The Surprising Antidote to Impostor SyndromeReading Time: 3 minutes
You actually don’t have to know everything., A simple trick to get over impostor syndrome.
This is One Thing, a column with tips on how to live.
In my 20-plus years of work as a licensed psychologist, I have encountered a countless number of individuals who appear confident and qualified to others—but who secretly harbor the fear of being found out as an incompetent fraud. They haven’t faked their credentials; they just feel as if they are supposed to know more than they do and be great at every new task right away. This is impostor syndrome.
If you have impostor syndrome, you might try to appear perfect: You may hold back suggestions at work because you aren’t sure that they are the very best ideas, you might try to overcompensate for a perceived deficit by pouring time into even insignificant projects, you might not ask for help because you don’t want to admit to needing assistance. This can lead to burnout and difficulty enjoying your career. After all, you’re putting in tons of extra effort in the hopes that you will appear to know everything and appear able to do everything.
The solution to impostor syndrome is to simply opt out. I often see impostor syndrome in recent graduates, and I tell them this: Instead of thinking that all of that work you completed to attain that degree or certification makes you an expert, accept that it did not actually make you a complete master of your craft. It simply made you eligible for the next step in your career journey. This remains true as you move up the career ladder too: If you got a big promotion, it doesn’t mean that you should immediately excel perfectly in your new role (and that if you make mistakes or experience a learning curve, you are a failure). It means that your hard work and knowledge have paid off—with another learning opportunity.
So, here’s my tip: Instead of expecting yourself to be an expert all the time, embrace an identity as a voyager on your professional adventure. Many employers want to hire a person with the qualities of a voyager; people want to work with, and for, this kind of person too. A voyager is forward-thinking, with a goal. A voyager is curious and open to the idea that they don’t know it all. A voyager has a plan for where they’re going, and some relevant skills for the journey, but they are also flexible and adapt to a change of plans. A voyager is teachable. They listen to the guidance of others because the voyager knows they are not the expert on places they have never been. The voyager makes the best of every mistake and learns something every time they venture off course.
Being a voyager is not mutually exclusive with being a leader—captains of ships still venture new places and rely on crew members for specialized insight and collaboration, and even to pipe up with helpful course corrections. Ferdinand Magellan may have circumnavigated the globe, but he was not an expert on where he was going as he embarked upon the journey.
By choosing to embrace your identity as a voyager instead of as an expert, you’re able to learn from each of your mistakes instead of trying to hurriedly dismiss them. Mistakes are not evidence of your status as a fraud; they are learning opportunities—without them, you cannot become a true expert (nor remain an expert who is up to date in your field).
Whatever your craft, there will come a time when your confidence in a new field or a new role or a new situation will feel more solid. But you will know that you have struck that perfect balance if you never become so much of an expert that you lose the joy and humility of being a voyager.
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