I have a confession to make. I am not good at my job. I’m not and I have no idea why everyone around me seems to think I am. I have gotten very lucky so far, and at some point soon I will mess up severely enough that everyone else will realize they were wrong about me. If only you all knew how much time I spend fumbling around not knowing what to do. Sometimes the things I don’t know are so basic that I am afraid to ask for help because I’d be announcing my incompetence. Every minute I am working I am stressed out because that could be the minute that I finally make the mistake that will finally make everyone discover the truth. The truth is, I am an imposter. Luck and happenstance have caused me to be successful, not competence or brilliance.
Sadly, my confession is not uniquely my own. Do you sometimes feel like you could have the same confession? Well, according to Dr. Bravata and her fellow researchers at Stanford School of Medicine, 82% of you do. These thoughts are the key hallmarks of what has now been called Imposter Syndrome. First described in 1978 by Clance and Imes, Imposter Syndrome describes an all too common belief that you are not as good at your job as people think you are, and that your successes were either not a big deal or were a result of luck. These beliefs then result in a fear of being found out, and all this fear and doubt severely impedes your decision making. After all, it is hard to make sound and objective decisions when you do not believe you are qualified to make them.
Have you ever been reluctant to raise your fees because you don’t think the service you provide is worth what you are charging? What would you charge if you had a more accurate understanding of your value? Are you dragging your feet on presenting a topic because you just don’t feel like you’re an expert yet? What is stopping you from hiring that next team member? Do you feel like you are not a strong enough business owner to cover their salary? What is stopping you from doing a new type of estate planning like Medicaid? Have you ever not called a potential networking professional, or asked for a referral relationship because you feel like their clients are too good for you? Did you feel like you would be asking for a favor instead of offering one? How long did you review that one plan in order to convince yourself it was done correctly? How long did you wait to ask for help out of fear of looking stupid? Each of these are examples of missed opportunities, extra hours worked, or lost revenue. Think of all the stress you have caused yourself, the anxiety, the time wasted that could have been spent with family. It is no wonder that Imposter Syndrome has been linked to career burnout.
Maybe by this point you are thinking, “Okay, just because I have Imposter Syndrome, doesn’t mean I’m not incompetent.” After all, you see how good all of your colleagues are and you are not on their level. This perception is likely caused by one of the foundational concepts in social psychology, The Fundamental Attribution Error. Simply put, the fundamental attribution error is the tendency we all have to believe other people’s actions are caused by who they innately are, and to believe that our actions are caused by our situation. In other words, “Gary is able to answer so many legal questions because he is a brilliant attorney,” yet “I was able to answer Gary’s question because I happened to have that similar case recently.” This tendency which is fundamental to the way our brains work, results in us downplaying our achievements and not recognizing our strengths, as well as blinding us to the circumstances that have allowed the other person to be successful. It’s one of the key causes of feeling like an imposter, but it isn’t the only one.
Have you ever found yourself arguing the law with someone who believes that watching every episode of Law & Order qualifies them for a law degree? It is truly inspiring how confidently incorrect they can be. How can someone who knows so little, be so certain in their knowledge, while you, who knows so much, are so uncertain? It turns out that it is precisely because you know so much that you are so uncertain. The Dunning-Kruger Effect (named after the Cornell psychologists that discovered it in 1999), states that when people know very little about something they are unable to understand how lacking their knowledge is and therefore are much more confident in their knowledge. Essentially they are too ignorant to be able to spot their ignorance. Unfortunately it also states that the inverse is true. When you know a lot about something, (such as the law), you become acutely aware of how much you still do not know, leading you to believe you are under qualified for your role.
Okay, so you aren’t incompetent, your brain just tricks you into thinking you are. Hopefully by this point you realize you are much more awesome than you think. If not, how can you shake the fear and self doubt? If you are still feeling like an imposter, what can you do? The good news is you have already done one of the most effective things! Like many things in psychology, understanding the phenomenon is a giant step towards overcoming it. Simply reading this blog could be enough to help some of you. If you were hoping for some more useful advice though, there is still a lot that you can do:
- Go easy on yourself. You are amazing at what you do and you likely are holding yourself to an unrealistically high standard. Treat yourself with the same grace and understanding that you would another coworker.
- Give up on perfection. You don’t need to know everything or have mastered something in order to be great at it.
- Admit and announce your failures. Mistakes can be wonderful! You learn from them and adapt. Share them with your colleagues. Do not be embarrassed of them. You may also be surprised when your colleagues then say they really were not as big of a deal as you thought they were.
- Recognize your successes. One of the tools used in the Peak Performers Program is an Achievement Journal. It is hard to think of yourself as an imposter when you have a book of evidence that points otherwise.
- Take credit for and celebrate your success. You are the reason you are successful, you aren’t lucky, you are good. So while you are journaling your successes, share them with your colleagues!
The last and possibly most powerful tool you have to fight Imposter Syndrome, is to talk about it. Remember, 82% of us are feeling it on any given day. We likely have all felt it at some point and, if everybody is an imposter, doesn’t it mean that nobody is? But what do I know? After all, I am terrible at my job. Share your stories below.
P.S. – Our Director of Member Services wanted me to add that she thinks I’m great at my job and that you are in great hands.
Practice Building Coach
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
9444 Balboa Avenue, Suite 300
San Diego, California 92123
Phone: (858) 453-2128
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