If you’ve ever felt like an impostor

What mask are you wearing?I had heard of impostor syndrome before, but I never gave it much thought until it came up on three separate occasions within a week.

It’s defined by the Caltech counseling center as:

A collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in the face of information that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.

The three stories I encountered that week reminded me of my own struggle with inadequacy at work, and of the techniques that help me deal with it now.

Three impostors

The first incident was when a young women whose work I respect confided she felt like a fraud. It was more than self-doubt, though. It was anguish – and her distress was palpable. I was surprised that someone in their twenties could feel this way.

Then, in my Facebook feed, a friend who had built her own business posted an article on impostor syndrome and said “This is what I struggle with…It’s the worst kind of self-limiting behavior.” I was shocked. This women is smart, articulate, and well-regarded around the world for her work. She’s also funny and engaging. How could she feel like an impostor?

Later, while reading The Art of Asking, I came upon impostor syndrome again as the performer/writer/presenter-of-one-of-the-best-TED-talks-ever Amanda Palmer described her own feelings of being a fake:

“For a long time, I thought I was alone. Psychologists have a term for it: imposter syndrome. But before I knew that phrase existed, I coined my own: The Fraud Police. [They’re] the imaginary, terrifying force of “real” grown-ups who you believe – at some subconscious level – are going to come knocking on your door in the middle of the night, saying: We’ve been watching you, and we have evidence that you HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING…

I mentioned The Fraud Police during a commencement speech I recently gave at an arts college, and I asked the adults in the room, including the faculty, to raise their hands if they’d ever had this feeling. I don’t think a single hand stayed down.”

When I was a fraud

The degree to which people feel like an impostor varies wildly. You may feel like a fake at times, or discount your success by attributing it to luck or other forces. It’s certainly common.

My worst experience of feeling like a fraud came after I had been working on trading floors for several years. I was in a well-paid management position that I clung to despite feeling I had no “right” to such a job.

Trading floors are not the ideal environment for displaying vulnerability. So I put on an act to others and to myself that I was in control even though I wasn’t. To compound my stress, I was angry for feeling anxious rather than lucky. Not only was I an impostor, I was an ungrateful one.

Three simple switches

The reasons for these feelings can vary, and so do the techniques for dealing with them. Each technique is a simple switch in your head, a new way of thinking.

Sometimes the feeling is due to your own self-defeating thoughts. You’re in a prison you’ve built yourself. In these cases, the Caltech counseling center recommends training yourself to identify those thoughts and deliberately distinguishing between feelings and facts.

Sometimes you use each of your mistakes or someone else’s negative reaction to validate your fraudulence. You can change that by developing a growth mindset, framing setbacks as a natural part of the learning process.

Sometimes you’re trying to do something you don’t like doing or aren’t yet as skilled as you want or need to be. In those cases, I think of advice from Eckhart Tolle when he said, in effect: “Don’t worry about paying the bills. Pay the bills.” Use the energy you would have put into fruitless worrying to invest in your craft and in your connections

I still experience different degrees of feeling like a fraud. But after years of practicing these techniques, I’m more aware of my feelings and why I’m having them. I’m gradually getting better at replacing anxiety and automatic, negative thoughts with new mental habits. The techniques are simple. It’s the practice over time that makes the difference.

If you’ve ever felt like an impostor, you’re not alone. Talking with others will provide emotional support and relief. You’re also not trapped. Training yourself to think differently and channeling your energy into positive actions can change your life. 

I wish someone had told me this secret to being smart 

A smart kidIn my elementary school, each grade was split into three groups based on ability – essentially smart, medium, and dumb. I was happy when my teachers and parents labeled me smart.

Looking back, I wish they hadn’t.

How did they know?

Certainly, hearing someone tell me I was smart was better than hearing I was stupid. But one problem with this system is that those labels become self-fulfilling prophecies. The kids in the stupid class think they’re stupid and tend not to try hard. Their teachers also tend not to try as hard.

Salman Khan, who’s on a mission to change education which Khan Academy, described how these labels for kids are only relevant when applied to certain subjects at certain times.

There’s a group of kids who’ve raced ahead and there’s a group of kids who are a little bit slower. And in a traditional model, if you did a snapshot assessment, you said “these are the gifted kids,” “these are the slow kids” … But when you let every student work at their own pace – and we see it over and over and over again – you see students who took a little bit extra time on one concept or the other, but once they get through that concept, they race ahead. And so the same kids you thought were slow, you now would think they’re gifted. 

So the labels are often wrong, but they can lead to a mindset that shapes your life.

Fixed and growth mindsets

In the 1990s, researchers Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller from Columbia University worked with fifth-graders to understand the effects of different kinds of praise on motivation. After an easy set of problems, some students were praised for their ability (”You must be really smart!”) and some were praised for their effort (“You must have worked really hard!”). After a second set of problems, though, all the students were told they hadn’t scored  well.

The researchers aimed to measure whether the different kinds of praise would affect how the children dealt with challenges. Would their performance vary on the third set? Given a choice, would they choose easier problems? Would they view themselves differently?

The results showed a dramatic difference in performance. After receiving a poor score, children praised for being smart did 25% worse on the next set of problems. Children praised for working hard performed 25% better. Even more fascinating were the other differences they found. The children praised for intelligence equated their performance with their ability. So they did all they could to maximize their performance relative to other children. They chose easier problems, asked about the performance of others, and even “misrepresented” their scores more than the other children. They described intelligence as a fixed trait.

Children praised for their effort, however, equated their performance with how hard they worked. So they did all they could to maximize their learning. They chose problems that were harder. They were more interested in strategies for solving the problems than in the scores of others. They believed intelligence was something they could improve.

The secret

For me, the advantages of being labelled smart faded as soon as I got my big break and entered a high school where everyone was labeled as smart. Though I worked harder than ever, I optimized on the grades, not on the learning. I’d cram for the test and would even write the occasional formula on the palm of my hand. In college, I dropped courses that were too difficult. Like the fifth-graders in Carol Dweck’s research, I was desperately trying to validate my label and the story I’d been telling myself. And I limited my possibilities as a result.

It was only decades later that I realized the secret to being smart – and to accomplishment in almost any field – is having a growth mindset. It’s more effective and fulfilling to focus on getting better over being good. Instead of relying on some inborn gift, you rely on effort and feedback. You view setbacks as learning opportunities. You persist.

Next week, I’ll write about a school that creates a growth mindset in children, and produces the smartest kids in the world as a result. We’ve known for a long time there’s a better way to identify and develop talented people. And organizations of all kinds have a lot to learn from such a school.

A month of trying to “Enjoy each day”

For 2015, I resolved to “Enjoy each day.” Not to do more fun things necessarily but rather to “see and feel more in every day as it is.”

I’m already surprised by the results.

30 days of trying to enjoy each day

What was supposed to happen

In my original New Year’s post, I described three things I would do every day.

Keep a journal. Reflecting on moments throughout the day will help me appreciate them more and increase my sense of fulfillment. Over time, I hope the repeated act of reflecting and writing will train my mind so I’m more aware of the moments as they’re happening.

Practice gratitude. When I wake up and before I go to sleep, I’ll think of things I’m grateful for, including moments throughout the day. I’ve tried this and it’s a simple, pleasant ritual that has made me feel happier.

Chart my progress. Just as Ben Franklin used resolution charts to cultivate 13 virtues, I’ve used them to help me develop new habits. So I’ll put my chart in a place where I’ll be sure to see it before I go to sleep, and each day I’ll track my journaling and gratitude habits and whether I’ve enjoyed the day.”

What happened 

My Enjoy each day journalLooking back, I wrote in my journal on 18 out of 31 days in January. It felt like more. When I missed a day or two, I would go back and recall the highlights from those days, and that allowed me to savor them again. Once, though, the gap was too big and I couldn’t remember much at all.

“Where did those 4 days go?” I wrote. It was as if they never happened and I felt a strong sense of loss. That strengthened my resolve to keep writing.

I fared even better with practicing gratitude when I woke up and went to sleep. Perhaps that’s because I always do it at the same times and in the same place. Often, I’m thankful for simple comforts like a soft bed and warm shelter on a cold night, for my health, or for some moment with my family that day. It’s a lovely practice. Instead of reaching for my phone or running through a todo list in my head, the feeling of gratitude brings a contented smile across my face each time.

My Enjoy each day progress chartMy progress chart was the weakest part of my resolution. The problem might be its location. Although my chart is taped to a wall I pass by often, I don’t have a consistent time for updating it and I simply forget. It’s just not a habit yet. So I’ll take one of the lessons from the best post I ever wrote about habits: “structure your life to help you attain your goals.” I’ll move the chart and make updating it part of some other existing routine.

The biggest surprise

I anticipated that the practice of regularly reflecting and being grateful would change my memory of each day. And that happened. But despite my imperfect habit, I started to experience something even more powerful.

Time slowed down.

Simple moments absorbed my attention. My awareness of them expanded, as if I was in a kind of altered state. It seemed as though the act of reflecting attuned me to look for special moments. So I started to appreciate them not just in hindsight but as they happened.

The feel of my son’s hand in mine as we walk to school.

The first sip of strong, hot coffee. 

The technicolor display in the sky as the sun slowly rises. 

The way my daughter blows a kiss to my wife and I each morning as she heads to the bus.

Before my resolution started, I wrote that “Time has flown because I’ve been careless with it.” That still happens. But sometimes throughout the day, I feel I might understand what Buddhists mean when they say “I have arrived.” I might finally be learning how to handle time like the precious gift it is.

The words that shape your world

Your compassImagine your language didn’t have a word for left and right, or the concepts in front of and behind.

How would you orient yourself? How would your relationship to the world be different?

More than a thought experiment, there is indeed a language that has no egocentric coordinates. That difference in language has a profound effect on the lives of the people who speak it, and it made me think about the words I use every day.

The Guugu Yimithirr

The Guugu Yimithirr, whose language bears the same name, are an aboriginal tribe in northeastern Australia. If you’ve heard about them, it’s because they’ve given us the word kangaroo (gangurru). I learned about them in Through the Language Glass, a richly detailed treatment of the differences between languages and how they do and don’t shape our thinking.

Instead of using egocentric coordinates like left and right, they use geographic coordinates like east and west. You wouldn’t say “look out for that shark behind you” but rather “look out for that shark north of you.” This is more than just a substitution of words. What’s behind you is always behind you, but north has to be computed as your position changes.

“In order to speak Guugu Yimithirr, you need to know where the cardinal directions are at each and every moment of your waking life…you need to have a compass in your mind all the time…and the Guugu Yimithirr have exactly this kind of an infallible compass.”

They weren’t born this way. It’s just that their language shaped how they think.

The difference between boys and girls

You don’t have to study obscure languages to find examples in which the words we use change how we relate to the world. You can find them in French, Spanish, German, and Italian, among others.

While English speakers almost exclusively refer to inanimate objects with the gender-neutral “it,” many languages force speakers to assign a gender to such objects and talk about them using the same grammatical forms for men and women.

Several studies cited in Through the Language Glass showed that people thought of objects differently based on their gender. For example, the German bridge (die Brücke) is feminine but the Spanish bridge (el puente) is masculine. When researchers asked subjects to describe attributes of a bridge, the German speakers used words like beautiful, elegant, fragile, pretty, and slender. The Spanish speakers chose big, dangerous, strong, and sturdy.

The language of choice

Though the Guugu Yimithirr could understand egocentric coordinates, the words they used every day changed how they related to the world. Though German and Spanish speakers could understand that inanimate objects don’t have an innate gender (or at least that different people could see that gender differently), the words they use every day change their view of those objects.

What about you? What about the words you choose every day? The language you use to describe yourself and the people around you, how you frame your thoughts throughout the day, shapes your experience in a fundamental way.

The lesson I learned was clear: Change your attitude. Change your language. Change your world.

How I learned to collaborate with my wife

It was late September when my wife, Saori, first read a complete draft of my book. In my mind, I was almost finished. I had been working on it for years and was going to send it to a copyeditor in two weeks.

She was on page 63 when she looked up and said “I don’t like it.”

What would you say? What would you do?

My first reaction

Usually, my wife’s tactic is to ask questions. When I failed to clearly explain what the book was about in the early stages of writing, she asked “Is it just blogging?” When it seemed like I wasn’t making progress, she asked “How’s the book coming along?”

This time it wasn’t a question. It was a clear statement.

My first reaction was to be a defensive jerk. It’s too late for this! I thought. I’m an expert on this subject. You don’t even read these kinds of books! Though all she said was “I don’t like it,” part of me was hearing “I don’t like you” and “You’re a failure.”

I tried to calmly ask, “What don’t you like?”

What followed was the most difficult conversation I’ve ever had about my work. I tried to remember that all feedback is good, to focus on my breathing, to have a sense of detachment so it didn’t become personal or emotional. I largely failed to do all three of those things.

After a heated discussion, we came to a constructive set of possible adjustments I could make. Finally, I said “Please write it all down so I can compare it to the other feedback I’ve received. And please keep reading.”

Two days later

“The book is great!” she said. She had finished reading it and thought the second half of the book was interesting, well-written, and helpful. “I can see how it could sell a million copies,” she said. Now this was a much easier conversation.

The red penWhat was obvious to her had escaped me. By the time I started writing the second half, I was clear about the book’s purpose and it’s tone. I had more command of the material because of the coaching I had done. While the first half was laden with layers of rewriting and rethinking, the second half flowed. “It’s like you learned how to write,” she said, and I accepted that as a sincere compliment.

She wanted the book to be great too, and so we had more debates and arguments about specific chapters and sections. She spent hours reading drafts and making notes with a red pen. She’d ask me question after frustrating question, trying to understand a point I was attempting to make. When I was finally able to give a clear answer, she would say “Great. Write that.”

Each time it got easier. In my head, a simple switch flipped. We had the same goal, and it became less about me and more about the work.

Three months later

After completely restructuring and rewriting the first half multiple times, I was down to the final chapter. I had written it a while ago and shared it with friends who liked it.

Now, re-reading it in a cafe, it made no sense. It was a disconnected jumble of stories and quotes. What point am I trying to make?, I asked myself. After working on it for over an hour, I couldn’t fix it. Then I thought, I’ll talk through it with Saori. At home, a short conversation helped tease out what I was trying to convey. I quickly rewrote the chapter and showed it to her. “I like it,” she said, smiling.

I had finally learned how to collaborate with my wife. The process was uncomfortable, but it taught me to be humbler and more open. It taught me how to listen. Although more than 50 people provided detailed comments on drafts of the book, I saw it would take someone who loves you to be brave enough to say “I don’t like it. Let me help you make it better.”

I’m sending the book to the copyeditor on Monday.