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4 unexpected ways to turn imposter syndrome into an advantage

Imposter syndrome can feel incredibly uncomfortable, but it can also be an important sign you’re making progress.

4 unexpected ways to turn imposter syndrome into an advantage
[Photo: Elina Krima/Pexels]
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We’ve heard plenty about the challenges of moving to remote work. But, for many, the crisis has precipitated far more drastic professional changes. A whole new wave of people are switching their careers entirely, stepping into different industries, or taking the leap into entrepreneurship for the first time.

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With that comes the inevitable imposter syndrome, or the feeling that you don’t belong, aren’t up to snuff, or are about to be “found out” as a fake.

From one entrepreneur to another, I’m here to say, “Welcome to the club.”

When I first launched my start-up, I can honestly say I felt a little uncomfortable putting the title of “CEO” on my business cards. This was the same title Steve Jobs had, after all. What did the two of us actually have in common?

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Eight years in, I know I’m in the right place and can own my role — thanks in no small part to the advice and inspiration of the people around me. As CEO of an online course platform, I’m surrounded by thousands of teachers, trainers, chefs, and artists who have made the plunge into entrepreneurship—and have battled with plenty of imposter syndrome along the way.

For others wrestling with uncertainty right now, I wanted to share a few priceless hacks I’ve gleaned from them and others. Importantly, all of these tips circle around the idea of embracing, rather than resisting, your inner “imposter” and turning it into a strategic advantage.

Take a “lean startup” approach (on yourself)

I’d wager that many a modern entrepreneur has The Lean Startup on their bedside table. The now-classic business book by Eric Ries champions a “build, measure, learn” approach, or moving quickly, and nimbly, in the name of learning on the fly.

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To battle imposter syndrome, I find it helpful to apply those same principles to myself. You’re never going to be perfectly ready “for market;” the only way you’re going to be able to get feedback, iterate, and grow is if you toss yourself out there, even if you’re not fully baked.

Perfectionism isn’t just going to delay your work: it’s harmful to your mental health and self-worth. And yet more and more of us are holding ourselves to impossibly high standards. For instance, millennials self-report perfectionism more than any other generation.

When I was launching my first online course back in 2012, I was convinced it needed to be a masterpiece. I got to work on plans for a 200-hour-long LSAT coaching series… and then my brother (and business partner) told me he was flipping the switch to go live in just 30 days. In the end, I created just four hours of usable content, which was all I needed to get started.

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Today, I know the power of “done is better than perfect,” and also the incredible (but simple) hack of setting a deadline, instead of “waiting until you’re ready.” The feedback I got on my first course was invaluable—and, more importantly, every version has gotten better since.

Use your differences to your advantage

Worried that you’re not an expert or don’t have decades of industry experience? I’m here to tell you: that’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

The truth is that not being a “pro” can be a source of power in whatever you do. Your perceived difference can in fact be your strategic advantage. The freshness of an outside perspective enables you to see issues and insights that industry insiders don’t. Your unique lens—that intersection of your education, experience and upbringing—is the competitive advantage that literally no one else can replicate. Instead of hiding it, embrace it.

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Take the example of Deanne Love, who developed an incredibly popular hula-hoop training academy that has taught thousands of people worldwide the art of hula hoop dancing. But before becoming an online instructor full-time, Deanne was a primary school teacher—someone who had simply found a passion for hoop dancing on the side and translated that interest into relatable, engaging videos that drew in a community of like minded people.

Honesty sets the tone for a business, creating a positive work culture and trust with customers and prospects. Authenticity is one of the most admirable traits of a leader. So whatever your truth is: own it. You’re only actually an imposter if you’re not bringing your authentic self to the table.

Dial in to an alter ego

This habit of consistently bringing forth your authentic self is preferred. That being said, your authentic self doesn’t necessarily have to be the one that gets out of bed every morning. It might sound corny, but performance coaches suggest embracing an alter ego to give yourself both emotional distance and focus in challenging situations.

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Todd Herman became the expert on alter egos while working with elite athletes and entrepreneurs. Football legend Bo Jackson shared with Todd that he’d never played a game of football in his life—whenever he stepped on the field, he imagined himself as a cold, calculating athlete named Jason. Even the great Beyoncé uses this trick; she created the character of Sasha Fierce to help her tap into a more aggressive and sexually assertive side of herself.

A specific item of clothing can be a great way to get yourself into character. Whether it’s a power blazer or a pair of glasses, accessories can reshape your self perception (a mental trick called “enclothed cognition“). Even if you don’t believe in yourself just yet, maybe your new personality of “Alex Entrepreneur” has enough confidence for the both of you.

Behind these approaches is the science of self-affirmation. Positive self-talk and visualization exercises physically rewire your mind, creating and strengthening the neural pathways that associate specific thoughts with positive feelings. Study after study shows that instructional and motivational self-talk enhances performance, lowers depression and stress, and even increases your lifespan.

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Practice two-way mentorship 

Mentorship can be a powerful antidote to imposter syndrome. However, too many people only think in one direction and focus exclusively on learning from established pros.

Seeking out a mentor who can bring a “been there, done that” perspective is important. It’s a way to crib hard-won business advice from folks who have been in your shoes. And you might also see that the perceived gulf between you and them isn’t so wide after all.

A few years ago, they may have been new to the game and wrestling with imposter syndrome themselves. In fact, an estimated 70% of people suffer from imposter syndrome at some stage in their life; even successes like Michelle Obama and Howard Schulz have admitted to that feeling of “I’m not enough” at various points in their career.

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What I’ve found is particularly effective is taking on mentees of my own—and sharing my own story with the next generation of leaders. When you take on a mentee, it’s a chance to remind yourself of what you’ve achieved and see yourself through someone else’s eyes. Even if you don’t feel like you’ve gone very far in your career, just taking a beat to look at your journey objectively can be a powerful exercise.

Whenever I get a chance to share my past wins or hiccups with a new client, I come away with a boost of confidence. Research shows reflection statistically improves performance, productivity, and happiness. Too often, we get caught up in goal-setting, always striving for that next milestone or achievement. But to really move forward, sometimes we need a pause to look back at just how far we’ve come.

Though it can be uncomfortable, here’s the thing about imposter syndrome: If you’re having it, you’re doing something right. You’re challenging yourself. Every time I’ve experienced imposter syndrome, it’s been at a time where I’m stepping outside my comfort zone and into something new.

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In the midst of this pandemic, we’ve all been asked to do that a lot lately. Let’s use it to our advantage. Doing a little mentally rewiring—learning to associate that feeling of uncertainty not with fear or discomfort but with pending growth and opportunity—can turn imposter syndrome into a serious business asset.


Greg Smith is the founder and CEO of Thinkific, the leading platform for creating and selling online courses.