A few months ago, Katherine Anderson, who works in finance in New York, learned about a new mentoring program for women who work in venture capital and private equity. As a mid-level manager who’d struggled to find good mentorship, she was thrilled. “I said how much I’d like to participate,” Anderson told me, “preferably on the mentee side of the program since I don’t think there is much I can offer to someone else.” The program organizer laughed and told her that she’d just had a high-level managing director at a private equity firm say the exact same thing. None of the women who’d signed up to attend—regardless of their title—thought they were experienced enough to be mentors.
“It’s sort of surprising to me that even when you get to the top, you still don’t realize you’ve made it there,” Anderson says. Or that you still don’t think you deserve to be there, believing you somehow faked your way to success and that you’ll be found out at any moment. Even among elite, accomplished people, it’s a shockingly common affliction. Two-thirds of incoming students at the notoriously selective Harvard Business School raise their hands when they’re asked: “How many of you in here feel that you are the one mistake that the admissions committee made?”
The name for that fraudulent feeling is impostor syndrome. It’s a phenomenon in which people—usually high-achieving professionals—don’t consider themselves qualified for their position and convince themselves that they’ve cheated their way into it. It doesn’t matter how much work they’ve put in or how much experience they’ve acquired.
(Leary, Patton, Orlando, & Funk, 2000)
Read each of the following statements carefully and indicate how characteristic it is of you using the following scale:
1 = Not at all characteristic of me.
2 = Slightly characteristic of me.
3 = Moderately characteristic of me.
4 = Very characteristic of me.
5 = Extremely characteristic of me.
_____ 1. Sometimes I am afraid I will be discovered for who I really am.
_____ 2. I tend to feel like a phony.
_____ 3. I’m afraid people important to me may find out that I’m not as capable as they think I am.
_____ 4. In some situations I feel like an imposter.
_____ 5. Sometimes I’m afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I really lack.
_____ 6. In some situations I feel like a “great pretender”; that is, I’m not as genuine as others think I am.
_____ 7. In some situations I act like an imposter.
“The impostor syndrome describes the countless millions of people who do not experience an inner sense of competence or success,” writes Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. “Despite often overwhelming evidence of their abilities, impostors dismiss them as merely a matter of luck, timing, outside help, charm—even computer error. Because people who have the impostor syndrome feel that they’ve somehow managed to slip through the system undetected, in their mind it’s just a matter of time before they’re found out.”
We’re all familiar with the gut-level feeling you get when you know you’ve cheated. It often follows specific, concrete acts, like peeking at a classmate’s answers on a test or sleeping with someone who isn’t your boyfriend. The gut-level experience of impostor syndrome is something slightly different—a nervous undercurrent that runs through your day-to-day experience, unacknowledged, only to crop up in salary negotiations or in small phrases like, “It might just be me but….” or “Not sure I know what I’m talking about….” If you’re pressed to step outside yourself and try to adopt an outsider’s perspective, maybe you can articulate what it is you feel you lack—or admit that you have the same concrete skill set as your coworkers of similar standing. But most of the time, the feeling remains a quiet, hidden thing that you can’t quite express.
This week a young journalist emailed me for advice. She’d been recently promoted from intern to online editor because her boss was going on maternity leave. “It has been a steep learning curve and one which I am loving, but I often feel like I’m an impostor and constantly have to prove myself (mainly to myself),” she wrote. “Basically, I don’t feel like I really deserve this position.”
I hit “reply” and explained to the young journalist that I was very familiar with the impostor feeling. I got my first real journalism job because the editor wanted to sleep with me. Or at least, he was blatantly flirting with me and became openly hostile when I didn’t reciprocate. I believed I got the job based on looks first, skills second, and I may or may not have been right. My next job was one that my then-boyfriend applied for, was offered, and turned down at the last minute. Knowing this would put the magazine in a bind, he suggested they hire me instead. It took a long time to realize that no matter how and why I got those jobs, I was qualified to do them. And I did them well.
Experts note that impostor syndrome thrives when competition is intense and there are few mentors to provide a reality check—which seems to be a pretty apt description of the post-recession American economy. Women—who, despite slow progress in some fields, are increasingly dominant in the professional world—are far more likely than men to suffer from imposter syndrome. Many experts have posited that this is one reason for the so-called “ambition gap.” It’s not that women don’t want to succeed, it’s that, despite their education and experience, they’ve internalized messages about their lack of qualification. This is also true in the earliest stages of a professional career, when the difference between a polite rejection and a modest salary is mostly luck and connections, it can be hard to tell yourself that you earned this entry-level job and that you were qualified above and beyond all of those other applicants.
“You can’t control why someone picked you,” wrote Grantland’s Rembert Browne in a recent post about diversity and hiring. “As much as I’d like to think I got into my alma mater purely on grades, essays, SAT scores, and recommendations, I’ll never really know. What I do know is that it didn’t hurt that I was black and a good student. And the only thing I could control was leaving that environment unequivocally not as quota filler, but as an irreplaceable spoke in the wheel.”
It’s hard to negotiate a higher salary, apply for an even more prestigious job, or be a truly standout employee if you’re convinced you don’t belong. While, sure, any number of external factors—from luck to astrological alignment to the right connections—could play a role in your personal and professional success, you’re robbing yourself of experience and credibility. Deep down, you may believe you’re successful because you cheated, but this very feeling is you cheating you.
Some experts point out that the more you learn, the more you realize you have yet to learn. Impostor syndrome is, for many people, a natural symptom of gaining expertise. While impostor syndrome afflicts achievers in every industry, it’s particularly common among those in tech and science: fields with strict educational requirements where it’s tough to fake knowledge.
What’s the way out of this Catch-22? “Research shows that one of the best things we can do is name impostorism, to give students the sense that what they are experiencing is more common than they believe,” writes Jessica Collett, an associate professor of sociology at Notre Dame. “Also let them know that researchers find that impostorism is most often found among extremely talented and capable individuals, not people who are true impostors.” Take it from the expert: If you feel like a fraud, chances are you’re actually quite qualified.