A couple years ago, my mentor and friend Stephen Key asked if I’d be interested in writing for Entrepreneur, the online magazine he’d been contributing to for years. “They’re looking for young writers with a unique perspective, and I think you have a compelling story,” he told me.
I was humbled and surprised by the offer. I didn’t think what I had to say was especially interesting or valuable. “Imposter syndrome” was preventing me from accepting the recommendation and diving right in. It’s that familiar feeling of “I don’t belong here” or “I don’t deserve this” that creeps up on the eve of major opportunities and follows on the heels of success.
There are many strategies and techniques for overcoming imposter syndrome, but I don’t believe I’ll ever eliminate those lingering feelings of inadequacy completely. Instead, I’ve stumbled upon one surprisingly effective way to mitigate it: Keep listening to that self-doubting voice in your head if you really can’t help it, just listen to your smart, thoughtful mentors even more.
Heed Some Voices More Than Others, No Matter Who’s Loudest
The term “mentor” comes from a character of the same name in Homer’s Odyssey. Mentor is one of Odysseus’s oldest and most loyal friends, entrusted with raising his son Telemachus while Odysseus makes his way home from Troy. At one point in the epic poem, the goddess Athena disguises herself as Mentor and encourages Telemachus to find his father and ward off his mother’s arrogant suitors. In other words, “mentorship” isn’t just about offering advice, it’s also about directing someone’s attention away from other, less trustworthy voices.
As Christopher Vogler comments in his book The Writer’s Journey:
Mentors in stories act mainly on the mind of the hero, changing her consciousness or redirecting her will. Even if physical gifts are given, mentors also strengthen the hero’s mind to face an ordeal with confidence.
We seek out mentors for their guidance on lots of things, from new career experiences to dealing with interpersonal issues. And because we care about their opinion and feel invested in our relationship, we heed their advice or at least listen to what they have to say. If you hold your mentor’s input in such high regard, shouldn’t their opinion about your potential outweigh your own doubts about it more often than not? After all, if you were right about your own inadequacies, what would that say about your mentor’s decision to stick with you?
Tell Yourself, “Hey! You’re Being A Narcissist”
Call it a case of mental jiu-jitsu, but my tactic for overcoming imposter syndrome has been to look at it not as a debilitating ailment but as just an extension of my narcissistic self. With the writing opportunity, I was recommended by someone whose counsel I seek and whose opinion I respect. Doubting his confidence in my abilities would imply that I was more capable of making such judgments than he was. If that were true, what would be the point of Stephen mentoring me in the first place?
This little mental exercise–reminding myself that I can trust people like Stephen despite my own misgivings–has proved surprisingly powerful. And in fact, my mentors are none the wiser when I need to sit down and remind myself of this. It doesn’t take a long, difficult conversation to hash out my imposter syndrome, just, “Nope, you might think that, Eric, but the people you trust don’t. So carry on.”
The writer Ann Friedman points out in Pacific Standard that imposter syndrome “thrives when . . . there are few mentors to provide a reality check.” Much more than guidance, mentors push us to believe in ourselves–even against our own internal objections. I’m not suggesting you rely on others for your sense of self-worth. But if you’re going to seek external validation in the first place, then the least you can do is to latch onto opinions that think highly of your potential. Make your mental bias toward information that comes from people you know and trust work in your favor.
They Know Better
I went back and forth with an editor from Entrepreneur, trying to delay the commitment. But mentally turning this case of imposter syndrome into a matter of narcissism helped me overcome it. By raising the stakes and telling myself, “Stephen put his name on the line for me,” I was able to to get to work.
I published my first article as a contributing writer in June of 2014. In August of that year, my article about the two years I spent between graduating from college and joining Waze went viral, garnering retweets and shout-outs from Tim Ferriss and Chief Wazer Noam Bardin. But what made me the most proud was I had proven Stephen right. One of the best ways to pay back a mentor is to act on the advice or the opportunities they give you.
Time and time again, when I’ve come up against imposter syndrome, I’ve reminded myself that other people believe I can do it. Early on in my career, I needed big pushes, but with experience and evidence, I’ve been able to become more self-reliant, even if I still need the occasional nudge. If I’ve paid back my mentors by acting on their advice, I’m now paying it forward by helping others who are just getting started.
But I’d never have been in a position to help if I had listened to my self-doubt over mentors like Stephen. He knows better.