Impostor syndrome: How to stop feeling like a fraud

by Steli Efti

Ever get the feeling you have no idea what you’re doing? That everyone else has it all figured out? That you are the only person who doesn’t have all the answers? Ever find yourself saying,“If only I was more like them, everything wouldn’t be so hard”?

Bull.

The people that seem to have it all together? They’re impostors. Truth is, no one actually has any idea what they’re doing.

And that’s okay. It’s normal, and even healthy. According to some estimates, 70% of people have impostor syndrome. The problem comes when people compensate for incompetence with impostor syndrome.

Are you an impostor?

Impostor syndrome is what happens when ignorance meets guilt and denial. It’s the result of thinking, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I feel like I should, so I’m going to pretend I have it all figured out.”

Impostor syndrome can affect anyone, from founders to salespeople to interns. And when a company is full of impostors, it can have serious consequences.

Impostor-led startups skew important metrics to make themselves look better, prioritize motion over progress, and ultimately sink their startup with ego-driven decisions.

Here are three common symptoms of impostor syndrome.

1. Poor crisis management

Impostors spend more time solving problems than preventing them. They become hyper-focused on crisis resolution because they don’t know how to grow their business, but they do know how to solve the same problem over and over again.

2. Decision-paralysis

To an impostor, there’s nothing more terrifying than making the wrong decision. They’re afraid of being proven incompetent. This usually leads to people who won’t make a decision until they “have all the answers”, which, of course, they never will.

3. Denial of fear

Everyone’s afraid of something. Except impostors. As far as they’re concerned, they aren’t afraid of anything. Their startup failing? Not a possibility. Letting their team down? Not a chance. They’re 100% in control at all times. Or so they want you to think.

Any of those sound familiar? We’ve all been impostors at some point. Many of us still are. What you were yesterday doesn’t matter if you’re willing to make a change today.

How to overcome impostor syndrome

The only solution to impostor syndrome is authenticity. That means owning the fact that you won’t always know what you’re doing, and accepting that you don’t need to anyway.

It means finding opportunity in failure and rejection instead of defeat. Impostors act out of fear, and when you stop fearing what other people think, you free yourself to make decisions that will transform your startup.

Here are five practical exercises to overcome impostor syndrome.

1. Name your fears

If you could resolve your fears on your own, you probably would have by now.

Besides, if you’re afraid of something, others probably are too. Like you, they’ve been too afraid to say anything. Break the silence with vulnerability.

At worst, your fears will be validated by your team and you can create a crisis prevention plan together. At best, your fears will be put to rest by getting more information.

2. Make decisions, even bad ones

The consequences of a bad decision are rarely worse than the consequences of indecision.

startup-success-advice

The fact is, most of your decisions will be wrong. And that’s okay, because you made the best decision you could with the information you had. Now that you have new information, you can make a new decision.

There will never be an ideal time for hard choices, and you’ll never have all the information you want. So get over yourself, make a decision, measure the results, and adjust accordingly.

3. Admit what you don’t know

The most freeing words you can say to your team are, “I don’t know.”

The only person that expects you to have all the answer is yourself. Let go of your ego and make room for collaboration.

Next time you have a tough decision, say this, “I don’t know what the right answer is, but let’s work together to figure this out and make a decision.”

You can’t work together effectively without full transparency. Your team probably knew you didn’t have all the answers anyway, so stop pretending.

4. Know where to find information

Although you’ll never have all the information, it’s not a bad idea to have some. As a decision-maker, you need to become an expert researcher.

That means knowing how to quickly find information on almost anything. You can use online tools like Google, Youtube, and Quora, or turn to mentors and advisors.

Chances are, there’s someone you can reach out to who has overcome your current challenges. They didn’t know what they were doing at the time either, so learn from their experiences.

Just make sure you don’t get stuck waiting for, “a little more information.”

5. Stop comparing yourself to others

If you look at other people’s Facebook feeds, everyone seems to live incredible, stress-free lives. But you know that’s BS. What you see on Facebook is a filtered, curated look at someone’s life. You don’t hear about the stresses and failures because those don’t get as many “likes”. We share what makes us look better.

Startups are often the same. Public profiles and interviews never give you the full picture. You can’t measure your success by the successes of others, because you don’t know the whole story. The truth is, they’re probably just as clueless and insecure as you.

If you need to compare yourself to something, look at where you were yesterday. That’s your measuring stick. Are you better today than you were a day ago? If so, you’re on the right track.

Competently incompetent

If you can ever say, “I know exactly what I’m doing,” you’re either an impostor or not pushing yourself hard enough.

The reality of startups is that you’re going to spend most of the time not knowing what you’re doing, but taking action anyway. Indecision will kill your business faster than a quickly-corrected bad decision.

Stop letting your fears paralyze you. Own that you have no idea what you’re doing, accept that no one else does either, and get out there and crush it.

Recommended reading:

How to deal with impostor syndrome
This post was inspired by a conversation Hiten Shah and I had on our podcast, The Startup Chat. Check it out here!

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