  • The Anglican vicar who joked about my lack of credentials? He didn’t come to the workshop, yet the workshop turned a profit.
  • The software executive who thought Nathan and I didn’t understand the difficulties. He was right, temporarily. He left out an important piece of the equation: We all have to start somewhere. Nathan and I both learn best by doing. Many months later, I have more gray hair, he has less blonde hair, and we have a software product that actually works.

When I look back at what I've been able to accomplish, I'm proud to be a part-time imposter.

imposter syndrome

Dismantle his logic.

Naysayers can and will make all kinds of illogical, unfair, and outrageous claims. They usually don’t stick around and take time to build a case with strong evidence. They throw a grenade onto your front porch and walk away.So ignore the speaker’s “credibility” and dismantle his flawed logic, piece by piece.

  • “You say we don’t understand how difficult it is to build enterprise-level software. That may be true. After all, we’re rather new at this.”
  • “Yet, you have managed to build enterprise-level software.”
  • “Did you succeed because you are inherently smarter or more talented? Are we talking about genetics here? Even if that were true and I can’t jack up my IQ to your level, I have another option: I can figure out how to hire geniuses. If I can’t rely on my own genetics, I can rely on theirs.”
  • “Or did you mean that you’ve been at it longer? Well, I guess that means I have more time left on the clock than you do.”
  • “Or have you got a larger network of richer relationships? Okay. Guess we’d better meet more people.”
  • “Or do you think that by the time we learn how to build functional software, the opportunity will have passed us by? That remains to be seen.”

“I have two choices:

  1. I can give up because the rewards aren’t worth the effort; or
  2. I can put in the time and fail forward. I’ll build enterprise-level software, go out of business, pivot to a new opportunity, or some variation of the three.”

“Regardless, you know nothing about my potential. How could you?”“I still haven’t learned my full capacity. I’m an outlier in the realm of software development. I write lyric poetry, not Ruby on Rails. But consider these words from Steve Jobs in a requiem edition of Bloomberg BusinessWeek:

‘The best people in computers would have normally been poets and writers and musicians….They went into computers because it was so compelling. It was fresh and new. It was a new medium of expression for their creative talents.’

Train your Doer to silence your Imposter.

Was I an imposter? For a time. Every human being who believes that imperfect action beats perfect planning is an imposter for a little while.If you never start, what the Inner Critic and resident naysayers declare becomes self-fulfilling. You believed you couldn’t so you didn’t. You can choose who becomes the Imposter: you or the people who doubted your ability. The story that you choose to believe determines the outcome.Or, if you instead believe that you can learn by doing, failing, and succeeding along the way, the truth of the Inner Critic’s story becomes less and less true. The Inner Critic turns out to be the Imposter. A truer story takes its place. Begin telling yourself a better, truer story.All you really need each day is 20 seconds of embarrassing bravery.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” – Teddy Roosevelt

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