Impostor Syndrome

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Several years ago, back when I had hair, I attended a conference in Colorado.

The fact that I had hair meant I was just starting out in my career and had lots to learn.  I was young, and impressionable.

The fact that the conference was in Colorado meant it was a two hour time difference from where I lived.  Which meant that my body hadn't adjusted to the time zone yet and  I was up very early in the morning.

There was one other person in the hotel restaurant at 6am - the keynote speaker from the night before.  He invited me to join him at his table.

This gentleman was highly renowned in the world of computer aided design (CAD). He was also a PhD level scientist with some impressive research under his belt, and although he seemed ancient at the time, he was likely in his mid forties.  I was sitting with one impressive, experienced person who's portfolio of experience was a treasure for me.  I knew I could learn from him, I just didn't expect the lesson I got, which impacted me for years.

The conversation went well until he said. "Do you ever get the feeling that one day you'll go into work, or stand up to speak at a conference and that will be the day that 'they' discover you really aren't qualified?"

Perhaps he was joking.

Maybe it was the time zone induced insomnia talking.

Maybe he was going through a personal reflective time.

It didn't matter.  The outcome in my life was profound.

To an impressionable mind, hearing this from the defacto expert meant that I probably didn't stand a chance in my career. But having been raised on John Wayne movies and Batman comics, I wasn't about to share that with anyone.  But it haunted me for a lot of years.

I continued in my career, but every time I met was sitting around a table of people who I judged "more qualified" - having more education, or more experience, then the insecurity would arise.

This lasted for years.

There are a lot of obstacles to overcome in developing a successful career as a leader, but the biggest obstacle can be yourself.

It is one thing to have an over-inflated sense of your abilities, but constantly undermining oneself with a feeling of being an impostor, not fitting in to the team, the company, or with your colleagues is more common, and more insidious.

Does any of this resonate?

Thankfully, I think I have resolved my core issue.  And the answer came out in a golf game.

I was on the links with a good friend who was a CIO who had gone through University on a golf scholarship (if you knew how I golf, you would know that this was an opportunity for me to reinforce my feelings of inadequacy, but I digress).

I asked him about competition on the course.  He replied "You are not in competition with anyone else on the course.  You are in competition with yourself.  Your last game. Your last shot."

That was my epiphany that addressed my case of the Impostor Syndrome.

I had been measuring my abilities and qualifications against other people's abilities and qualifications, rather than the goals and objectives I had set for myself to achieve my responsibilities.

If I achieved my goals with excellence, then certainly I was qualified.

I could also talk about my experiences in achieving the goals.  It removed the need to be "right", and gave me the freedom to tell my story.

Setting measurable career goals was a key ingredient in my recovery.

Reviewing my progress on these goals allowed me to see and believe that I was actually accomplishing things.  I can also see my progress over time as I continually stretch myself with new big, hairy audacious goals. (BHAGs as Jim Collins calls them in Built to Last.)

Some of the goals are about education, credentials and key experience that round out your experience as an IT leader, but they should be pursued because they help you be a better leader, not because everyone else is doing it.

If you find yourself in a room full of people, and you are quietly measuring yourself (and your qualifications) against theirs, you are severely limiting your potential as a leader.

I'd love to hear your feedback on this.

Maybe I'm the only one who was bothered by Impostor Syndrome... but I doubt it.


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