Imagine for a minute that you were granted a wish to be something completely different for a day.
And you think, “Hmm, I’ve always wanted to be the CEO for a cool new startup.”
And poof! In an instant, you’re transformed, and you find yourself around a table with Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. And they’re having this engaging discussion about maneuvering their companies through their hyper-growth phase. You’re listening. It’s fascinating. You’re engaged. And suddenly, maybe there’s a perspective you want to share, but you’re halted to pause. I mean, these other CEOs? They’re the real deal and you are there because of a granted wish. So you pipe down and you slink back in your chair.
Now imagine that it wasn’t a granted wish. Imagine you really were the visionary CEO of a transformational startup. You were invited to be in that room, to be at that table, to share your perspective. But those feelings of feeling like you don’t really belong, of feeling like you were only invited because they didn’t know any better. That’s classic Imposter Syndrome.
Now Imposter Syndrome is sometimes more subtle. Sometimes it’s just a little voice in your head that pipes up when you’re on the brink of doing something courageous. It calls out right before you’re about to step into a new role, a big role. It calls out when you’re about to speak in front of an audience. It calls you out when you’re about to hit send on a disruptive new idea you’re pitching in an email. It calls you out when you’re about to ask for a raise. “Am I worth it?” It even calls you out right before you’re about to ask a question, one that your imposter voice reminds you is not that clever or interesting or relevant, so just “Shh.”
This is not a feeling or terminology that I’m inventing. It’s been spoken about quite extensively, especially in the mainstream media these days. Emma Watson, actress made famous by the Harry Potter series, she was quoted recently as saying she actually feels like more of a fraud the more successful she gets. Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbucks, was quoted saying, “Nobody gets into the job of CEO and actually believes that they were supposed to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.” Even Einstein said that the exaggerated esteem in which his life’s work was held made him feel like an involuntary swindler. Einstein said that.
Dr. Pauline Rose Clance was one of the first people to research Imposter Syndrome and she found some interesting things. She found that women and minority groups do feel Imposter Syndrome more intensely. If no one that’s looked like you has done your job before you, you’re more prone to feeling like an imposter. But her later research also established that Imposter Syndrome was pervasive across gender, across age, across ethnicity.
Dunning and Kruger did a study in 1999, which showed the relationship between how much experience you have and how much confidence you have and found that the more experience you get, your confidence level actually decreases. So perhaps the more you know, the more you also know how much you don’t know? But here’s the most important statistic to take away from all of this: Who is prone to impostery feelings? Pretty much everyone smart and accomplished that you think has their shizz together. So we’re not alone.
But here’s the funny thing: We don’t really talk about it. We don’t talk about it at work. If we all secretly at some point or the other worry that we are not as bright or capable as we’re supposed to be, how come we don’t just share? We live in this pluralistic ignorance, but I don’t need to teach you how to manage or cure that Imposter Syndrome. What we need is to embrace the vulnerability to acknowledge it. But we deny ourselves that vulnerability. We’re scared to show that vulnerability. Why? And what’s the cost of that? What’s the cost of not being vulnerable? The three C’s: Creativity, curiosity, and connection.
Creativity: If you’re only going to fake it till you make it, you can only replicate what has been done before. Repeat and rehash will hold us back. Creativity requires courage, the courage to be okay with uncertainty. You need courage to step into big ideas or big disruptions of big opportunities. And you can’t do that without vulnerability. Brené Brown, an amazing researcher, prolific author, and TED Talker extraordinaire—you guys should look her up—she calls vulnerability, “The birthplace of creativity and courage.”
And you also can’t do creativity without the second C, curiosity. If you’re not willing to say, “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know how”, you’re closing the door to curiosity. Curiosity is an important predecessor to excellence. Curiosity helps you ask the questions, dig a little deeper, and seek new perspectives. We know in relationships, curiosity can’t be faked. The difference between a cavalier “How are you?” versus a truly curious ”How are you?”, we know the difference there.
Which brings me to the third and possibly most important thing: Connection. Trust. Trust is really vital in our business. We all have come to agree on that. We need trust internally to build fruitful collaborations and we need trust externally with our clients and partners. Now trust is made up of two components: Credibility and vulnerability.
We work really hard at that credibility piece, being really good at our job, building up our knowledge and our expertise, proving empirically over and over again that we’re better than our peers. We work less on this vulnerability aspect. I saw for myself the power vulnerability not long ago.
I have had the opportunity to write several technical or thought pieces, but recently I had the opportunity to write a small article on Imposter Syndrome and I was really afraid to write it. I thought that revealing myself that vulnerably would somehow be looked down upon. So I was reluctant, but then I pushed through because it was a small online journal and I was completely surprised by the response I received. A few sarcastic responses, but for the most part, really encouraging messages. Messages of people sharing and telling me that they feel the exact same way, that they agree, and thanked me for sharing. Messages where they shared their fears over email with me, a complete stranger. Messages of resonance and trust. I felt a sense of belonging and connection in a way that demonstrating my credibility has never brought me.
When I was asked to do this talk today, I was yet again a little bit reluctant. I’d rather talk about something technical where I feel more comfortable and proving my credibility. And I really did not want to become, like, the face of Imposter Syndrome at Wells Fargo. But I know that vulnerability is important. I know that it’s rewarding, so I’m here today. I’m pushing through that fear because I know that it might bring connection with some of you here.
You know, when I was looking for examples of public figures who’ve talked about Imposter Syndrome, I found examples in sport and music, in Hollywood, even heads of state. But I found no examples of leaders in finance, just none. And it made me wonder, we—and I mean finance as a whole—have put this huge premium on showing no fear. If you don’t know what you’re doing, just fake it till you make it. Show complete conviction at all times. Switch the conversation to where we’re winning. Don’t focus on the failures. Never show vulnerability. It’s akin to just, you know, dying. And we’ve done this to ourselves. It’s like we live in this time warp in an era of overconfidence and bravado, really in the era of Gordon Gekko, and it’s time for a sequel.
What if all this unhealthy posturing that we’ve been taught and wed to is actually slowing down creativity and innovation in our lives? Just something to think about.
But are we ready to do this? Are we ready to be creative? Are we truly ready to let ourselves speak without filtering ourselves? Perhaps when we share ideas, we should share two bad ideas for every good idea we share. Stop trying to perfect this voice and maybe that’s one way to step around this imposter that tells us not to speak something that’s never been spoken before.
Are we ready to be curious? Can we truly build a team of diverse perspectives? And can we lead into mentorship, both as mentors and mentees? We need excellence. We want excellence. But that means we need everybody around the table to feel fully engaged and valued. That means we have to reach out and make sure that everybody feels seen, everybody feels like they belong, that they’re valued. That’s a muscle we have to keep working until it becomes muscle memory.
Are we ready for connection? Can we be human? Can we admit when we don’t understand or we don’t you know or we’re trying to figure it out or we need some help? And perhaps that inspires others to do the same because surely, when people feel out of their depth is when they learn best, when they learn something new. These might seem like lofty, long-term goals and maybe they are, something we have to work on. But here is something you can do today and as you leave this conference. If you have a few moments to connect with somebody instead of, you know, small chat, maybe ask, “What’s something you love about yourself?” And listen. Listen vulnerably. And share your own response and see if that brings connection. And if you need an excuse, just blame it on this wacky imposter who made you do it.