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How To Beat Impostor Syndrome

Former tech CEO Shellye Archambeau on an all-too-common fear people have at work.

Three men at a table looking at one woman.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

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“Do I actually belong at this table?” We’ve all probably all asked ourselves this question at some point—whether we’re starting a new job, taking on a big project, receiving an unexpected award—but we rarely expect to hear it from other people. Especially someone serving on the board of a Fortune 500 company. But on a recent episode of How To!, Shellye Archambeau, author of Unapologetically Ambitious, a former Silicon Valley CEO, and current board member for Verizon and Nordstrom, opened up about the impostor syndrome she has battled throughout her career. “I can’t tell people how to get over it,” Shellye confessed. “But I can tell you how to deal with it.” This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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David Epstein: Shellye, can you walk us through how you got to where you are?

Shellye Archambeau: I grew up in the very racially charged ’60s and ’70s. In elementary school I ended up frequently being the only black girl, not only in my class but sometimes in the grade, sometimes in the school. I didn’t feel I belonged. And I know that all of that contributed to the ultimate impostor syndrome that I would feel. So impostor syndrome was something that was always with me. I didn’t even know the name of it for the longest time—I just knew I had self-doubt. But the good news is I had good support and family. I joined IBM in technology because that was a growing industry. It was also a very white male-dominated industry, but I managed to do well anyway.

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I remember when I got my very first management job and I walked into the office that very first day thinking I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. What made people think that I could actually do this job? Why did I want this job? That same feeling would happen every time I’d get to that next level. What I learned, however, was that a lot of people feel impostor syndrome, so it’s not just me. Realize that you get invited to the table only if people feel you deserve it. So if you can’t believe in yourself, believe them.

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Do you think there’s a difference between impostor syndrome and a general lack of self-confidence? 

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I do. Impostor syndrome is something that doesn’t sit with you all the time. It typically flares up in specific moments. It’s almost transactional versus a lack of self-confidence is there all the time.

Let me give you an example. When I became a director on the board of Verizon, I’d been a CEO for about a decade so this wasn’t a new thing. But I walk into the Verizon board meeting, and there’s the CEO of Walgreens. There’s the former Secretary of Transportation. And there is the former Chairman of the SEC. Am I going to be able to hold my own in this room? Do I actually belong at this table? And then it was like, wait a minute, Shellye, come on, you know, get over it. The good news is I know what it is when it’s happening and I’m now able to slap myself out of itl. It’s like wake up, Shellye, come on. 

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You just employed a recurring tip that often comes up on this show from a research psychologist, which is interrupting negative self-talk using so-called distanced self-talk where you refer to yourself in the second- or third-person like you just did saying, “Shellye, come on.”

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It’s like, OK, take a deep breath, shoulders back, stand up straight, and walk in like you’re confident. Fake it, if you will, because at the end of the day, you’re going to figure it out.

You’ve written and talked about the importance of having cheerleaders. Can you elaborate on that? 

Definitely. A cheerleader is the person in your life that is going to say, Go, Shellye, go. Come on, David, you’ve got this. It’s a person that is going to give you that energy and remind you how capable you are. So when we’re feeling like, oh, I don’t know if I should take this job because I don’t really know enough, they’re the ones who say, listen, they offered you the job. They obviously believe that you can do it. You can do this. 

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What about when people are actually telling you that you can’t do this? 

One of the big messages I learned growing up from my parents was you can’t control what people say to you, but you can control how you respond. So don’t let them win. And letting them win means if you let them control or impact how you feel, especially how you feel about yourself. Especially as a black woman in America, if I actually absorbed all of the slights and comments and bias and innuendoes that I received, I wouldn’t be able to walk. The mantra in my head was, You don’t know me. So if you don’t know me, you have no right to judge me or tell me what I can or cannot do. I can give you an example recently. [Someone said,] “Oh, Shellye, you’re on the board of Verizon. It’s so nice that they’re focused on diversity.”

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And how do you respond to something like that? 

In my head what I say is, “Are you so insecure that the only way you feel good about yourself is trying to make me feel bad for something?” That’s how I’ve reframed it my whole life. I reframe everything; otherwise I can’t accept it. I just can’t carry it. They’ll say something like “Oh, how nice to focus on diversity” and I’ll say “Yes, [they] actually had a diverse board for years before I got there.”

Another example I like to give is my daughter was born with thick, curly hair. It’s best to braid it. Did my husband know how to braid hair? No! A 6-foot-2 former football player with big hands? No. Did he need to learn? You bet he did, which means for the couple of months that he’s learning how to take care of his daughter’s hair, she’s going to school with the hair looking pretty jacked up. She’s in preschool, but, you know, her parts are crooked and one braid is higher than the other. I know for a fact she would get to school and people would be like, well, where’s her mother? How could they let her out of the house looking like that? I wasn’t going to be judged on it. And let me tell you, in a couple of months, [my husband] became really good and she looked great. But this is the piece I like to share—during one of the earlier days [my husband did her hair], it was picture day. One braid had come loose, fallen down, and was unraveling, and the other one was still pinned across the top of her head. And there she is, all big smiles in her picture. We still have that picture on the wall to this day because it’s the perfect example of how we have got to live by our values, by what we’re willing to be judged on—not what the world wants to judge us on.

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When it comes to failures, how do you pick yourself back up from something like that in a way that doesn’t just magnify that, you know, the impostor syndrome was proven right?

The story I’ll share really helped shape my overall view about failure. I was probably just a few years into my career and had sold this big deal with Rite Aid drugstores. Rite Aid was going to buy IBM point of sale and all the computer equipment to support the point of sale for their thousands of stores. This was a big deal. It had huge visibility in the company. Executives flew in and met with the CEO. Everybody’s excited. This is great. Well, about a month before the equipment starts shipping, the CEO calls me into his office and tells me they’ve changed their mind. So not only am I going to miss my quota as a result of this, but now I have to go back and tell everybody—and I mean, everybody. People see me, and it’s almost like there’s been a death. “Oh, Shellye, I heard what happened.” So I come home on the third day of this, and my husband says, “How are you?” And I said, “Not good. This has just been awful. I just can’t believe this. Blah, blah, blah, blah.” And he looks at me and he says, “Shellye, the mourning period is over.” I’m like, “What?” And he says, “You are the same person you were three days ago before you got the news. So this doesn’t change who you are. Yes, you failed. But you’re only a failure if you don’t move on from it.”

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To hear Shellye help a soon-to-be doctor suffering from a bout of impostor syndrome, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! wherever you get your podcasts. 

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