Work Backwards: The Key to Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

Like many (semi) accomplished individuals, I experience Impostor Syndrome almost daily. It recently accelerated because I was asked to do an AMA and put on a page among some amazing people who have done amazing things, and I… I’ve just done things.

But then I thought about what my friend Nikki always says:

If I’m not in over my head, I’m not having fun.

While this is a healthy attitude to have, many people will react in the opposite way when forced to face things they don’t know about. And the thing is, even the most accomplished people experience this.

I have heard famous people admit they have it, watched my heroes explain how they wake up every day, not believing their “luck” and worrying if they’ll be able to meet their fans’ bloated expectations.

I used to get paralyzed from expectations myself. Whether I expected too much of myself or others did of me, my reaction was always the same: I would refuse to do anything that could get me in that position, ever.

And yet, I said a big YES to the AMA. Why?

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Because fear is the worst driver. And it never goes away. The only way to vanquish it is not to feed it. Even though most of us feed our inner fears and doubts daily, it doesn’t mean we have to be “stuck” in this mentality. It simply means that we need to dig deep, find the source, and face it.

Before We Start

Let’s find the best definition of I.S. and go from there.

(I’ve put numbers next to the points I’ll discuss in reverse order.)

Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments(4). Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve(3) the success they have achieved. Proof of success(2) is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Notably, impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women(1). 

It’s from Wikipedia. Forgive my sources, but you’ll find no better definition of this syndrome anywhere, and so detailed. Now, in order to get to the bottom of it, we have to work backwards, point by point.

1. The Gender Gap

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Before we can tackle this on an individual level, we have to look at the global implications. The fact is that more women tend to feel this way than men, which says a lot about our society.

In a world where men are generally paid more and are encouraged to be more confident and successful, women fall slightly behind. Except we don’t. We only perceive ourselves as standing on a lower level because of these unfair conditions we’re fighting to change.

And, as we all know, perception is reality.

I’m not suggesting that men are intentionally making women feel that way, but they’re not helping themselves either – attitudes in the tech world have been toxic and a lot of men have been making asses of themselves lately (like Google executive Eric Schmidt at SXSW and T.J. Miller at the Crunchies). All this media attention reflects the reality we live and work in, so it’s natural for women to feel bullied and under-appreciated in such a hostile environment.

If we want to turn this around, we have to start with a better appreciation system (not to mention fair wages), especially in the work place where male ego reigns (and frankly, needs to be deflated).

2. The Locus of Control

There are two types of people: those with internal locus of control and the ones with external locus of control. Internal locus of control means that you see yourself as the driver of your life — everything you do happens as a direct result of your actions and decisions. External locus of control just means you tend to blame external factors for your failures and successes.

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So if you tell your boss you’re late on that report because your colleague hasn’t given you all the information you needed, you’re viewing the situation externally. You must know there are things you can do to speed up the process, but you either see yourself as helpless or you’re lazy.

I generally disagree with this type of thinking. If you see things this way, you’ll never be able to take responsibility for your life. The sooner you do it, the better you’ll be at: solving problems, overcoming fears, getting results, advancing your career, forming relationships, etc.

And by doing so, you won’t have the need to prove you deserve your success. You’ll just know you do.

3. The Confidence Problem

A person with high self-esteem will not be experiencing the Impostor Syndrome, at least not frequently and/or deeply. A person with high self-esteem knows what they’re capable of, where their weaknesses lie, and thus sees no reason to feel inferior to anyone.

If this is you, great! The other 70% of the population, however, doesn’t feel the same way. Most of us go from day to day slightly terrified of being exposed or laughed at. (This is especially true if you work in a high risk/high reward environment, like entrepreneurship for example.)

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But this is low confidence speaking. Don’t listen to it.

You’ve reached this level because you worked hard and you took the right opportunities. In fact, if you learn how to apply the “internal locus of control mindset”, you’ll be more likely to recognize your success as your doing, as it should be.

(And of course, refrain from focusing on failure too much.)

Whatever you can do to raise your confidence, do it. Ask friends, colleagues, etc. what positive traits you possess. Look into the mirror and tell yourself what you love about your personality. Just anything that can help.

As a side note, I also think it’s important to encourage women to be more confident and not to punish them if they already are — because in today’s business world there’s a tendency to view “bossy women” as “bitches”, which is yet another gender lapse on society’s part.

4. The Accomplishment Book

Once you have the right gender attitudes, locus of control, and confidence, all you need to do is internalize your accomplishments.

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This is easily done with the help of an “accomplishment book”.

After a tough spell of burnout/depression, I had to find a way to crawl back to my most productive self again, so I applied this hack. I bought a small notebook and started writing down small accomplishments I had made every day. At first they were things like “went for a walk” and “sent an email”, but they started growing bigger, and soon enough there was plenty to be proud of. And I’ve continued this ritual to this day.

It also helps raise your confidence and acknowledge the steps you’ve taken to be where you are. It’s the proof you need to see in order to believe that where you are is very much deserved.

In fact, you can read about Fast Company’s experiment with that same concept, where the team kept a daily journal of their accomplishments for a week and found out that it was beneficial to their night’s sleep and daily productivity.

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If you followed the steps in that order, you may feel much better about your accomplishments. The key here is to remember and apply this process (or at least certain parts of it) every time that the unwelcomed feeling surfaces.

And know, you’re not alone. We’re all fighting the same demons.

I’m the founder of Amazemeet and like most people who’ve worked in professional organisations for the last 20 years, I’ve spent a lot of that time in meetings. And they mostly sucked.

I’m on a mission to help people and organisations do meetings better.

Mindfulness for #Success: It Takes Three Simple Steps and No Meditation

Did you hear about executives taking up mindfulness for success?

I learned about mindfulness at University. From day one I was hooked and proceeded to spend all of my time into pouring over journal articles on the topic. The more I did, the more value I saw in it — it bolsters up your immune system, improves concentration and productivity, and relieves stress. It could even be one of the keys to longevity.

However, there is a problem when it comes to pitching mindfulness to modern people. The modern person is more data-driven than heart-driven. So what’s the first thing you imagine when you hear mindfulness?

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You’re also thinking there’s no way that could help your day-to-day routine, right? Don’t worry, that’s what I’m here for: to break the association. 

There has been a misconception about mindfulness — that it is a spiritual thing, which is not entirely true. While you can make it whatever you want it to be, data-driven people tend to steer clear from heart-driven practices.

If you have heard of the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, you probably know that he’s been consulting a bunch of high-profile tech companies in Silicon Valley. CEO’s have spent a lot of time and money on “turning towards their inner selves and realizing the truth of our inner-connectedness”.

That’s a beautiful concept but… it’s definitely a good way to lose a skeptic. Not to mention, there are wildly inaccurate definitions like:

Mindfulness is a form of meditation rooted in spiritual teaching in which people focus their full attention on the present moment.

This is why you might think mindfulness is bullshit — because it sounds so far removed from your modern values. But let’s see…

What mindfulness really is

The best working definition is:

the ability to cultivate a focused, non-judgmental awareness on the present moment

It’s not about connecting to your inner self or your spirit animal or God. It doesn’t even require you to meditate! It’s about being present. Simply, mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness. Examples of mindlessness:

  • Rushing through activities without being attentive to them.
  • Breaking or spilling things because of carelessness, inattention, or thinking of something else.
  • Failing to notice subtle feelings of physical tension or discomfort.
  • Forgetting a person’s name almost as soon as we’ve heard it.
  • Finding ourselves preoccupied with the future or the past.
  • Snacking without being aware of eating.

How often do you experience those? Yeah, me too.

When it feels like everything is vying for your attention — the media, the family, the boss, the past, the future — you split yourself in so many ways that you don’t even realize what the consequences are — lower productivity, shorter attention span, inability to enjoy a pleasant moment, etc.

This is why you need mindfulness to anchor you to the present moment.

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Wouldn’t that be something? Anything you’re doing right now could be enhanced into something magnificent.

If you recall, there’s a powerful read called Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who talks about this wonderful state of consciousness where you’re immersed in the moment, completely satisfied by what you’re doing. And while that usually happens when you create things, it could be achieved in other contexts, too. Mindfulness can take you there because it makes you an active participant in the process, as opposed to a distracted one that only does a half-ass job.

Not to mention… when you make decisions and assign tasks, you’re always hung up on all the details and people involved. It’s a good break for the brain to simply look at something as it is, as opposed to how you see it — sometimes creativity and innovation depend on it.

How can you become more mindful?

Now we’re getting to it. I’m not really a fan of meditation, so it’s good news that I don’t have to do it to achieve mindfulness. Sure, there are mindfulness meditation (Vipassana) and loving kindness meditation, but you and me can learn to be present by following three simple steps:

  1. Noticing
  2. Accepting and —
  3. Practicing

What are you doing right now? Stop. Look around you. Smell the air. Is it fresh? How does it feel against your skin? How does breathing feel?

Focus on those questions and the answers that come naturally. Don’t get distracted. The moment your mind starts veering off into its previous routine of round-and-round thinking, pinch yourself and go back to feeling the air and seeing your surroundings. Right now, you’re aware of everything — you’re noticing things without the interruptions of your mind, and noticing is the difference between looking and seeing.

Whatever you’re seeing or feeling right now, I want you to accept it.

This is the tricky part because we are all a bit of control freaks. But when you accept things, you feel like a huge weight has been lifted. This is because you’ve been carrying the weight of judgment. When you remove judgment from seeing, it’s just experiencing. Nothing more. And it feels light because your mind is unencumbered by something it wasn’t built for.

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Finally, if you want to be able to be mindful at will, you have to habitualize the process. They say it takes 10,000 kicks and 30 days to internalize a process, but that’s a number’s game. Instead, try with a trigger and routine. (Borrowed from The Power of Habit and Hooked.)

The trigger might be a yawn during the day or a headache at the end of it. It could a time of day or someone saying a particular word. The trigger will act as an alarm to wake you up from your default autopilot program.

For example, it could be blue buttons you stick around you, and you have to pause and be mindful when you see them. (But that could be quite often.)

Whatever trigger you chose, you have to always follow up with your routine — which can be anything involving noticing things and suspending judgment. If you can be mindful for one minute every day, you’ll get the hang of it, and the results will last you a lifetime. The rest is just practice.

Personally, I have benefited from mindfulness in two instances:

  1. When I have to wait in line and —
  2. When I’m enjoying good time with friends

In the first instance, my trigger is queuing up on a line. While I’d usually get worked up and impatient about it, not I’m just quiet and calm.

In the second instance, it’s helped me to stop and connect to a happy moment. I mean, there’s all this wonderful energy around me and I’m reminded of work or checking my phone or thinking about what I’m going to say next. Now I have to stop and look around —marvel at how perfect my life is at this moment in time. It’s a much-needed treat.

Do you have your trigger and routine in mind? You can wing it, but it would be even better if you took the time to write them down now. I’d be super-happy to see them in the comments below. 🙂

I’m the founder of Amazemeet and like most people who’ve worked in professional organisations for the last 20 years, I’ve spent a lot of that time in meetings. And they mostly sucked.

I’m on a mission to help people and organisations do meetings better.

Why Walking Meetings Are Good for Your Brain, Your Life, and Your Job

What are you doing right now?

I bet my butt that you’re sitting. You might think I’ve gone bonkers, thinking ‘how is my sitting any of her business’. It’s not my business.

It’s your problem.

We sit for about 9.3 hours per day — that’s more than the 7.7 hours we spend sleeping. Sitting has also been found to increase the likelihood of developing some diseases like cancer and diabetes. Horrific, really.

In the words of Nilofer Merchant (from her TED talk):

Sitting is the smoking of our generation.

This is why people all over the world have been thinking of solutions like the standing desk — remember when that was trending? Another simple enough solution is: just stand up and walk about a bit. It’s a common practice at Wellness & Prevention, where employees are required to do so for one or two minutes every half hour. It was found to increase productivity.

Nilofer herself adopted the practice of walking in her busy schedule: by turning one-on-one coffee meetings into “walking meetings”, which were also popular with tech giants like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.

So let’s see why you should add walking to your busy schedule.

A change of scenery

Context shapes behavior. You’re like a walking reflection of your surroundings, and the more you stay inside the stuffy office or board room, the more you’ll feel stuffy and closed up.

If you’re looking for a re-charge or new ideas, walking outside can literally boost your cognitive function and even your memory. Furthermore, changing the scenery makes you snap out of your “work stupor”.

But beware, if you walk out into a busy street, you’ll probably start to feel stressed, so it’s better if you find a park. Stepping into Nature provides immediate relief, acting as a “reset” button. And because we spend our lives in artificial environments, our brains become even more eager to reconnect with Nature. This is why some people surround themselves with green — to trick the brain into believing it’s there, but the real thing is better.

A blast of fresh air

How many times have you taken a deep breath today?

Your brain needs tons of oxygen to operate properly. While breathing is mostly an unconscious process, you must remember that you CAN control it.

Like, for example, when you’re stressed. When you’re stressed your heart rate goes up, pumping blood like there’s no tomorrow, making you take shallow breaths. If you want to de-stress, you need to take deep breaths. Then the heart goes back to its normal rate, the adrenaline subsides, and the brain calms down, ready for the rest of the work day.

Obviously, the quality of air you inhale is also important — the stale, recycled air of the office is not good enough —  so I suggest taking a walk in the park (don’t forget the sandwich on your desk). And breathe deep.

A dash of creativity

Research shows that walking enhances creativity. In a study of students completing tasks, those who walked showed greater creativity than those who sat. When you walk, your mind naturally wanders and comes up with new ideas. Perhaps this is why so many famous creators of the past took long walks in Nature — to get their creative juices flowing.

It’s an amazing discovery, especially now that the bulk of our working lives is sedentary, both for office workers and remote workers. Also, this changes the game for brainstorming sessions. They shouldn’t take place inside the office, after hours and hours of work, they should follow a power walk!

Granted, I’m not impartial on this subject — I am an avid walker. Which is why this article — Why Walking Helps Us Think in The New Yorker — sparked the idea for my own. Give it a read if you’ve got the time.

A bit of perspective

This is where things get interesting.

Your brain makes powerful associations. For example, your desk screams work and your bed screams rest, right? Right.

What happens when you walk side-by-side to someone?

They become your equal. The brain automatically throws away the hierarchy, the prejudice, and just assumes that the person sweating and puffing next to you is someone who is working with you.

Perhaps this is why Mark Zuckerberg likes to walk new hires around Facebook Headquarters. Maybe this is his way of bonding with them. Whatever the reason, if you want to meet with someone face-to-face and drop the corporate mumbo-jumbo, try a walking meeting.

Just remember, walking too fast or too slow might not produce the best results. The perfect pace is your natural pace. Hopefully, your walking buddy will have one that’s similar to yours.

A few considerations

First of all, if you’re considering to pick up walking meetings, you know that they’re most effective when it’s just you and somebody else. A whole group of people walking together will never reach any consensus because they’ll have to out-scream one another and make a scene on the street.

Secondly, I have found that if you’re considering to taking these walks alone, the process itself is not only beneficial for creativity, but it can also act as an incubation period when you’re solving a problem or making a decision.

Finally, you need to stop making excuses — I’m not fit enough, I don’t have enough time, people won’t like that — and start taking care of your health. You don’t have to compromise your health for the sake of your job.

So start today. Set an example. And stay healthy. 🙂

I’m the founder of Amazemeet and like most people who’ve worked in professional organisations for the last 20 years, I’ve spent a lot of that time in meetings. And they mostly sucked.

I’m on a mission to help people and organisations do meetings better.