On Being a Fraud

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I’ve had several discussions of the past week about Impostor Syndrome – which, by the way, I always manage to misspell the first time (imposter) until spell-check reminds me of my transgression.

In short, Impostor Syndrome (let’s just call it IS) is experienced by people who have difficulty internalizing their accomplishments. Folks who are afflicted with it regularly feel like frauds, with a fear that it’s just a matter of time before they are exposed for being something far less than others think they are.

Competent people feeling perpetually incompetent – that’s Impostor Syndrome<–(click to tweet this)

I think IS can often be a psychological/emotional issue, especially experienced by those who are insecure (hand raised) and perfectionistic (both hands raised). Those who struggle with accepting basic human realities of step-by-step growth and evolution will tend to feel grossly inadequate for every role they step into – no matter how they perform. I can look back at my professional timeline and see many places where I experienced this cognitive dissonance. Although, I must say, the most profound place where I feel it is in my role as a parent.

But, I’d like to suggest another angle on this. I wonder if some of our experience of IS comes down to working in a mis-matched role. In other words, we really are outside the primary zone of our competencies, and we can’t measure up to what we know we should because – well, we can’t.

For instance, I labored for many years in a sales role. I actually succeeded in growing business and helping customers. But I am really not wired for sales – I’m not hyper-competitive, driven by numbers and short-term goals, schmoozey, quickly empathetic, hungry to “close” – I just want to figure stuff out and help people. Turns out you can actually do sales that way, but in one company where I was VP of Biz Dev, we hired a natural and skilled salesperson, and as I watched her operate, I finally came to the realization – that’s a salesperson in her sweet spot. I’m a consultant – not (natively) a salesperson. All that time I tried to force myself into a role that wasn’t a great “fit” for me.

And all that time I felt like an impostor. Not because I was insincere, or even ineffective – but I was outside my sweet spot.

Looking back at many of the roles I’ve sought to fulfill, here’s how it sorts out in my case:

Imposter Zone

As the old saying goes, you can’t put in what God left out. Working in the red zone generally means we’re going to feel like failures.

For 18 months, Lisa Petrilli and I co-hosted a weekly Twitter gathering called LeadershipChat. By all accounts, it was a big success. But many people will be surprised to hear my confession that I felt somewhat like an impostor the entire time. Not because of the community management and social media aspects of it – Lisa and I were both strong there. Nor because of the vision and effort we put into it. But the fact is, leadership “stuff” is not in my core. I’m quite interested in it, I can write about it and discuss it – but the topic was much more in Lisa’s wheelhouse than mine. Plus, I’d never worked/led in a larger corporate environment. Therefore, I often felt somewhat out of my primary competency zone.

Here’s the thing - We all want to look in the mirror and feel competent and authoritative there first and foremost. Then Impostor Syndrome has much less room to take root.

So, to sum up – could it be that much of what we experience with Impostor Syndrome may actually stem from working outside of our sweet spot? I know that the more I concentrate on my unique areas of ability, the less like a fraud I feel. What’s your experience?

BONUS: Dr. Valerie Smith has a blog (and a book) on this subject – also this quick video. Thanks to Craig DeLarge for pointing it out!

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About Steve Woodruff
Steve Woodruff is a blogger, a Connection Agent, and a consultant in the pharma/healthcare industry. He specializes in helping people and companies make mutually beneficial connections.

20 Responses to On Being a Fraud

  1. Liz Scherer says:

    Fascinating. I like to work outside my sweet spot; to me, I’m am not ‘imposing’ a box that I shouldn’t be playing in but rather, preparing myself for self growth and awareness. I would like to think of it as dipping ones toes. Sometimes the water is a wee bit too cold and other times, it’s just right!

    • Nice angle, Liz. I’ve done many things outside my sweet spot, and I’m thankful for what they taught me – even if the lesson was, “maybe you don’t belong here!” I think as we grow in awareness of what our best abilities are, we’ll more often dip our toes into water that’s the right temperature (having learned what ice and steam look like!)

  2. Tom Martin says:

    Important point Steve — it’s a fine line I think. To grow you have to expand your sweet spot but in expansion you’ll naturally feel “fake” until after you’ve developed a long, deep list of experience. Heck, even then you may still feel that way.

    • Tom – I do believe that as we explore new areas, we’ll inevitably feel this. For instance, in my first several years as a marketing blogger, I had a continued sense of being a fraud – not because of my interest level, or the absolute sheer brilliance of my thinking (hello??); but because I hadn’t worked in an agency or for a major brand. I had only worked with very small companies and was writing/operating on untrained instinct. Turns out the affirmation of my blogging peers went a long way toward no longer feeling like an impostor.

  3. Excellent post Steve.
    I think on the other side of this coin is a personal reflection of being misunderstood. As you mentioned, when you look in the mirror you want to feel competent and authoritative THERE first. When you are operating in the imposter zone, you will feel misunderstood. There’s no way not too.

    In your case you found (moved into) the sweet spot. How does one do that? I would assume it’s iterative and a matter of adding more of this and subtracting more of that – in your case, it would appear that you subtracted a performance based sales environment and a majority of the tactics that accompany that environment. But you got there by seeing and reflecting on someone else do the same thing who was operating in THEIR sweet spot.

    How would others more efficiently make this assessment and move?

    Tell us more. : – )

    • Justin – I think that an iterative process is inevitable and necessary – but one of my burdens is that we create frameworks where people can be assessed more objectively early on in their careers, and find their sweet spots more quickly. We need outside eyeballs and evaluation, since “we can’t read the label of the jar we’re in.” And, the same need exists for businesses trying to position themselves beyond their professional DNA or capability. That’s what I do one-on-one with Clarity Therapy sessions (see http://www.brandwoodruff.com).

  4. Love this post Steve! As an entrepreneur, I’m always chasing development and challenges. I see opportunities where many others see problems. I also like to get it a bit over my head and thrive on the swim to the surface. If I didn’t do this, I would feel completely unfulfilled.

    So many times I’ve had conversations with my wife about a twinge of anxiety. The “What if I’m fooling myself” speech. I have come to realize I need to operate in my “sweet spot” and outsource the rest.

    Great advice for anyone. Thanks for such a vulnerable and honest post!

  5. Daniel Rosenthal says:

    Great article – maybe fraud is too strong of term. Maybe just misplaced? I too am in a sales role and am good at it, but often want to be in a different capacity. I don’t feel like a fraud, just that my talents might best show-up in another role.

    • Daniel – in fact, most of the time we’re not actual frauds – it’s just that fear being exposed as a fraud (that’s how Impostor Syndrome makes us feel). It’s an irrational, negative label.

  6. Makes a lot of sense and I’d add environment to role. In my own case, I’ve been in the right role but in the wrong organization/environment.

    Took me a while, but I finally learned that feeling anxious was, for me, a signal of not feeling safe. Asking myself why I was feeling unsafe/at risk always led me back to environment — organizational culture, management style. In those instances, leaving the environment restored confidence in my abilities and role.

    Another factor: age. IS seemed to disappear once I entered my 50s!

    • Such a great point, Meredith! Cultural/environmental mis-match can have quite an impact. I have experienced exactly what you described in church settings, and in business environments. I’ve worked for bosses who were quick to cut down and “keep people in their place.” Not a great place for flourishing!

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  8. I am a victim of IS continually. For me, it doesn’t appear to be as much of a role mismatch as a function of nothing ever being “good enough” when I was a child, despite my very clear success academically by any objective standard. I didn’t know the feeling actually came with a label until reading your post, though, so thank you for that. It’s important to be aware this is happening… now I just wish I knew how to stop that insidious feeling. :)

    • Kevin – I did plenty of self-accusation as a child, so I understand the feeling. It’s demoralizing. I’m in the process of writing something to attack such disempowering thought patterns (it may end up being a short e-book). Stay tuned…

  9. Timely post for me… I’ve been struggling with IS feelings recently. Coming out of a job as Exec. Dir. of a successful and respected local nonprofit, my duties were vast and varied. I excelled at the ones in my “sweet spot” and managed (sometimes by the skin of my teeth!) the duties in my “impostor zone”. The organization thrived during my years there, and I could never understand why I felt like a fraud. I was passionate about the cause (indigent healthcare), an inspiring leader, an effective fundraiser, grant writer and speaker….. BUT I was/am horrible at filing paperwork (I didn’t have an admin assistant) and record-keeping. The public saw a successful nonprofit. All I could see was my messy, cluttered desk…

    You have shed some light on why I feel like I do — on the very day I needed to know the answer!! :) Thanks!

    • Brenda – sounds like all you really needed was an admin. You felt like a fraud because you could not be good at everything. Almost NO leader is good at visionary leading AND nitty-gritty details. I tried keeping my books for about 3-4 months after I started my own company. My utter disinterest and incompetence plagued me. So I just outsourced it entirely to my accountant’s office.

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  11. 1barefootgirl says:

    Exactly. You can’t do everything. It’s not necessarily sticking with what you’re best at and be satisfied with that. I don’t think that’s what you’re saying. Really it’s about knowing what you’re good at and have aptitude for and expanding on that. If we could do everything, well then there wouldn’t be anything for any one else to do. Really people who need to do everything well are control freaks, I should know, I live with one. It’s a hard task to let go, delegate, share your life and tasks. That’s what really needs to be done. Once you can let go a bit, the fraud talk will eventually stop.

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