To the outside world, you’re accomplished and successful, yet internally you have nagging doubts that your ideas and skills aren’t worthy… Many of us have an inner voice telling us we’ve made it by sheer luck or that we’re a fraud – the issue is when we believe these feelings of fraudulence. Self-doubt is normal, and we need to remember that we’re not alone in doubting ourselves.
Even after writing eleven books and winning several prestigious awards, Maya Angelou couldn’t escape the nagging doubt that she hadn’t really earned her accomplishments. Albert Einstein experienced something similar: he described himself as an ‘involuntary swindler’ whose work didn’t deserve as much attention as it had received.”
There are two broad categories of this feeling: the first when we are skilled (sometimes referred to as Imposter Syndrome) and the second when we’re new to something or lack competence. Read more to explore these, based on ideas from Elizabeth Cox, Tania Katan and Mike Cannon-Brookes. We share some techniques to manage the feelings of inadequacy, and conclude with a video of a humorous talk by Mike sharing his experiences.
Everyone is susceptible to a phenomenon known as pluralistic ignorance, where we each doubt ourselves privately, but believe we’re alone in thinking that way because no one else voices their doubts. Since it’s tough to really know how hard our peers work, how difficult they find certain tasks, or how much they doubt themselves, there’s no easy way to dismiss feelings that we’re less capable than the people around us. Intense feelings of imposterism can prevent people from sharing their great ideas or applying for jobs and programmes where they’d excel.”
One advantage of being in this state of self-doubt, but approaching it with passion and courage, is that we are more open to new approaches and less cynical about things that have been ‘tried before’. In this way, naivety can be a strength in that it can lead to fresh perspectives and innovation.
In Riding the Learning Curve & Disrupting Yourself, we also explained that a directing style is good for managing someone new to task who is highly motivated or confident, shifting to a coaching style as they realise the extent of what they still need to learn and self-doubt creeps in i.e. providing both encouragement and direction to them.
Techniques for managing self-doubt
Some techniques to deal with the feelings of inadequacy include:
1) Recognising our feelings
Mike Cannon-Brookes, cofounder and co-CEO of Atlassian, the software company, describes his lesson as: “...By that time in my life, I knew well that I was an imposter. I knew I was miles out of my depth. But instead of freezing, I tried to learn as much as I could, motivated by my fear of generally looking like an idiot, and tried to turn that into some sort of a force for good.”
2) Being open to learning
One of Mike’s examples of speed-learning involves a week he spent trying to learn what he could about “industrial-scale batteries and the electricity grid and renewables and the economics of all of this and whether this was even a feasible proposal...” See his TED talk below for the context.
Another example can be found in our article on the lessons of Tapiwa Chiwewe, Research Manager at IBM Research Africa, on applying your existing skills base to an entirely new area.
3) Talking with others
Talking with others helps us to see that self-doubt is a normal emotion, and that many of us face it. It’s tremendously helpful to know that others are in the same situation.
5) Sticking with it
Tania also advises us to persevere: “When we decide that we don’t have the credentials, knowledge or experience to run the company, speak publicly, lead training or get opportunities, we don’t even try or we give up too quickly or we tell ourselves that pursuing these things isn’t that important.” We need to keep pushing forward.
While it often takes an outsider who believes in us to see what we’re capable of, we can develop that capability inside ourselves, too. We just gotta do our homework, develop our skills, and show up – and continue to scale buildings like the superheroes we are. If you’re not ready to embrace your inner superhero, do it for the young people in your life just so they can see what it looks like to be scared but do it anyway. Or, do it for your colleagues; otherwise, you’re cheating them out of all the ideas, skills and connections you’ve developed and could develop. Don’t be stingy with your gifts.”
Mike Cannon-Brookes’ experiences
As an entrepreneur, Mike Cannon-Brookes is no stranger to new experiences and situations. In his words: “Most days, I still feel like I often don't know what I'm doing. I've felt that way for 15 years, and I've since learned that feeling is called ‘imposter syndrome’. Have you ever felt out of your depth, like a fraud, and just kind of guessed/bullshitted your way through the situation, petrified that anytime, someone was going to call you on it? Well, I can think of many examples where I felt like this.” Mike talks about harnessing these feelings of being out of your depth, and turning them into something good.
The most successful people I know... heavily question, regularly question, their ideas and their knowledge. They know when the water is way too deep, and they're not afraid to ask for advice. They don't see that as a bad thing. And they use that advice to hone those ideas, to improve them and to learn. And it's okay to be out of your depth sometimes. I'm frequently out of my depth… It's okay to be in a situation where you just can't push the eject button, so long as you don't freeze, so long as you harness the situation, don't be paralysed and try to turn it into some sort of a force for good.”
His 14 minute TED talk below:
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