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.

The Benefits of Boredom in Meetings — Daydreaming Vs. Doodling

So you’ve been working hard to organize a meeting. Finally, a dozen people show up and half of them don’t pay attention to a word you say.

OR you’re an employee, stuck in yet another understimulating meeting, thinking about all the things you’d rather do.

We’ve all been there.

Today I’d like to set some things straight. First of all, let’s talk about boredom: boredom can be beneficial. You can tweet this.

To quote Dr. Sandi Mann:

Boredom at work has always been seen as something to be eliminated, but perhaps we should be embracing it in order to enhance our creativity.

But how can boredom enhance our creativity? Well, let’s take a closer look at the people in the meeting. There are the usual types: the sleeper, the networker, the doodler, the daydreamer, the know-it-all, etc.

Let’s talk about two of them: the daydreamer and the doodler.

You might think that the daydreamer is just ‘out of it’ and the doodler is being outright ‘unprofessional’. According to science, you are wrong. Below I’ve listed Top 3 Reasons to Daydream and Doodle so we can bust the pesky myths and you can decide whether either one deserves encouragement.

Top 3 Reasons to Daydream:

  1. Daydreaming improves your working memory.
  2. Daydreaming at work (or anywhere) boosts your creativity.
  3. Great ideas come after some ‘down time’.

Working memory is the part which is responsible for retaining memories in the face of distractions. So when you’re distracted at work — all those emails, clients, bosses, meetings — you still manage to bounce back to your to-do list, no problem! This indicates that you have good working memory, which was found to be correlated with a wandering mind.

Other research (UK) suggests that daydreaming could be beneficial in the workplace because it enhances problem-solving and boosts creativity.

All those boring meetings might serve a useful purpose after all, they say, because they give the mind a chance to wander.

Furthermore, it might be the case that an overly-stimulating job with no down time could be counter-productive! Can you believe it? All this time we have been complaining about meetings, they were our friends!

Finally, did you know that some of history’s biggest scientific breakthroughs were discovered while daydreaming? Here are but a few:

Albert Einstein invented the theory of relativity whilst daydreaming about running to the edge of the Universe.

Isaac Newton stumbled upon the concept of gravity as he saw a falling apple in his mother’s garden.

And what is more iconic than Edison and his ‘light bulb’ breakthrough?

Top 3 Reasons to Doodle:

  1. Doodling improves memory recall.
  2. Doodling can make you more successful.
  3. Doodling is fun!

In 2009, everyone exploded with the news of Jackie Andrade’s study, which confirmed that people who doodle are actually paying attention while doing so and better at recalling the task at a later time! So not only is the doodler next to you paying attention, but he’s also storing information.

To quote Andrade:

Unlike many dual task situations, doodling while working can be beneficial.

Furthermore, doodling helps you find new solutions:

Some of history’s greatest thinkers — from Steve Jobs to John F. Kennedy and Henry Ford — have engaged in doodling as a pathway for unlocking creativity

You can read an interview with Sunni Brown — doodle expert — to learn more about how doodling unlocks creativity. When CNN asks whether the business world will start to be open to it, Brown says:

That is my fervent prayer, but leadership and management need to drive it and they need to cultivate organizational cultures that recognize its value and apply it in a way that makes sense for that business context.

Finally, let’s face it. People upload photos of doodles on Instagram and twitter hourly. There’s a “worldwide community of sketchnoters”. People in meetings everywhere have white boards filled with mind-maps and doodles. Look at your papers and tell me you haven’t doodled. I dare you.

And here are some famous doodlers for good measure:

That’s Bill Clinton’s doodle, revealed by a hacker.

I especially like this doodle by David Cameron.

And finally, Ellen DeGeneres gave hers to charity.

Other known doodlers: President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Mark Twain, Sylvia Plath, Franz Kafka, Bill Gates, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ronald Reagan.

There are probably many, many more.

In conclusion:

Both daydreaming and doodling seem to be connected to creativity. Both have been attributed to great thinkers. Then doesn’t it stand to reason that you have both of those “types” in your meeting? Hell it does!

As a Manager, you might be PRO doodles by now. So what if it seems a few people are not paying attention? Ask them some questions at the end — I bet you anything they were more attentive than you thought.

As an employee, you have a choice — you can stare out of the window and list all the things you have to buy after work OR you can engage in more productive activities, such as doodling or mind wandering.

P.S. Why not download the Meeting Facilitator Canvas! It has enough space for doodles.

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.