Have you ever been about to do something only to stop and think, why the **** do I think I’m qualified to do this? Instead of starting to work on your presentation, article, or business plan, you thought you’re not experienced enough, smart enough. Not good enough.
This tiny nagging voice dragging you down whenever you’re stepping out of your comfort zone is called the Impostor syndrome.
I’ve been personally fighting this feeling for years. Even writing this article, I stopped in my tracks several times thinking “Noone wants to read that”, “You don’t know enough to talk about this” and “You suck, dude”. Yep, experiencing impostor syndrome while writing an article about impostor syndrome. Very META.
Despite that, I decided to put together this write-up to show you how devastating impostor syndrome can be when applied to the reality of marketing and to help anyone who feels the same.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Impostor syndrome was first identified in a study from 1978. The study showed high achieving women “share the same tendency to ignore evidence that they’re intelligent and imagine everyone has made a mistake in assuming they are”.
Since then it’s been proven, that impostor syndrome is not exclusive to women and that it affects everyone to a certain degree.
So in simpler words, Impostor syndrome is the feeling of not deserving your success. Sounds simple enough, but there’s one tricky caveat. Oftentimes it doesn’t get better, but worse. As you get more successful and more senior, everyone’s expectations of you rise as well. With those expectations grows your internal fear of being discovered for the fraud you perceive yourself to be. Ironic, isn’t it?
How to recognize impostor syndrome?
For starters, despite sometimes feeling similar, impostor syndrome is not the same as having low confidence. While people suffering from lack of confidence feel this way all the time, impostor syndrome hits us at times when we feel most vulnerable. Usually, as we’re about to take that step outside of our comfort zone.
Some telltale signs of impostor syndrome are:
You are afraid to start something out of fear of failure.
You feel like you’re not meeting others expectations even when you are.
You apologize even when you’ve done nothing wrong (disregard if you’re Canadian :) )
You brush off praise as unwarranted.
You hold yourself to borderline unmeetable standards.
You feel you got to where you are by being lucky instead of talented.
Why does having Impostor syndrome suck in marketing?
Let’s start with the most obvious one - the lack of action. If you question your competence every time you start something challenging, you are paralyzed by your fear. It takes you ages to start something, that’s if you muster up the strength to start at all.
That brings me to my second point - great ideas getting lost. How many times did you scrap a great idea due to fear of failure only to see someone else run with it and succeed later? You miss 100% of shots you don’t take. Now take a moment to consider you’re not the only one. It’s estimated that 70% of people suffer from impostor syndrome. Just imagine how many fantastic ideas could’ve been generated by members of your team or organization. If nothing else, this should be reason enough to talk about impostor syndrome openly with your team.
Impostor syndrome can also limit your learning and personal growth by avoiding challenging situations that “put you out there”. Maybe you don’t accept the speaking invitation, don’t publish that article, or refuse to give that presentation. In an industry where communication is so highly valued, this can be a very detrimental thing for your career as well.
For example, it took me years of moping to start producing content and I still have to force myself to do it. I can only dream of what could’ve been if I first started without overanalyzing all those years ago.
People suffering from impostor syndrome often pass up on promotions and other career advancement opportunities. This can lead to a stale career full of resentment and regrets.
TL;DR: Despite all the data, algorithms, and new tech, marketing is at its core still a creative industry. If you don’t believe in your ideas, it will be difficult for you to get others invested and interested in them.
How to manage Impostor syndrome?
Now that we’ve firmly established that impostor syndrome sucks for you as a marketer, let’s see what we can do about it.
Everyone feels this way
First of all, it’s ok to feel this. Impostor syndrome affects 70% of all people, so it’s not just you. I’ll allow myself a little cliche here, so bear with me as I’m about to quote Steve Jobs. Every time I start to feel this way, I remind myself of one specific quote Steve Jobs gave at an interview in 1994. “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again”.
I’m often paralyzed by thinking people will hate what I write, produce, say, or do. This comes from a feeling of not knowing enough...of not knowing more. Chances are that those people you are so afraid of know far less than you do. And maybe, just maybe you could actually help them with what you’re about to say, write or do. Speaking of not knowing enough…
Expertise is a journey
You don’t need to know EVERYTHING for your opinion to be valuable. Sharing your opinion doesn’t mean you’re declaring yourself a world’s leading authority on the subject.
You don’t know everything but you probably know something that might be useful to others, who know even less than you. And there’s always plenty of those.
In the 4-hour workweek Tim Ferris writes that if you’ve read 3 books on a subject, you already know more than 99% of people, though take that with a grain of salt (as with anything related to Tim Ferris...the guy tends to hype a lot).
On the other side of the spectrum, despite knowing more than most accept that there will always be other people who know more than you. Pretending you know the best 100% of the time is a surefire way to fail as demonstrated in this quote: “Someone is always going to walk through that front door who knows more about wine than you do. If you guess at an answer or make something up, that person will know it. And now you’ve now lost their trust. If you can’t answer, tell them you need to look it up. If they walk away, they’re not worth having as a customer, anyway.”
Say YES to opportunities
Fear of failure is one of the strongest aspects of impostor syndrome. As a result, we often pass on opportunities not because we’re not ready, but because we’re afraid to try.
It’s important to learn to recognize the difference, but as a rule of thumb, when not sure, just say Yes. It will open more doors for you. When I started freelancing, I wasn’t 100% sure of my abilities. I’ve had plenty of experience under my belt, but the thought of signing my name under the work without the protective umbrella of the company brand scared me at first.
Nevertheless, I decided to say “Yes” to every request I got. I created content strategies, wrote copy, designed landing pages, and managed to acquire several clients, and received multiple job offers in the process. If I said no, chances are my freelancing business would’ve never taken off, and I’d still be working the same job I did when I started.
If my rant did not convince you, Richard Branson seems to think the same: "If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you are not sure you can do it, say yes. Then learn how to do it later."
Once you say YES it’s important to keep pushing through. Yes, even if the results are not that impressive in the beginning. When in doubt, remember the words of Ernest Hemmingway “The first draft of anything is shit.”
Save social proof
Once you finish your work, save every scrap of positive feedback you get. I recommend you make a feel-good folder where you can store screenshots of any praise, positive feedback, and happy comments you receive on your work. This can be comments from your coworkers, clients, or people who consume your content for example.
Mine is called “Happy noises”. When I start to feel imposter syndrome crawl back, all I have to do is go back to it and read some of it to remind myself of...well of how awesome I am :).
Consider the odds
Ask yourself the question “Is it possible to achieve all I have ever achieved by sheer good luck alone?” When you consider all the variables, the answer is it’s not only unlikely, it’s damn right impossible.
Sure, good luck might have helped you at one point or another, but it’s your talent, skills, and attitude that allowed you to get to that point in the first place.
The feeling of being an impostor is not gonna go away on its own. On the contrary, it might get even worse the more successful you become, so it’s critical to stay aware of it.
However, if you use these tips next time you feel “not worthy” and review your successes regularly, you should be able to manage it and live with it. As Douglas Adams said, “You live and learn. At any rate, you live.”