Countering imposter syndrome

by Julia_Wise1 min read28th Aug 20194 comments

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Periodically I hear from people at EA organizations who are experiencing imposter syndrome or other anxiety about how well they're performing at work, especially when starting a new role. I wrote up two guides on this, one for interns/new staff and one for their managers.

Guide to welcoming interns (for managers)

Countering imposter syndrome and anxiety about work (for new staff and interns)

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Thanks for writing this and posting it here on the forum. Beyond the helpful suggestions, I feel that both managers and those experiencing imposter syndrome need reminders that many people experience this, likely including many who they themselves view as highly competent. I imagine that imposter syndrome also affects many people not working at EA organizations but who are working towards applying to an EA org or taking another form of career move for EA reasons, especially for orgs or cause areas that are high-profile within the community. (It certainly affects me in this way.) Regarding therapy options for anxiety related to imposter syndrome or more generally---if you're currently in college or graduate school then you likely have easy access to cheap/free therapy through your university's student health services.

I have never experienced Imposter Syndrome and have a strong sense that I never would under any circumstances. I have clearly have psychological characteristics that would prevent me from experiencing Imposter Syndrome, for example I seem to have low priors about other people's competence almost always, for better or worse.

I also model myself as having philosophical antibodies against it. But I can't tell the extent to which these antibodies are actually impactful vs. my personality.

For example: I would argue that if I'm surprised at how competent people think I am, and I strongly think they are wrong, then this means I am good at seeming competent, which is valuable. So this should only boost my view of my capabilities.

Another example: If I'm trying to decide whether I belong in a set of people based on a competence threshold, I should always compare myself to the least competent person in the set. The most competent people aren't relevant at all, but people with Imposter Syndrome seem to focus on them to the exclusion of the least competent people.

Do people who experience Imposter Syndrome also possess these beliefs, and it just doesn't matter? Or is this stuff useful to reflect on?

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You don’t have to have the same skills as them, and it’s very unlikely that you will. You’re probably better at some things than they are ... Even if part of what you learn during this experience is “Whoah, this particular type of work is not for me,” that’s a useful thing to learn and will help you move toward whatever your comparative advantage is.

I have never seen writing on Imposter Syndrome that acknowledges a possibility that you really are less competent may have no comparative advantages at all.

Let's imagine this possibility is true... So what?

  • If I am not engaging in direct work... I've scored a position that is more challenging and lucrative than I would have if people knew how incompetent I am, and there's little or no moral cost to the mixup. Score!
  • If I am engaging in direct work... the fact that I am the least competent person in the room does not necessarily mean that I shouldn't be in the room. I might still be doing the most impactful thing I can be!
  • If I am working at a competitive direct work position, maybe I think that I'm blocking somebody more competent from taking the position. This seems like the ONLY case where I should actually worry about seeming more competent than I am. Even in this case, I should be comparing myself to the people who couldn't get my job, not my colleagues!

I have identified relevant factors (nature of work, competitiveness) that should attenuate distress due to Imposter Syndrome, but as far as I can tell, these factors don't attenuate the distress for people with Imposter Syndrome. Would it be useful for people to imagine their worst fears are true, and evaluate how bad that would really be?

I'm interested in feedback.

Thanks, these are really helpful :-)

I think the first step, if you believe you're less competent than your colleagues believe you to be, is to find out who's wrong—you, them, or both? And are you wrong about your assessment of yourself, or about what your colleagues think of you, or both? Think about what questions you could ask or what metrics you could measure to answer these questions.

If it's your colleagues who's wrong, is it worth correcting them? They understand the risks, they know that recruitment is hit and miss. Is it your responsibility to protect them? You can live in fear of the moment when you'll be found out, or you can cherish the days when you are allowed to do the job, and accept your fate with equanimity. You're not getting your head cut off; you can choose how you feel about this.