What's The Deal With Imposter Syndrome?
When I was about 15 or 16, I got a job at an upmarket chain coffee shop/bakery. It was in a middle-class area of London (Note: my impression is that middle-class has a slightly different meaning in the UK to the US - we use it to mean fairly wealthy and bourgeois, see this Reddit discussion for more) and I apparently performed better at interviews than the other people applying because none of them got offered the role despite having a few years of barista experience where I had none. My interview prep was pretty simple, I looked up the history of the company and wrote down some spiel about how I shared the company’s values, loved the idea of waking up to the smell of fresh bread at the bakery (Ha! Waking up at 4am to get into the bakery in the early morning was awful), and couldn’t imagine anything more exciting than working at an expanding and fast-growing business.
When I started doing the actual job I thought I was pretty much terrible at it. I dropped a £24 cheesecake on my first day, I really struggled making the lattes and cappuccinos, I could barely remember customers’ orders, etc. When I told friends/family about this, a few comments came up repeatedly: you wouldn’t have got the job if you didn’t have something about you that they wanted, it’s your first week and you’re almost certainly overstating how bad you are, you’ll get much better at the job as you get more experience, etc. They were definitely being sincere, it wasn’t that they were trying to cheer me up with platitudes, they actually thought all this stuff was true. I quit the job a few weeks in because I hated it and thought I was awful, and about a month after that I bumped into one of the women who had worked there. I asked what she thought of me as a colleague, and she made it clear that my perception about myself had been totally right. She informed me that sometimes she would go and ask me to clear up some mess in the back and I would forget to do it, that my coffees were much worse than other new hires, and so on. I did suck at the job! I was right!
There’s a post on Reddit that I saw a year ago that stuck with me, and you can read it here but I’ll quote the relevant passage:
I love the not-so-new phenomenon of journos and other media dilettantes posting about their battle with “impostor syndrome,” when they are actually correctly diagnosing the fact that they’re intellectually vacuous frauds who’ve found themselves in whatever vaguely cushy position they currently have through a combination of sheer luck and social connections (the fruits of which usually amount to luck) … No, you’re not imagining anything, it’s really that bad.
I think there’s some truth in this. Every kind of job is inevitably going to have some people who are basically shit at their job and some people who are amazing at it. My guess here is that ‘Imposter Syndrome’ occurs disproportionately in the people who are shit at their job. They think they’re shit, they’re accurate about it, and tell themselves that they have Imposter Syndrome as a way of feeling better about it. I know that some people are genuinely great at their jobs and think they’re bad anyway, and that there’s sort of a case that if someone is terrible at their job and think that they’re terrible they can’t really have imposter syndrome by definition. But I do think that a lot of the people who think they have imposter syndrome probably are the people who lucked themselves into some high-earning career.
There’s a study about Imposter Syndrome that I read that was kinda interesting. They found that people with Imposter Syndrome have worse economic outcomes than people without it (they measured Imposter Syndrome using a questionnaire that included statements like ‘I can give the impression that I’m more competent than I really am’). Their explanation is that people with lower self-esteem are more likely to undervalue themselves and less likely to negotiate for a raise, look for other opportunities, etc. They show that the correlation is partially mediated by other factors, like knowledge of the job market, career adaptability, and so on. But it seems like an alternative explanation is just that these people are worse at their jobs. To be honest, not having much knowledge about the field you work in sounds like it could be evidence that these people are worse at their jobs, rather than evidence that they are undervaluing themselves and failing to explore other options (admittedly, both are plausible explanations).
I wanted to throw one study in this piece because it is basically just based on my own impressions, and I’d like to hear from people who have the opposite impression. But most of the time I meet someone who claims to have ‘Imposter Syndrome’, it does often seem like they’ve been extremely lucky to end up where they are. Attributing your career success to external factors and your career setbacks to personal inadequacies is the main symptom of Imposter Syndrome, but it’s also a rational analysis for someone who got lucky to be where they are. Let me know what you think in the comments or reach me on Twitter.
EDIT 25/04/22: Reading this article back it seems a bit unkind. Here’s a great post about what having imposter syndrome is actually like. I think my analysis isn’t necessarily completely wrong but I do think it didn’t create much value and I sort of regret writing it.
Another factor is how Impostor Syndrome has suffered from definition creep (like every concept that gets popular). Brene Brown defined guilt vs shame as "I did something bad" vs "I am bad", with the former being a lot healthier. I'd argue that Impostor Syndrome Classic(tm) is shame in the work context. I'm sure that it arises from a mix of factors, as this post discusses.
But I want to split out the "I did a specific thing wrong (and guilt about it)" thing, which some people can lump into into Impostor Syndrome. I think it's simply "mistakes are frustrating". But mistakes are the price that we pay for working in complex, slow-feedback, vague-goals environments. The right mindset for preventing guilt from weighing you down might be quite different than for shame. In particular, I try to take a broader prospective, both in terms of my performance across time and compared to others. Of course, if that analysis were to stop making me feel better, it might be time to question whether I am, in fact, an impostor to the role that I'd found myself in at that point.
 https://armchairexpertpod.com/pods/brene-brown-returns (RT =/= blanket endorsement)
Some odd ideas:
1. Imposter Syndrome hurts those that are high in Neuroticism, while low in Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. (low Alpha or Stability Metatrait) https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0191886900002282
2. There might be a relationship between Imposter Syndrome, Dunning-Kruger Effect, and Piety as an attractive behavior https://theredqueen.substack.com/p/dunning-kruger-power-effect
3. This social effect is tied to pedagogy, childhood problems, and "Curse of Development" https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2010/04/14/the-gervais-principle-iii-the-curse-of-development/