Business psychology

How the world’s most successful people have tamed imposter syndrome

- April 19, 2022 5 MIN READ
Cartoon of businessman looking doubtful while his shadow wears a superhero cape

As author, podcast host, organisational psychologist and founder of behavioural science consultancy, Inventium, Dr Amantha Imber is an expert in her field. And yet despite her impressive CV, she knows all too well the insidious feeling of imposter syndrome. Here, she reveals how some of the world’s most successful people tame that inner critic, and some even embrace it. 

Almost 20 years ago, I received a phone call to tell me I had been accepted into the Doctorate of Organisational Psychology program at Monash University. My first thought upon receiving the call: there must have been an administrative error.

Turns out, there wasn’t. I went on to become the youngest graduate from the program and register as an Organisational Psychologist.

But it also turns out that I am not alone in experiencing imposter syndrome – the persistent thought that we are undeserving of our achievements. Scientific research has found that up to 82 per cent of us experience imposter syndrome. The other 18 per cent are probably too scared to admit it.

Four ways to turn your imposter syndrome around

Through my podcast How I Work, where I interview some of the world’s most successful people, I have been shocked at how many of my guests continue to experience imposter syndrome. But unlike many of us, they have figured out ways to channel these feelings into something productive.

Here are four things I have learnt about using imposter syndrome as a force for good.

Person tearing the 't off a piece of paper that reads 'I can't'

1. Interpret self-doubt as a positive emotion

When I interviewed Broad City creator, writer, and star Abbi Jacobson on How I Work, my stomach was doing somersaults. I had been a fan of Abbi’s work for years. I had read that she had a severe case of imposter syndrome during the earlier seasons of Broad City. I was curious whether she still experienced it.

In short, her answer was yes. She described experiences of speaking at an event or being on a panel and she would feel cloaked in self-doubt.

“’What am I doing here? Why does anyone care what I have to say about this topic? I get very nervous before performances or new things. Like I’m going to be exposed for not being good,” she described.

But here’s the thing. Unlike most of us who interpret nerves and self-doubt as a bad thing, for Abbi, it’s a positive.

“I’m happy that I still get very nervous, even if I maybe shouldn’t be. If there ever was a day where I was like, ‘Yeah, I should totally be here’ – I don’t want to be like that. I want to always be looking at myself and questioning where I am right now in my career. I want to be measuring how far I’ve come and know that there’s still so much farther to go. Even if I am really confident in what I’m doing right now and the projects I’m working on, I still can be so much better.”

The next time you experience self-doubt, interpreting those feelings as a motivating force helps you remember there is always room to grow. And instead of shying away from the experience triggering the doubt, deliberately embrace it and remember it that it’s only through challenges that we can improve.

2. Stop trying to be the smartest person in the room

Cyan Ta’eed spent many years feeling like she wasn’t as intelligent, as capable, and as good as everyone thought she was. This was despite the fact that she co-founded Envato, a Melbourne-based technology company worth over one billion dollars.

To overcome her imposter syndrome, Cyan looked for role models – people who oozed an effortless confidence. One of the qualities they had in common is that they never seemed to worry about asking questions that might make them look stupid. “And I always worried about that,” Cyan confessed to me on How I Work.

“I needed to shift my thinking from wanting to seem like the smartest person in the room, to wanting to leave the room being the smartest person in the room. And it meant that I needed to ask questions constantly and I needed to not care whether it made me look like an idiot.”

Instead of obsessing how others will view you, try to remove your self-censorship as it only gets in the way of learning. And chances are, other people in the room want to ask the same question that you are feeling scared to ask for fear of looking stupid.

So remember, you are doing everyone else a favour by asking whatever you are unclear on or want more information about.

WOman giving speech in conference room

3. Say yes to scary opportunities

Cyan also found that her imposter syndrome led to her shying away from opportunities that scared her. “For a long time, I tried to avoid failing,” Cyan explained. “But then I realised that I needed to start saying yes to opportunities even when they really scared me.”

Over time, Cyan forced herself to get comfortable failing and figuring out how to cope with that. She found that the more she did it, the less it became about her and the more it became about the concept that she was just trying to do really hard things.

“When you try to do really hard things that someone’s never done before, oftentimes you fail. I’ve launched about ten start-ups and there’s a lot you haven’t heard about and don’t know about because they didn’t succeed and I closed them down.”

When reviewing opportunities to throw yourself into, ask yourself whether you’re scared by them. Think about whether you are hesitating to take it on because you are worried about failure. If the answer is yes, it’s probably a good sign that you should say yes, because it will be a great opportunity for growth.

4. Instead of running from negative feedback, embrace it

If you saw Dom Price speak at a conference, you would assume he’s the most confident person in the room. He is very tall and has a booming voice and leads Research and Development for Atlassian, one of the biggest technology companies on the planet. Yet Dom told me in an interview that he experiences imposter syndrome every single day. And for him, it’s a massive intrinsic motivator to listen deeply to feedback.

“It’s ironic that a lot of people see imposter syndrome as a reason to stop listening to negativity but actually, I go seeking it out,” Dom explained. “I got some feedback this morning from an event I spoke at in the US recently. I ignored all the four and five out of fives and went straight to the ones and twos, because I wanted to know what people hated about it. I can’t learn much from the fives. But I can learn a lot from the twos.

“So, all I can do is continually improve myself and listen and adapt and adopt. And if I do that, I’ve got a chance. And the minute I shut down and stop listening or get so arrogant and caught up in my own story that I don’t actually take account of others, that’s when all the wheels fall off.”

Start to become aware of when you shut down in the face of negative feedback. Instead, remind yourself that it’s only negative feedback – not positive – that helps you figure out how to grow and improve.

Make friends with your imposter syndrome and stop seeing it as a weakness. The most successful people in the world embrace self-doubt and are not afraid to look stupid.

And if you’re avoiding doing something because it makes you nervous, remind yourself that these experiences are the richest ones for helping you learn.

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Now read this: 

How to overcome imposter syndrome and become the business consultant you want to be

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