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Lessons Learned

How Feeling Like A Fraud Has Helped My Career

If you're getting anxious about your work and how it reflects on you, it means your work matters to you. That's a good sign.

How Feeling Like A Fraud Has Helped My Career
[Photo: Flickr user Garry Knight]

I have imposter syndrome. Possibly you do, too—or have at some point. In my case, I feel like I don't deserve to write for respected publications. Every other writer is more talented and insightful.

I've only been published out of pity, I think to myself in my worst moments, and it was a fluke that can't be repeated. In fact, with every new piece readers can see little by little how I'm losing my touch. Each time a story I've written goes live, I get an adrenaline rush that's almost instantly dampened by the prospect of reading the comments and finding that someone knows I'm just winging it.

While these thoughts rush through my head anytime I get an an article published, they aren't there all the time. I'm usually self-assured. There was a running joke among my high school friends that I'm actually born egotist—but also that I'm the luckiest of the group. And believing in luck is one of the things that makes you susceptible to imposter syndrome, an inferiority complex that one Fast Company contributor has described as "the feeling that you're a fraud, you're in over your head, and you're about to be found out."

It's something you anxiously start to consider if you feel like you're plodding along under the radar, never taking chances or achieving your goals. In fact, Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, the psychologists who coined the term, found imposter syndrome is especially prevalent in high-achievers. In a 1978 paper, they report observing the syndrome in over 150 women—all of whom, whether they're PhDs or professors—share the same tendency to ignore evidence that they're intelligent and imagine everyone has made a mistake in assuming they are.

So it's no surprise that there's a heap of advice out there on how to beat imposter syndrome, regain your confidence, and go out there and win.

But what if it can actually help you?

In my experience, anyway, it has. Here's how feeling like a fraud—at least in some aspects of the work I do—has proved more a blessing than a curse for my career.

It Means You're Living Your Dream

The reason you're feeling like a fraud is because you're scared of losing a job that's extremely important to you. If I were tasked with piddling around in spreadsheets all day, I'd probably feel on edge about being discovered as a substandard spreadsheet-piddler. But whenever I pitch a story to an editor (including this one), I freeze. Sometimes I procrastinate, telling myself there are more edits to be made; Thursday is probably a bad day to pitch; or that by sending in such tripe, I'll get blacklisted and my emails will end up in the "God no" folder of every editor's inbox.

The reason is that it's vitally important to my happiness that I'm a successful writer. I've got a taste of it, but I feel like I'm permanently on the edge of failure—falling off the face of the Earth. Gilded Age industrialist (and modern-day pithy-quotation repository) Dale Carnegie once put it this way:

Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.

It's actually good advice (thanks, Dale!). If you're getting nervous about your work, it's because your work matters to you. You know you're where you want to be, but you're feeling the fear of loss.

So instead of holding back, charge at your fears head-on. Send the pitch, call the lead, agree to do the presentation.

It Means You're Making Dizzying Progress

At age 21, Mike Skinner released one of the most influential British rap albums in history, Original Pirate Material, under the name The Streets. In no time, a kid from a sleepy suburb putting on an East London accent and rapping about things he's never experienced suddenly saw phenomenal success.

It's no surprise Skinner wound up with a bad case of impostor syndrome. On his follow-up EP, he decided to come clean in a track called "Streets Score."

The opening lines?

I'm a fake.
I don’t live the streets.
But there’s only so many hours in a day and I use 'em to make beats.

Skinner confesses that it's all been an act: "Does my life sound as exciting as a fight in a chip shop? I think not," he remarks over violin samples that sound like they've been lifted from a gangster movie.

The point isn't that Skinner was posturing, putting on a persona—something countless musicians from Bob Dylan to Lana Del Rey have done before them (and taken heat for)—it's that when you're small trying to make it big, you never fully anticipate feeling like a fake.

Skinner rapped about dealing drugs and being in debt with two massive blokes who show up armed to collect their money. He didn't care at the time. It was all fun and bravado until he realized he couldn't keep the charade up any longer. He was in the public eye and at risk of being ratted out.

There's another line in "Streets Score" that will always resonate with me when I'm thinking about imposter syndrome, failure, and fear:

I think I read somewhere recently that fear is a useless feeling because I can't run to where I'm heading without running from where I was.

What happens when you admit to yourself that you feel like an imposter? The most important thing is that you've recognized the issue.

No more apprehension. No more procrastination. Because before long, you're learning to use your fear of failure to your advantage—as a reassurance that you're already successful, on the right track, and living your dream.

Benjamin Brandall is the head of content marketing at Process Street, where he writes about technology, productivity, and startups. Follow him on Twitter at @benjbrandall.

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