Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
Finding the You-Shaped Hole in the World
Imposter syndrome—the belief that you are less capable or competent than you appear—is something many of us face in our lives. It can strike at any time, but it’s often most severe in our careers, where everyone evolves at a different pace and there’s not a universal roadmap to success.
When we go through school, we have this idea that we can master anything. We just have to show up to class, take notes, and memorize whatever it takes to get an A on our assignments. We follow this formula, moving from grade to grade and passing every class.
Then we get to the workforce, and we are lost. There's always someone smarter, someone better, someone faster than us. What then? We start to question ourselves—am I really as smart as others think? Do I really have what it takes? When will my coworkers realize that I’m not as skilled as they are? This leads us to push ourselves even harder, striving to always be the best at everything we do.
But we forget that perfection is impossible. I learned long ago that if you compete to be the best at everything, you are destined to fail. The key to overcoming imposter syndrome is not to master everything, but to focus on finding your niche: the you-shaped hole in the world that no one else can fill. By dedicating yourself to making your own impact, you can free yourself from comparisons to others and silence your self-doubt.
Evolve your job
What are you good at? What brings you joy?
You have something special to offer the world, and if you haven't figured out what it is yet, you're doing yourself a disservice. Maybe you’re a problem-solver, a brainstormer, or an artist. Maybe you’re good at working with people, or maybe you’re able to see things that others don’t.
Sometimes you start a job, and the work isn't quite right. It can be tempting to give in to imposter syndrome and back away, especially if it feels like everyone around you is excelling. However, even if a job isn’t immediately the right fit, that doesn’t mean it will never be. You have an opportunity to shape your role into one that allows you to thrive.
If your job could look however you wanted it to, how would it look? Take the time to identify what it is that you're wonderful at, as well as what you hate doing. Once you know what brings you fulfillment, you can figure out how to stretch your role toward those areas while reducing the load in the areas where you don’t thrive.
I was originally hired by Facebook as a product marketer. At the time, you had to have a computer science degree to be a product manager, so I couldn’t get a PM role the traditional way. I wasn’t particularly good at product marketing, but that was how I got in the door. What I was really good at was figuring out a strategy to deliver the products that we wanted, so I began to shape the job to be more like a product strategy role. Over time, I started taking on some areas of product execution that the PM I worked with didn't have time to cover. Eventually, my manager—and his manager—realized that the work I was doing was no different than a PM's, and so I moved over to product management to add value to the company.
Even if you start out in a role where you're not thriving, you can find ways to evolve it into one that won’t leave you feeling like an imposter. Find one or two areas where you excel, and start taking on more work in those areas. Show your impact, and your managers will take notice. Your confidence will build, and you will be able to hone your skills while shaping your job into the one you want.
Find ways to amplify your superpower
I have worked with many incredible women leaders over the years, and I’ve been lucky enough to learn something from each of them. They all had these incredible superpowers—talents that were unique to them—and as I embarked on the journey of writing my book and starting this newsletter, I wished they would share them more widely.
That’s why I am so excited that Ami Vora started a Substack, The Hard Parts of Growth, and Naomi Gleit started a Medium, Naomi-isms. Both of them have amazing abilities that have been hidden for so long, and now they're sharing them with the world.
Sometimes you don’t know how much you have to offer until you share your gifts with others. By putting your thoughts out there, you are allowing other people to benefit from your wisdom. Maybe you think you're not qualified to write (I certainly didn’t think I was when I started this journey). Maybe you think you don't have the time, or that your lessons won’t be valued. Odds are, you’re already sharing your superpower with others every day—you just don’t realize it. And trust me when I say that even if your advice only touches one or two people, it's worth sharing.
So many people have great insights, but they silence their voices and stand on the sidelines. Resist the urge, and amplify your talents by sharing them with the world. It will make a difference, both for you and for others.
Find a place (and a team) that values you
I often tell candidates that they should look for a job where their special skills and talents are needed. I also urge them to seek out a manager who sees the magic in them, and who is willing to shape their role to benefit the company while allowing them to learn and grow. That is how they're going to thrive and shine.
Think about a time you worked with someone who supported you unconditionally. Now think about a time you worked with someone who made you feel like you were pushing a rock uphill. The difference is enormous.
When you have the support of your manager and your team, it feels like the wind is at your back, and the conditions are right for you to align and excel. When you lack that encouragement, every day is fraught with friction and frustration. You feel like you’re constantly having to reprove yourself and justify your work.
A manager who supports you is the antidote to imposter syndrome. A manager who doesn't actually exacerbates it. Prioritize finding teams and supervisors who are invested in your success. It will do wonders for your growth and well-being.
Seek out allies
Having a supportive manager is critical for combating impostor syndrome in the workplace, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop there. When you face challenges, having other allies to support and encourage you will help you conquer self-doubt.
When you are alone, you question yourself and your abilities. But if you have a cheer section in the room with you, amplifying your ideas and pushing back against those who interrupt you, the experience is completely different. These allies are your cheerleaders, your coaches, and your team members. They're the ones who will remind you that your idea is worth fighting for, even when others don't agree. They're the ones who will support you when things get tough. They're the ones who will pick you up when you fall and celebrate your achievements.
Nobody succeeds alone. Building a circle of people who will be in your corner, even when things are tough, is one of the biggest favors you can do for yourself. Having allies can make all the difference between giving in to self-doubt and climbing to new heights.
Be better at something else
It’s easy to compare yourself to others and get discouraged. You see someone who’s excellent at what they do, and imposter syndrome creeps in—you start asking yourself, “How will I ever be as skilled as they are?”
What if, rather than focusing so much on all the things you haven’t mastered, you focused instead on the things you have?
I find that it is easier to not feel like an imposter when I am really good at something else, something I can lean on when I start to doubt my own abilities. For me, that thing is a learning mindset. I’ve realized that being an expert at learning means I don't have to be the best at everything—or anything. I’m confident in my ability to learn and research and adapt, something that sets me apart from others. I will try harder, I will work more if necessary. I strive to grow and learn, to always be improving, and to approach everything with curiosity and openness.
I have found that this gives me a lot more confidence. When I walk into a room, even though I'm not the smartest or the best, I can hold my own by tapping into my ability to learn. By leaning into my strength in quickly collecting and assimilating information, I’m able to be comfortable in most circumstances, even when I don’t have all the answers.
You may not be as talented at something as someone else, but that doesn’t mean you have nothing to add. Lean into the things you know you’re good at, and seek to leverage those skills. Not only will you reduce imposter syndrome, but you will find new and unique ways to contribute.
Beating imposter syndrome is about finding the you-shaped hole in the world, the niche that only you can fill. Identify your strengths, play to them, and seek out ways to amplify them.
Remember, it's okay to not be number one in the class. Instead, focus on figuring out how to be the best you that you can be. Seek out a place where that is valued, somewhere you can thrive and feel like you’re doing your very best work. People often ask me where that is. I can only tell you that when you're there, you can feel it. Play your own game, rather than trying to be the best at someone else’s. This is the key to breaking free of self-doubt and finding confidence and fulfillment in your work.
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