Imposter syndrome is a professional superpower
More than ever, people seem to be forging new paths at a very young age or without all the standard credentials. Carlsen, for example, was the highest rated chess player in the world at 19, the youngest player to hold that designation. Sometimes he might have thought, “How did this happen!?” When Kobe Bryant and LeBron James skipped college basketball and went straight to the NBA, those career paths were unusual and controversial. They made it work, and pretty soon they too weren’t seen as imposters anymore.
When I was a student, I submitted a number of articles in economics to peer-reviewed journals. I was afraid that editors would notice that I didn’t have a service return address and therefore wouldn’t take submissions seriously. Still, the papers were accepted, which greatly benefited my career.
Of course, I never mentioned in my cover letter that I was just an undergraduate student, so I was actually kind of an impostor. I did some of my best work as an impostor.
Or consider the teenagers who drop out of college, start tech companies, and become billionaires in their twenties. It’s no surprise that they sometimes feel like they don’t belong. Closer to home, consider the careers of journalists like Ezra Klein and my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Matt Yglesias, who two decades ago were just two kids with undergraduate degrees writing for the Internet. They were imposters, pretending they were “official” public intellectuals, whatever that meant. Now they are “official”, widely read and rightly so. No one cares that they started out as imposters.
Of course, not all impostors are successful. So if you perceive yourself as an impostor, there’s nothing even rationally wrong with having mixed feelings. Part of your fear reflects a feeling that you might be in over your head. But if you really want to succeed, that bit of fear and doubt can spur you to higher performance.
Another benefit of feeling like an impostor is that it gives you more insight into your fellow human beings. Estimates vary, but up to 82% of people may suffer from some form of impostor syndrome. Although it is rather high, impostor syndrome is very common. On a professional level, if you want to be more in touch with your colleagues, it may be a good idea for you to try new and unfamiliar tasks, and they can too. This will make everyone more understanding and sympathetic – qualities that are especially important for being a good boss.
Evidence suggests that women and women of color suffer from impostor syndrome to a particularly high degree. This raises very real issues of expectations, prejudices and social perception, which I don’t want to minimize. But in the meantime, I am happy to send the message to these individuals that they are innovating and leading the way for others – and that they should embrace their inner imposters.
If you still feel like you belong, you’re not trying hard enough or going far enough. In the meantime, don’t feel bad about feeling bad about yourself. Embrace your inner impostor.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the Marginal Revolution blog. He is co-author of “Talent: How to Identify the Energizers, Creatives and Winners in the World”.
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