I’m Great at My Job. So Why Do I Feel Like a Fraud?

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S1: Most people at some point or other feel imposter syndrome up a voice in your head that says, what makes you think you can hold your own among all these other people around you? It’s the voice that tells you all the reasons why you are going to fail, why you’re not going to be successful, why you should be afraid that one day they’re going to find you out, that you actually don’t belong. And it was a mistake.

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S2: Welcome to How To I’m science writer David Epstein. You ever start a new job and it feels like absolutely everyone has the right experience except you or maybe excitedly take on some ambitious new project only to turn around right away and start wondering how you ever thought you could do this? Or maybe you showed up at an event, realized that everyone else got the memo to wear fancy giant face watches. So in order to fit in, you ran right out and bought a cheap knockoff that didn’t actually keep time. Never happened to me. OK, that totally happened to me. All those scenarios have and you know, I’m probably not alone.

S3: Hi, my name is Hannah. I am a fourth year medical student and I’ll be starting my residency this summer. I’m pretty excited about it.

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S2: Hene is about to become a practicing doctor, but she’s constantly doubting herself, that’s why she reached out to us about what is commonly called imposter syndrome.

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S3: The way I understand imposter syndrome, it’s like despite any evidence of, you know, merit or how good you are or anything like that, there’s this, like, overarching sense of being found out for for being a phony. And it kind of teeters the line of insecurity. But it’s it’s something it’s something deeper than that.

S2: Hannah says she worried about feeling like a phony all through med school, despite winning awards for her work. But recently, the feelings got even more intense when it came time to apply to a residency program. It’s a high stakes process called matching.

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S3: I had my top few choices that I really was kind of had my heart set on. I let myself get there and my passenger was like so high. It was like if I get my top choice, all it will do will delay when I get found out as this imposter. And if I don’t, you know, get my top choice, then maybe it’ll confirm I’m an imposter. It was like no matter what I was setting myself up for, like disappointment.

S2: Hannah didn’t get her top choice program, but she did get her first choice of an extremely competitive specialty. And so where does that leave your you know, your feelings of inadequacy or imposter syndrome?

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S3: I don’t know. I think it is kind of stalemate. And so now it’s it’s the reality is setting in that I’ll start work this summer and my medical clinical education was really disrupted with the coronavirus pandemic. And I have pretty significantly less clinical time then than previous graduates have. And so it’s like, do I embrace, like, the feeling of being an imposter or do I just like, wait for it to go away, you know?

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S2: And I mean, you are going to have people’s lives in your hands, right? So it’s not like the stakes are totally in your head with all this. Like the stakes are high.

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S3: Yeah. Like more than anything else, I just want to become an excellent physician. It’s disheartening to think that. The way I present myself could interfere in in my ability to to be an excellent physician, and that’s and that’s why I’m here, you know, that’s why I don’t want myself to get in the way of my of my career.

S2: Our expert this week, Shelly Archambeau, knows this feeling of inadequacy all too well. And you might be surprised to hear that, given that she’s not only worked as a big shot CEO in the tech world, but she’s a black woman who broke a glass ceiling after a glass ceiling in Silicon Valley.

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S1: Studies actually show that most people at some point or other fail imposter syndrome women more so than men and women of color are actually the most. So I can’t tell people how to get over it. I can tell you how to deal with it.

S2: On today’s show, how to fake it till you make it, you may never completely tame imposter syndrome, but you can learn to live and thrive with it. We’ll dive in after this quick break. When Shelley Archambeau was growing up, she decided that one day she was going to be a CEO but the rest of the world wasn’t always on that same page.

S1: I also grew up in the very racially charged 60s for elementary school and 70s. And I ended up fragrantly being the only black girl, not only in my class, sometimes in the grade, sometimes in the school. So I didn’t feel I belonged. And I know that all of that contributed to the ultimate imposter syndrome. You know, that I would feel so imposter syndrome was something that I just was always with me. I didn’t even know the name of it for the longest time. I just knew I had all the self-doubt, but I managed to do well anyway.

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S2: Well is an understatement. Shelly rose up the ranks at IBM over 15 years. She held domestic and international executive positions. She then went on to serve as the CEO of a top software company. And today she’s on the boards of a number of huge companies, including Verizon.

S1: But I’ll tell you, Hannah, I remember when I first got my very first management job, I walk into the office as a manager, right that very first day thinking I know what I’m supposed to do now, supposed to do this job. What made people think that I could actually do this job? Why did I want this job? Oh, my God. That same feeling. Right, would happen every time I get that next level, the thing that I strive so much for. And then you get it and you think, oh, my God, oh, my God, I don’t know if I’m cut out for this guy to figure out. I don’t know as much as they think I know. Right. All those things. So Imposter Syndrome raised its head every step of the way. What I learned, however, was a lot of people feel imposter syndrome. So it’s not just me. Yeah. All that little voice that’s just taken away at your brain. Turn that thing off. It’s not real. Then realize that you only get invited to the table if people feel you deserve it. So if you can’t believe in yourself, believe them.

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S2: Shelly, you’ve written and talked about the importance of having cheerleaders. Can you elaborate on that?

S1: Definitely. A cheerleader is the person or people in your life that are going to say, go, Hannah, go, Shelly. Come on, David. You got this right. It’s the person that is going to give you that energy, remind you how capable you are, really gets you ready for battle because life is hard. Life is a battle. So when we’re feeling like, oh, I don’t know if I should take this job right, I don’t really know enough, etc.. Well, no, no, no. They’re the ones who say, listen, they offered you the job. They obviously believe that you can do it right. So you can do this.

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S2: Hannah, do you have people like that?

S3: Yes. One of them is my older sister and one of them is my significant other. And they they both were just so happy for me and like and I was so afraid that they were going to be disappointed in the location or the program or whatever, that it was hard for me to even hear how happy they were for me. And it really helped me connect then genuinely myself get excited about it, too.

S2: Here’s our first rule, when you’re having trouble believing in yourself, believe other people take their praise at face value, especially from the people who gave you the job or the assignment in the first place, they obviously believe in you. Shelly, do you think there’s a difference between impostor syndrome and a general lack of self-confidence?

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S1: You know, I do. Imposter 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.

S2: Shelley said even now, with everything she’s done, she still feels bouts of imposter syndrome.

S1: When I became a director on the board of directors at this point, I’d been a CEO for about a decade. So this wasn’t a new thing. And I get ready to walk into the Verizon board meeting. I look and there’s the CEO of Walgreens. Oh, my God. That is the former secretary of transportation. And over there is the former chairman of the FCC. And I got to be able to hold my own in this role. I actually belong at this table. And then it was like, why did it Shaley? I’m a slob myself. It’s like, come on, you know, get over it and realize what it is. But did I feel it in the moment? I absolutely did. The good news is I know what it is, but it’s happening and are now able to slap myself out of it, if you will, like, wake up. Come on.

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S2: You just employed one of a recurring tip that comes up from research psychologist on this show, which is interrupting sort of 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, Shelly, come on.

S1: Yes, I did. It’s like, OK, take a deep breath, shoulders back, stand up straight and walk in like your confidence. Fake it, if you will, because at the end of the day, you got to figure it out.

S3: That really, really resonated with me, you know, changing your posture and your body language and your self. Talk to really just almost like muscle through it in a way.

S2: Bolstering your confidence through posture and projection and using distance self talk, that’s all great. But remember how he said, I believe other people who believe in you. What about when those other people are doing the opposite, doubting your abilities? How can you handle the haters?

S1: One of the big messages I learned growing up from my 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 meant 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 innuendos and all that stuff that I received, I wouldn’t be able to walk. I would be so happy. And the mantra in my head was, you don’t know me, so 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 examples recently. Oh, Shelly, you’re on the board of Verizon. Oh, it’s so nice that they’re focused on diversity.

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S2: Uh, how do you respond to something like that?

S1: In my head, what I say is key for a person. Are you so insecure that the only way you feel good about yourself is trying to make me feel badly for something? That’s how I reframe it my whole life. I reframe everything, like I said. Otherwise I can’t I can’t accept it. I just can’t carry it. So I just reframe it. They’ll say something like that. Oh, how nice. It’s nice to focus on diversity. And I’ll say, yes, actually, Verizon’s had a diverse board for years, years before I got there.

S2: So here’s another one of Shelly’s tips. Decide what you’re willing to be judged on. Don’t fall into the trap of judging yourself according to other people’s standards.

S1: For example, I like to give is my daughter. My daughter was born with thick, curly hair. And so to tame Taimur hair, you brush to comb, but it is best to braid it. Did my husband know how to braid hair? No. Six foot two for the football player. Big hands right now. Did he. Did he need to learn? You bet he did. Which means for the couple 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. OK, now she’s in preschool, OK? She’s in preschool. But, you know, her parts are crooked, one grades higher than the other. And I know for a fact, but she we get to school, people be like, well, where’s her mother? How could they let her out of the house? Look at like that. Right. I wasn’t willing to be judged on it. And let me tell you, in a couple of months, Scottie became really good and she looked great. He was confident, worked out wonderfully. But the piece I like to share is one of the days of Scotty did her hair in the earlier days, she had picture 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. She’s far right, but she’s just didn’t care. Well, we still have that picture on the wall to this day because it’s the perfect example of we 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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S2: Ignoring other people’s judgment, that’s a lot easier to say than to actually do when we come back handl. Tell us about a time when someone she really trusted. This was another medical professional, actually just straight up told her you can’t hack it in med school. How do you overcome that? Stick around. We’re back with our expert, Shelly Archambeau and Hannah, who originally wrote to us at How to its Slate Dotcom. If you have a problem that needs solving, you can do the same. Like so many people, both Shelly and Hannah have struggled with imposter syndrome. Hannah remembers one particular moment when an authority figure actually seemed to validate her feelings of inadequacy.

S3: Honestly, I wanted to be a doctor since I was like in the third grade, but I have some difficulties with reading and so it just takes me a little longer. But I have the compensatory strategies that allow me to really overcome that. Before starting medical school, I was I got some help from from like I practiced that kind of helps, like, different types of learning, coaching and things like that. And I was in the process of applying to medical school and there was a psychiatrist there who pulled me aside and said, you will never get in and you will never make it. I just like and he phrased it in a way to like, do me a favor, you know, to kind of like not even try and like it. You should consider your other options. And and I think it stuck with me in that, like, maybe that’s that’s a big part of it to me.

S2: But that what you just described with psychiatry, I mean, that’s pretty that’s pretty harrowing. And in the Chelly school of reframing, I would say the fact that you overcame that, I hope is something you can draw on to say I did that. Like I put that behind me.

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S3: There were times when I wish I had I wasn’t in medical school anymore or I thought about dropping out. But it was yeah, it was presented in a way that was pretty hurtful.

S2: And yet here you are.

S1: Yes, I suppose so. People are sometimes made to feel badly about why a door got opened. So when I tell people all the time is it doesn’t matter why the door got open for you. Doors open, opening for people for all kinds of reasons. Before that had nothing to do with their achievements or their record or their capability. Right. All a door opening does is to give you an opportunity. The only thing that matters is what you do when you get on the other side.

S3: That gave me chills, made me think about all the times that I feel like. I didn’t really quite deserve something and and actually it’s like maybe it was OK that I got these things like like sometimes I wonder. So one of my interviewers when I interviewed at the medical school that I’m graduating from was coincidentally turned. We found out, like partway through is like the parent of somebody I went to high school with back in the day. And I was. And then I’ve always wondered, is that why I got in? Because because of that, you know, and it but it’s like, why does it matter? Like, I use this? And that’s what gave me chills of, like, it. What does it matter if as long as I do something with that and in my mind, do something positive with that?

S2: Here’s another rule. I worry about doing something positive with your opportunity, not about why you got it in the first place. Doors open for all sorts of random reasons. What matters is what you do next. I’m interested in this issue that because of covid, you’re going in with less experience than you normally would have had. And I wonder if that just means you’re just going to ask. You have to ask for help a little more often than if you had had more experience. And Chelly, wonder if you could talk a little bit about asking for help.

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S1: I believe that asking for help is a strength and not a weakness. The reason I feel that way is if you look, nobody’s accomplished anything of significance all by themselves. And therefore, why should I think that I could do that? That’s the lesson that I learned. I was at IBM and I wish I’d learned it earlier. I think I was a second line manager by that point and I was taking over a new role. It was actually a brand new initiative that IBM was rolling out. And my boss said to me, he said, you know, Shelly, there’s a guy in Baltimore who’s actually been involved in getting this initiative off the ground. So he’s been doing it for about six months. Why don’t you go talk to him? So I traveled to Baltimore, met with him, got some insights and perspective, the whole. But I came back and I felt so much more confident and I was like, I’m going to do that from now on. There’s always people who have done these jobs before I get them. Why didn’t I think to do this before?

S2: Here’s another rule, ask for help. Shelly says you don’t have to phrase it as a plea for aid, it can be an invitation for someone to give you advice. Like, I’d love to hear your perspective. After all, people like to be helpful and they love to talk about themselves. Shelly, what about when you actually because Hannah will have this when you actually do fail, not you’re not just feeling like you failed, but actually you do fail at something. What about, you know, picking yourself back up from that in a way that doesn’t just magnify that imposter syndrome of like, you know, the imposter syndrome was proven, right?

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S1: Oh, definitely. And you know, the story I’ll share because it really helped shape my overall view around failure. I was goodness, I was probably just a few years into my career and I had sold this big deal right at drugstores. Rite Aid was going to buy IBM point of sale at all the computer equipments to support the point of sale for all of their thousands of stores. This was a big deal. It had huge visibility in the company. Executives flew in and met with the CEO. I mean, this is high visibility, high praise. Everybody’s excited. This is great. Well, about a month before equipment start shipping, the CEO calls me into his office and tells me they’ve changed their mind. What wow, what? 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, I mean, everybody this wasn’t like this little deal that no one knew about. This was huge. When people see me, it’s almost like this. But a death. Oh, Shelly, I can’t. What happened, right? Oh, my God. It’s awful. Oh, so I come home. It’s like probably the third day of this right. To come home. I guess it’s like, how are you? And I said, I’m not good. This has just been awful. I just can’t believe this. Blah, blah, blah, blah. So I’m just so down. And he looks at me and he says, Shelly, the mourning period is over. And I’m like, What? And he’s like, You are the same person you were three days ago before you got the news. So this is a change who you are. Yes, you failed. But you’re only a failure if you don’t move on from it. You don’t learn from it.

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S2: Here’s our final rule failure doesn’t mean that you’re the imposture you’ve always feared you are. You can’t control everything. Stuff happens. The real failure would be to let a setback define you. Do you think there can actually be any benefits to impostor syndrome? I mean, people you know, athletes talk all the time about the benefit to having sort of a chip on your shoulder and people not believing in you. Do you think impostor syndrome can be used to your advantage in any way?

S1: Well, I think one thing that can absolutely do is keep you humble, right? It’s based upon our conversation with Hannah. I don’t think Hannah’s walking out there tomorrow, said your world. I got this covered. So get in line and follow my path of experience. Who needs that? Right. Exactly right. So I do. So I do think that imposter syndrome does keep you humble. And I think when you’re humble, you’re more likely to listen, you’re more likely to learn, you’re more likely to want to continue to grow and develop.

S3: I think just one remaining question I have for you is like, is there like a like a tangible day to day thing that you can do to kind of, you know, keep imposter syndrome at bay or like, is there a preventative action rather than, you know, treating the acute symptom menace as

S1: a really good question? I haven’t necessarily found here’s the preventative piece. My best advice is it’s sometimes easier to manage imposter syndrome when you feel more in control of what you’re doing. So I always encourage people to be proactive in managing your own career. A lot of people abdicate that. They get all the education that they need. They get their credentials, they get the training. They invest a lot. And then they let someone else decide what they’re going to go do when they couldn’t take on new assignments, right. When they can do this and make them much better, if you actually think through, what do you want? Let others know what you want and then work towards that end by being in control of what you’re doing and setting those goals and objectives and then achieving them can help you work through the imposter syndrome.

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S3: Yeah, it puts things into perspective of like, you know, if you’re working towards your goals, like what does it matter how how graceful he

S1: says, you know,

S2: and I mean, so many things you’ve done, you’re you are overcoming imposter syndrome. You know, you’re doing these things. I appreciate you sharing your story, your vulnerability. And I’m encouraged that that someone like you will be going into the medical field. So I’m happy about it. Oh, that’s so nice.

S3: Thank you. That’s very nice of you to say.

S2: Thank you to Hannah for sharing your story with us. And thanks to Shelly Archambeau for her great advice. Be sure to look for her book, unapologetically ambitious, take risks, break barriers and create success on your own terms. And if you enjoyed this episode, be sure to check out how to be a badass on and off the court featuring a woman who wants to be more competent in her tennis game and at the office. And if you’ve ever suffered from imposter syndrome and you heard something useful today, please let us know that by leaving a rating and a review wherever you listen that helps us find more listeners so we can solve more problems. And finally, if you’d like to support how to, I hope you’ll consider signing up for Slate. Plus, it’s just one dollar for the first month and you’ll get zero ads on all Slate podcasts, including this one to sign up. Go to Slate Dotcom. How to plus. How TOS executive producers Derek John, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produced the show. Our theme music is by Hannis Brown, remixed by Merritt Jacob. Our technical director, Charles Duhigg, our host emeritus, is faking it till he makes it somewhere. I’m David Epstein. See you next time.