PM Articles > Carl Pritchard > Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome

By Carl Pritchard, PMP, PMI-RMP

I'm not really a doctor, but I play one on TV.

For most of us, that old Vicks® commercial rang far too true. I'm not really a manager ... I'm not really a dad ... I'm not really a technical expert ... pick from the list. But for now? You are. It's not that you're pretending to be whatever it is. You ARE. If you can't convince yourself, you're going to have a heckuva time convincing others.

While reading about imposter syndrome recently, I found that many articles talked about a nasty habit many sufferers live with -- overachievement. It's not enough for someone with imposter syndrome to achieve; they have to hyper-achieve. When my boss told me I'd be writing my first book on risk management in the early 1990s, I explained that I really didn't have the credentials to be a risk expert. He pointed out that I did have the credentials to be a writer, which was true. But even as I researched and wrote the book, and even as it was published, I still suffered from enormous self-doubt. I doubted through the second, third, and fourth editions. I doubted when PMI® contacted me to ask if I would be the lead chapter author for the Risk Management chapter of the PMBOK® Guide. I doubted when a client hired me to help them draft their risk report to a state regulatory agency. No matter what I did, it didn't feel like enough to validate my credentials.

Doubt.

Doubt is not about your resume.

It's not about your resume. My doubts certainly didn't come from my resume. They came from me. You lose the imposter syndrome battle when you can't even convince yourself that you have a basic degree of competence.

Overcoming Doubt

There are critical steps you can take immediately to overcome the self-doubt inherent in almost all of us. They generally involve trusting others, rather than ourselves.

  1. Examine what others are asking you to do. They don't ask as an idle exercise. They ask because they believe you have the level of competence required to achieve what needs to be done.
  2. Believe the compliments you receive. When someone tells you that you have a knack for something, they're probably right. It may not come easily to you, but it's something you do well.
  3. Keep a log of #1 and #2. Track what others believe in. Track what others say about you. When someone says something nice, it's often forgotten in a matter of hours. If you log it, and occasionally review it, you get a healthy reminder of the nice comments made or the feedback received.

One aspect of imposter syndrome ties to personal comparisons. Evaluating the performances of others against our own is a fool's errand. Max Ehrmann's classic poem "Desiderata" incorporates a great reference to this particular human foible: "Always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself." As a qualitative risk expert, I used to make the mistake of comparing myself with the "risk quants." They had the PhDs. They had decades more experience. They always seemed like the greater persons. It was easy to feel like they were handing out "IMPOSTER" badges every time we were in the same room. But as I began to recognize that I brought different skills to the table, bit by bit, I realized my own legitimacy.

Overcoming Comparisons

It takes a while to realize that you do not have the same skills sets as others when it comes to your areas of expertise. While they may possess some desirable skills, those skills are integrated with a completely different subset of gifts that you likely do not possess. Your integrated talents create an entirely new dimension to who you are. They may have the "Einstein factor" while you have relatability. They have a history in academia; you have a history in the streets. All of those traits have value.

When you catch yourself wishing you were someone else, document the traits that make "someone else" special. Then take a few minutes to do the same for yourself. In cross-comparison, you may find that your set of skills is a far better match for your work and your personality than theirs.

Be ALL That You Can Be

I learned well from my parents. My father was a draftsman, a soldier, a bricklayer, a weatherman, an academic, a family doctor, a calliope player, an organist, an antique car collector, and a Dixieland-band piano player. My mother was a schoolteacher, a mom, a shop owner, an antiques dealer, an antiques picker (they're not the same skill set), a rug hooker (classic wool hooking, for those in the know), a cross-stitcher, and a gardener. I learned from both of them, and have been a dishwasher, a busboy, a cook, a kayaker, a DJ, a radio news announcer, a news director, a project manager, a risk manager, a trainer, a lecturer, an author, and a dad (not necessarily in that order).

To a ONE, each of those experiences started with a moment when we did not have the requisite skills and failure was not just a possibility, but a seeming inevitability. Survive one failure? You are no longer an imposter. You're a survivor with experience. Survive two? You're a veteran. And after that, when you start succeeding, you are not the same human being you would have been were it not for the failures.

If you're spending your day doubting yourself, one of the best approaches may be to take on something completely outside your frames of reference. Whether you succeed or fail won't matter in the longer term. You will be one step further away from feeling like an imposter.

Carl Pritchard, PMP®, PMI-RMP®, and former earned value professional lives the post-imposter lifestyle as a trainer and keynote speaker with global experience. He welcomes your insights at carl@carlpritchard.com.




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