The Imposter Syndrome is the belief shared by many successful people that they are not really capable of doing the job they are in, and they feel like a fraud and are thus afraid they will be found to be an “imposter.”
One study found that 84% of executives have this unconscious view of themselves… after coaching thousands of managers over the past 30 years, we would say that it is closer to 100%. Including each of us.
And if you find yourself feeling like an imposter, you’re not alone…. Millions of people have similar feelings.
Don’t take our word for it. Here are some insights from 18 famous people who’ve acknowledged they have had, or still do, suffer from Impostor Syndrome. From Nobel Prize winning Albert Einstein to Serena Williams, this list will likely surprise you.
“The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou often felt like a fraud, "I have written 11 books, but each time I think, 'uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'"
“I still have a little impostor syndrome… It doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously. What do I know? I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is.”
The famous CEO of Starbucks said, “Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.”
Sheryl Sandberg, Harvard grad and Facebook COO, wrote in her book Lean In: “Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself -- or even excelled -- I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.”
Dr. Margaret Chan
Dr. Margaret Chan, ranked by Forbes as the 13th most powerful woman in the world, said, “There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.”
Academy Award winning actress Natalie Portman, who graduated from Harvard, said in her 2015 Harvard commencement speech, “Today, I feel much like I did when I came to Harvard Yard as a freshman in 1999. I felt like there had been some mistake, that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company, and that every time I opened my mouth I would have to prove that I wasn’t just a dumb actress.”
"No matter what we've done, there comes a point where you think, 'How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?'”
“I’d been obsessed with going to Cambridge even before I’d learned English, and my mother had somehow helped make it happen from our one-bedroom apartment in Athens. I felt like there I finally was, but the minute I opened my mouth, people would know I didn’t really belong. My mother taught me that fearlessness isn’t the absence of fear, but the mastery of it. I leaned into my fear by trying to get into the Cambridge Union (the debating society,) where I eventually became the first foreign president. What I learned was that what you have to say is more important than how you sound, which is to say that that feeling that we don’t belong is much more likely to come from us — from that obnoxious roommate inside our heads — than it is from someone else (who is likely dealing with their own forms of imposter syndrome).”
“Yes, you’re an impostor. So am I and so is everyone else. Superman still lives on Krypton and the rest of us are just doing our best.”
“The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania, and a complete feeling of: 'I'm a fraud! Oh god, they're on to me! I'm a fraud!' So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.”
As the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor has admitted to feeling like a fraud and not fitting in throughout her life. “I have spent my years since Princeton, while at law school and in my various professional jobs, not feeling completely a part of the worlds I inhabit. I am always looking over my shoulder wondering if I measure up.”
"I go through acute imposter syndrome with every role. I think winning an Oscar may in fact have made it worse. Now I’ve achieved this, what am I going to do next? What do I strive for? Then I remember that I didn’t get into acting for the accolades, I got into it for the joy of telling stories.”
“It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just going, ‘Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved.”
"On the first season of Top Chef, I suffered from impostor syndrome.”
Game of Thrones actress, Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) said “I think even being an actress for over a decade now, I still have imposter syndrome. Where you're asking yourself, 'Oh, is this really what I'm supposed to be doing?’”
Famous for her role on “Shark Tank,” real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran said, “Who doesn’t suffer from imposter syndrome? Even when I sold my business for $66 Million, I felt like an absolute fraud!”
Tennis phenom Serena Williams said, “There were two Venus Williamses in our family. It was crazy… my parents would make me order first, but once she ordered, I’d change my mind. It was tough for me to stop being Venus and become the person I am.”
We (Brad & Tom) each have struggled with imposter syndrome for years. How about you? You may not be famous (yet), but we’d encourage you to think about how the imposter syndrome may be blocking you from the success and contentment that you want.
We offer a few ideas on how to approach the task of disempowering this internal critic:
Begin to notice when that voice in your head is being demeaning, critical or discrediting. Choose whether you are going to believe it… or not.
p.s. Would you allow anyone else to say those things to you? We doubt it.
Work on developing a Growth Mindset. This conscious way of approaching challenges in life has been extremely useful for many.
Ask for coaching. Being humble is a sign of great strength. And people love to be asked for help/coaching as it deepens relationships, builds trust and leads to greater success.
We, and many of our clients, have made tremendous progress in disempowering our imposter syndromes and those internal critics no longer trip us up. However, that voice never goes away… we have just realized that it is not the arbiter of reality.
With conscious effort, it’s very possible to put imposter syndrome in the past and experience greater peace of mind which will result in more success and contentment.
Footnote: The term “imposter syndrome” is relatively new. It was coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. They wrote that it’s a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” Most of these people are motivated to achieve, but they’re worried that they’ll be discovered as frauds.
About the author(s):
Tom Willis is a Co-Founder and Partner with Phoenix Performance Partners. He had the great honor of serving as CEO for Cornerstone; a consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers; and an engineer with the Intel Corporation. His life is all about helping others uncover their talents so they can reach their unlimited potential and their organization can thrive.
| Linkedin: Tom
Brad Zimmerman is a Co-Founder and Partner with Phoenix Performance Partners. Zimmerman turned to organizational coaching more than 26 years ago following a successful career in sales and operations. Today, he helps businesses, nonprofits and other organizations develop cultures that transform work environments so people grow and the organizations thrive.
| Linkedin: Brad