There are days when I wake up and think, very realistically, that I have absolutely no clue what I am doing.
I then start to question why I’m doing what I’m doing and if I’m qualified to be doing it in the first place. This is not a great way to wake up but it happens frequently.
What I have come to realise after much discussion with other entrepreneurs and friends is that no one really has a clue what they’re doing. We all feel like imposters.
There is a name for this feeling and I’m always stunned that more people don’t know about it. It’s called the imposter phenomenon. It’s frequently mislabeled as the Imposter Syndrome. I prefer to stick with calling it a phenomenon, because I think it’s something that drives people to greater achievements and is not actually something that people ‘suffer’ from, but simply live through.
What happens is really simple. You build something, do something or are promoted into a new role — and immediately think that you don’t deserve to be there.
You ignore all external validation that you are capable, qualified and justified in the position. You then continue to do well, you build the business, you grow the profit and people want to work with you, yet you still wake up every day thinking you shouldn’t be where
The Peter principle
That is the imposter phenomenon. It’s not to be confused with the Peter principle which states that people are promoted to their level of incompetence. I like to use teachers as a great example of the Peter principle at work.
An incredible history teacher is promoted to the head of her department after years of being a successful teacher. Then, after many more years as an excellent teacher (and an okay head of department) she is promoted to the head of the school. Throughout this cycle of teaching and promotion, the teacher is still only practically equipped to be a teacher.
She has had no preparation or training to run a school. She has been repeatedly promoted to her next level of incompetence. Some teachers thrive in a new managerial role, but others just can’t cope and are woefully incompetent. That is the Peter principle at work.
It takes a large chunk of self-awareness to understand that you are probably involved in a Peter principle-like evolution, but are also smart and experienced enough to get a proper handle on your new position.
All in the same boat
I have a secret to tell you and it involves the person sitting right next to you as you read these words. Stop and look at that person right now. The secret is that he or she feels exactly the same way you do. Others are experiencing the imposter phenomenon just as intensely as you are.
They also feel like they can’t get the job done. I can promise you right now that your most successful friend, your confident mother or your doctor who just operated on you would say the same thing if you asked them: “I feel like I’m an imposter waiting for someone to find out that I can’t really do this!”
Once you understand that this feeling comes with the territory of doing something new, interesting, challenging and difficult then you can try to come to terms with what you’re experiencing.
Unfortunately, I’m not going to tell you that the feeling ever goes away. It doesn’t. In fact I think that the more you succeed and the more difficult the work becomes, the more you feel like an imposter.
Here’s the upside; the more I feel like an imposter, the more I work to become the expert. I read as much as I can, I listen to the smart people in the room more than I talk and I do my best to learn something every day that I didn’t know the day before.