We are surrounded by an unprecedented number of imposters. You may be near one right now or even living with one. Worse still, you might be one!
I’m kidding, of course, but only partially. Feeling like an imposter is a lot more common than you might realise. It is something I know I suffered with early on in my career, and even now there are days when I look at my kids and think Me, a dad? Responsible for raising three kids? Surely not!
Do you sometimes feel like an imposter? If the answer is “yes”, you are not alone. The phenomenon is so common, they even have names for it.
“Imposterism” and “imposter syndrome” are just a couple.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, imposter syndrome is “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills”.
So, being successful doesn’t make you immune to imposter syndrome.
Who gets imposter syndrome?
Anyone can suffer with it.
Imposter syndrome is particularly common amongst those who are high achievers. You’ll recognise them when you meet them because they might say things like, “I’m just a normal person,” “I’m nothing special”, or they may seem keen to seek approval— “Was that okay?”
If you could read people’s minds, you would be stunned by how many are walking around feeling like frauds. I know a writer who, despite being excellent at what he does, writing and editing for people from around the world, regularly tells me there’s not a day goes by when he doesn’t expect to be told his work isn’t good enough.
Then there are designers who sweat blood to exceed their clients’ expectations, smash deadlines, and over-deliver. And they also experience feelings of imposterism. World leaders, celebrities, CEOs, and even the Donald Trumps of this world, who seem so self-assured, are all susceptible—imposter syndrome takes no prisoners.
Imposterism doesn’t just affect the self-employed either. Organisations are often full of people who wonder if they are going to “get found out”, especially those in senior management positions. Some say it goes with the territory and the best managers are those who experience imposter syndrome because it allows them to empathise with their team members.
It can drive you forward or hold you back
On the one hand, imposter syndrome can drive you forward. I have worked hard to improve as a speaker since the first time I sat in front of an audience and spoke with a barely audible voice while I read from a script. But on the other hand, if imposter syndrome is left to fester and grow, it can work against you and stop you reaching for the things you deserve. That’s another reason why some people play small and fail to reach their full potential.
After leaving school with no qualifications and doing several dead-end jobs, I applied for the army in search of a new life. I had to lie about my qualifications to get in, so I wrote down the “O-level” grades I believed I would have achieved had I applied myself properly to school.
When I enlisted, most recruits were given the role of gunner, and there was no shame in that. However, we were all asked to take part in aptitude tests and those considered to be a little bit smarter were asked to become signallers. I was pleasantly surprised when they told me I’d been selected as a signaller.
When I came out of the army and started a new job, I was equally gobsmacked when the boss told me he thought I was “management material”. He took me to a computer, explained that nobody else knew how to use it and gave me the job of figuring it out. I had no clue, but the opportunity was there, and I took it.
None of these things were down to luck. The manager recognised something in me because of my attitude and the qualities he perceived with his own eyes and ears. The only person who was surprised by what I was capable of was me. And yet, when we experience imposter syndrome, we often deny our own role in achieving success.
Why do we get imposter syndrome?
There are many reasons why different individuals have this feeling of faking it, but they all stem from a feeling of not being good enough—not being worthy. Having been raised in poverty by my often drunk and violent father after my mother was murdered by a serial killer, and denied the chance to express my feelings, I felt crushed. I had no voice. Why would anyone want to listen to Richard McCann?
Success is never easy. Anyone who has achieved anything will have worked hard for it. They will have started with a strategy, made plans, navigated all kinds of obstacles and they will have overcome many challenges. You can’t get a degree in “Success”. It takes a whole range of skills and traits—resilience, determination, self-belief, knowing when to seek help, and so much more. So, it is not surprising that the more we get through and the more we achieve, the more astonished we are with how far we have come.
It’s true—you are just an “normal” person
But “normal” people are doing incredible things every single day. Just think about the wonderful Major Tom who raised so much money for the NHS recently. I believe—no, I know—everybody is capable of greatness.
In 2007, I visited 10 Downing Street with my wife for the launch of a book I had contributed to. Two things happened that evening. First of all, I felt like an imposter to be the same room as the likes of Joanna Lumley, Davina McCall, Piers Morgan, and Ronnie Corbett. As I worked the room and got to speak to these people, I realised that they were just that—people.
The second thing happened when Gordon Brown joined us later in the evening. For a moment, as he was tending to his son, just a couple of feet away from me, I saw him as no more than another dad. He was just like me. For all any of us can know, he might have days when he says to himself, Me, a dad? How did that happen?
We become the best we can possibly be by asking the challenging questions—why am I here, what am I good at, how can I play my part in making this world better? But wherever you are on your journey, and however you feel about your abilities and your potential, please know that it is perfectly normal to doubt yourself.
Is it okay to be an imposter?
You’re not an imposter. You are who exactly who you are supposed to be, in the right place and at the right time. But yes, it is perfectly okay to feel like an imposter. Embrace it, know that you are not alone, and recognise that it is because you strive to be better that you have managed to get to where you are.
And whatever you’ve managed to achieve, you deserve it!