It is real, and an illusion too: Imposter Syndrome

The clue is in the Nature — nothing is perfect, but everything works!

This week’s Three blogs — Three Cheers:

  1. Learn faster but by teaching kids!
  2. Building competency is essential when thinking about startups
  3. Three wins every day — This is brilliant! I am an advocate of one thing a day, but hey, why not 3?

I started Friday casuals for three main reasons:

  1. I am writing a book that might span around 400 pages. Regular writing hopefully will train me for the marathon effort.
  2. Whatever I write should help people but also aim to avoid the stereotypical Medium style articles.
  3. Also, given the information overload, I intended to keep my writing style easy, which can serve as a Friday evening casual flick through.

Hence the “Friday Casuals”. For this week, it is “Imposter Syndrome”.

Imposter syndrome has been around since 1978, but of late, it has become a common topic of debate in leadership and management behaviour training. Incidentally, just as I was about to publish this morning, an ex-colleague had shared this article.

The phenomenon is real but also an illusion. How??

First, let us get the phenomenon outlined:

  1. The first type of behaviour involves diligence and hard work
  2. The second mode of behaviour centres around a sense of phoniness, partly mixed with reality
  3. The third mode is using charm and perceptiveness to win the approval of superiors
  4. To maintain the behaviour to avoid potential negative consequences, i.e. match others expectations

It is real because many successful and unsuccessful people feel and suffer from it. But, the moment we understand that the phenomenon is an internal projection of one’s fears, it ceases to be real and nothing but an illusion.

Hamster on the wheel can be a good visual clue that should straight away rule out that just diligence and hard work cannot just be the critical ingredients for success. But simply being industrious cannot take us far. It can lead us to a very good life and give us a good night sleep, but it should not be the only plank to bank upon. Hopefully, this doesn’t kick off a controversy of sorts.

With the first one out of the way, let me focus on the rest three through an incident that happened to me.

A couple of years back, I was at a leadership workshop that had a specific focus on imposter syndrome. Incidentally, I was late by a few minutes to the workshop. I entered the room looking for a seat while a small group of women and men sitting around a table were introducing themselves. The head of the table was vacant, and I had to pick the chair seat.

Let me describe the room; It was a very formal Victorian setting presenting a deep tone to the topic. The room had cosy nooks, carved woodwork, and ornate chandeliers that set the stage for star chamber style interrogation but oneself. I wondered if the organisers had intentionally picked such a venue to give a sense of unease to the issue at hand.

Only a couple had already introduced themselves. So after due apologies, I tuned to their background and their rationale. Most of the participants were from the North or with a ‘labour’ background who had risen to the top. Everyone shared a bit of their complicated past, why they feel worthless, and, more importantly, how the system is discriminatory towards them. Since I had come late, mine was the last one to go.

Interestingly, I was the only person of colour and an immigrant who had ‘risen to the top’. So at my turn came, everyone naturally turned towards me!

With a smile, I quipped that if you all had to crib, then my session here is over! It was a truly extraordinary moment. I let the message hang in there. Silence is powerful.

They couldn’t take their gaze off me, couldn’t smile or smirk. Before it became too awkward, I empathetically laughed out loud to ease everyone back.

Many from various strata of life feel like victims of their success and that the system is discriminatory.

We are all the same — Olives; but why different shades and prices?

Isn’t that quite obvious? No system is perfect; there is always someone who gets filtered somehow, somewhere. Successful people want to achieve further, but their limitations or personal situations constrains them.

However, instead of embracing our limits and finding a way to resolve them, many of us tend to a) project a harmful illusion or b) seek an acknowledgement from the system (which is not perfect) and let ourselves wallow in the pit. That’s it! This pit is nothing but the pit of an imposter. — Nicely done here in “How I met your mother” — I am using that to convey the need for acknowledgement and our projections.

Not only for me but most of the participants, it was a valuable moment. Most of us recognised that discrimination and seeking external acknowledgement is common across races, cultures and it is central to human behaviour. They saw an immigrant and a person of colour as one among them wishing for the same.

On both counts, Change has to start from within! — We need to stop discriminating and to stop seeking acknowledgement!

Two additional ingredients could be put in play — We need to start acknowledging our shortcomings and be more thankful for whatever we have.

On the shortcomings: earlier, I had shared my thinking on accepting mistakes and practising them from my formative years. Hence, I am not a big fan of saying sorry all the time; today, I see many people apologising for silly things and more so in the US.

If we practise apologising for silly things, counterintuitively where and when it is actually required, it can come out as a regular act and not a heartfelt expression. (this goes the same way for appreciation; too much appreciation = expects acknowledgement later on in life)

Regarding gratitude, this needs to be practised but in the broadest sense possible. I regularly think and feel thankful to the broader ecosystem for my well-being through this routine reminder. In effect, it encourages me to contribute furthermore. In some sense, many Hindus get trained to give oblations to nature daily through the Hindu upbringing. Not to forget, these are common traditions across religions, but very few communities continue to do it and appreciate the holistic nature. Therefore, keeping faith aside, it is vital to understand the holistic impact of our lives.

Until we see ourselves as ‘parts’, the Whole (our system) can keep us down. But when we realise our value as a sum of all parts, we can belong and achieve more. Some of my English colleagues who attended the session recognised it that day.

In summary, one needs to recognise that nothing is perfect and so, neither are our achievements. If we haven’t achieved something perfect, then there isn’t a need for acknowledgement. Finally, embracing the fact ‘our’ success is a result of collective contributions and, with a pinch of acceptance that we could be wrong, keeps everything realistic. Then we won’t need to be posing!




One little thing a day, adds up to 365 things!

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Friday Casuals

Friday Casuals

One little thing a day, adds up to 365 things!

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