It’s your first day at your new, full-time job! You’ve never worked in an office before; you are nervous.
Your desk is vast and empty in front of you. Your new manager is rooting around in her drawers to find you a notepad. The IT guy is leaning over you, muttering to himself as he sets your computer up. Maybe you are wearing a tie. There are some ferns. And the whole while, your mind is stuck on one thought, one notion, one phrase bouncing around the blackness of your brain, like a screensaver from the olden days: how the hell did you fool them?
Because, let’s face it, you’re an idiot. No, do not deny it, do not be offended. It’s true. You are, and I am, and everyone is. Human beings may have built the Eiffel Tower and sent a robot to Mars based on cumulative effort, but singularly we are, almost without exception, breathtakingly inept. And we know it, every one of us. But we don’t admit it, lest we are the only person who does and we're shunned and exiled as a fraudulent charlatan. Possibly chased with big sticks.
This is imposter syndrome: that constant, back-of-the-mind throb that tells you in a very quiet voice that, however far you have gone in life, you made it completely by accident, and any minute now you will be exposed for the awful clueless bastard you are.
But before you berate yourself into oblivion, it’s important to understand two things. Two things which I shall, in shameless and outrageous plagiarism of the good Doctor Seuss, name Thing 1 and Thing 2.
Thing 1: Don’t sweat it. Everybody feels the same way.
In fact, studies have found that over 70% of people have experienced this feeling, and I’m going to take a wildly unscientific punt and say that the other 30% are fibbing.
I’ll be the first to admit that I have no fucking clue what is going on in most of my office meetings. I just nod and wait patiently for it to be over, so I can go back to my desk to continue trying to remember what my job is. I’ve achieved some successes in the workplace, sure, but in my opinion the vast majority of these have been down to luck, good timing, or the efforts of other people.
Imposter syndrome is not a mental illness, but if left unchecked for a long time it can ultimately cause anxiety, depression, and feelings of shame and self-doubt. However, studies in both 1978 and 2013 have found that one way of tackling the creeping feeling that everyone secretly thinks you’re a useless wanker is to realise, as early as possible, that we all feel the same way. Maybe you could use this mantra to remind yourself everything is okay: ‘I am not a useless wanker’. Chant it at endlessly as you sit at your desk, or something.
I mean, my god – Albert Einstein himself wrote, "The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler’. Maya Angelou offered a similar sentiment, saying ‘I have written eleven books, but each time I think, “Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out." Actor Mike Myers has talked about his issues with imposter syndrome too, saying "At any time I still expect that the no-talent police will come and arrest me." If Shrek himself can lose sleep over the possibility that he is secretly a hopeless phoney, anyone can. We should take solace in that, and in the fact that we are always wrong (well, almost; some of us genuinely are just morons blagging our way through life. *Cough* Trump *cough*).
Thing 2: A little sprinkling of imposter syndrome can be a good thing.
Think about it; a deeply entrenched belief that you are the most fantastic person in every room isn’t actually the best fuel to boost your career. Occasional feelings of inadequacy and insecurity can be useful, inspiring you to go the extra mile, push a little harder, and break out of your comfort zone. It’s important that we acknowledge the fact that we are all feeling the pang of imposter syndrome, but it’s equally important that we use that knowledge as a motivator, rather than an excuse to slack off, safe in the knowledge that we are all equally frightened and confused. With the right attitude, you can transform crippling imposter syndrome into a healthy desire for success.
The world is choc-full of talentless oafs parading around with their chests puffed out. *Cough*, Donny T. But experiencing self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy are the signs of a sharp mind with a desire to learn and grow. So chin up, mate. You’re not doing so bad at all.
Image: Ferdinand Stöhr via Unsplash