Many people are plagued by impostor syndrome, which has them doubt their accomplishments and be afraid of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’
This phenomenon is so common that an estimated 70% of people will experience at least one episode of this in their lives.
If I had to summarize impostor syndrome in different words, here’s how I’d put it: reverse-Muhammad Ali syndrome.
Why impostor syndrome is reverse-Muhammad Ali syndrome
The late American boxing legend and badass activist definitely did not feel like an impostor. He knew just how good he was and had no problem touting his own horn about it.
When he didn’t make a point of bravely opposing the Vietnam War (despite how harshly it impacted his career), he moonlighted as his own best marketer, motivational coach, and cheerleader.
Case in point: Muhammad Ali’s poem where he proudly proclaims: “I Am the Greatest.”
That’s the antithesis of impostor syndrome!
Now, you might think that it was easy for him to say that, given his accolades and accomplishments.
Well, did you know that he failed the military qualifying test? As a result of his dyslexia, Ali’s writing and spelling skills were below standard.
Like a true champ, he didn’t let this get to him. Ali is quoted as saying, “I said I was the greatest, not the smartest!”
Gotta love that comeback and sense of humor! It brings us to the next point:
What does it mean to not be an impostor?
When you are an impostor, there is a mismatch between how you are presenting yourself and your level of expertise/competency.
For instance, you’re pretending to be a black belt in something when you’re actually only a white belt.
In contrast, to not be an impostor, you need to achieve congruence between your level of competency and how you present yourself.
Now, competency actually exists on a scale, from 1 (totally incompetent) to 10 (Jedi-level of awesomeness).
If we use broader categories, we can distinguish between:
To use a concrete example, when it comes to cooking, I’m probably somewhere between the first two categories (which would be less disconcerting if my significant other was a better cook but I guess we all have our cross to bear…).
So, I’m clearly not at mastery, when it comes to cooking.
In contrast, my favorite restaurant in the whole world, La Laterna in Italy (where else? We’re talking about food here!) is Jedi-level of awesomeness. (And, yes, that’s an objective statement of truth. Fight me!)
I don’t feel like an impostor when it comes to cooking because I don’t pretend to be good at it. If anything, I sometimes pretend to be more of a disaster in the kitchen than I really am.
The reason I don’t pretend to be good at cooking is that I don’t really care. It’s not important to me so there’s no need to put on a front. What you see is what you get.
Now, if I were to seek employment as a cook, I would have to up my game. I would have to strive to improve. But, here’s the thing: unless I wanted to become a world-class cook (dream on, honey!), I would only have to aim for competency in the kitchen, not mastery.
These days, the word mastery gets overused and that might be part of the reason why people are suffering from impostor syndrome. They think they need to be masters of something when, in reality, competence is sufficient.
But, that’s not true. Competency and mastery are not the same things. True masters are those who often dedicate their lives to their craft (think… Jimi Hendrix and his guitar).
For everyday purpose, mastery is generally unnecessary. You don’t need to be a master to be successful, have a happy life and be able to help others… competency is sufficient. Not only that but you can’t be a master in many areas. Mastery requires true dedication and obsession, and that’s not achievable across the board.
So, if you’re feeling like an impostor, decide what level of competency is really required and what you need to achieve it (if you’re not already there).
With that being said, here are 3 reasons for impostor syndrome— and how to overcome them
Not enough experience
Sometimes, people simply feel like an impostor because well, they are. I don’t mean that in a mean way. We all are beginner’s at something and being a beginner is great. It’s a sign of bravery. If you’re not a beginner in something, it might be because you’re stuck in your comfort zone and need to get out. Today’s media and marketing landscape create unrealistic expectations. We’re being conditioned to think we’re entitled to something right away and to looking for shortcuts, instead of getting the necessary experience under our belts. But, here’s the thing: if your impostor syndrome is based on a lack of experience (perhaps because you’re transitioning into a new field where your previous accomplishments don’t count as much), then the key is to get more experience.
Not enough feedback
Other time, people actually already have sufficient experience to be competent at what they’re doing. What’s holding them back is not having received enough feedback to internalize how much value they’re providing to people. In that case, it’s helpful to actively ask for feedback and take that feedback to heart.
Impostor syndrome can also be based on unrealistic expectation where we think being competent means that we know everything. If that’s the case, it’s important to remember the distinction between incompetence, competence, and mastery. Even masters might not always have answers to everything. And, remember that in most cases, we’re not aiming for mastery, just competency. If you don’t know something and need to do research, it’s generally perfectly okay to say: “Let me get back to you on this.”
Defeat impostor syndrome like a true champ
Being competent at what you do doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. Perfection does not exist and if it did, it would be boring.
Our flaws, shortcomings, and eccentricities are charming, too. They make us human and thus, more relatable.
Take it from Muhammad Ali.
Does his dyslexia and his awesome response to it— ”I said I was the greatest, not the smartest”— make him more or less lovable?
Personally, I think it’s the former.
And, perhaps I’ll take a page out of his book the next time I cause a disaster in the kitchen: “Dear, I said I was a great teacher… not a great cook!”