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We're all imposters to some extent

By Tom O'Donahoo on 29 November 2016CultureLeadershipNSWstaffroom

Recently I had a startlingly honest conversation with a young teacher. She had just taken on her first year 12 class and was feeling the pressure of getting her students the marks they deserved. It was almost as if she thought at some point she'd slip up, the charade of her competence would shatter and her students would mount a mutiny to rival the Pirates of the Caribbean.

This was surprising not just because of the worryingly vivid description she gave of said mutiny, but because it was coming from someone I'd observed to be incredibly capable and passionate.

Just prior to this admission she'd been telling me about the years of past papers she had been covering, organising them by topic to match with her lessons, the HSC markers she'd consulted for insight into topics students typically struggled with, the nights she'd spent watching our Atomi lessons and consulting with other teachers on what they thought was best practice. Little did she know - her students were in very capable hands.

This made me think:

How did she of all people think of herself as an imposter?

When we were kids, we went to school, we covered a set curriculum, we were marked against a set rubric and we learnt to be good at the defined set of skills we'd been taught. There was a clear path to success and a tangible result to say we got there. For me, growing up I was always relatively good at school, so I'd guessed this meant one day when I got into the real world I would 'know what I was doing'.

The hard truth is the real world is full of shades of grey, intense complexity and ill-defined criterion. It can be hard to even figure out what being successful is, let alone knowing how to get there. For a control freak like me, this can be a hard pill to swallow. But it makes it a little easier knowing that from time to time, we all feel a bit like an imposter.

In fact, there's even a name for it: Impostor syndrome is a strong feeling of inadequacy; it’s the sense that you are just pretending, and that someday everyone will discover you’re a fraud, no matter how successful or capable you are.

Sound familiar?

The truth is it’s more common than you might think.

One of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Maya Angelou, wasn’t immune to this feeling. She won a Pulitzer, a Tony, three Grammys, a Presidential Medal of Honor, and over 50 Honorary degrees. This list goes on. But even she felt like an impostor:

“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”

I mean, come on. Maya Angelou? You’ve gotta be kidding me. But she’s one of us.

To me, this is a great reminder that even the most talented people can feel inadequate, and that if you do, it doesn't mean what you're doing isn't great. Feeling like an impostor means you’re at least somewhat self-aware. You care enough to set high expectations. You know where you need to improve, and you want to improve.

Feeling this way is both normal and insanely common, so we thought that we'd share some advice for anyone that feels like a bit of a fraud now and then. Whether that be taking on a new challenge, sharing your ideas with a colleague or even speaking at a conference - here's some tips to help you be your most confident self.

1. You’re not meant to know everything

Unless you've somehow got Wikipedia, YouTube and the rest of the word's information hot-wired into your brain, you're never going to be the fountain of all knowledge.

Someone much wiser than I once said: "A great teacher is the effective conduit to a student finding the right answers, not the source of them."

This little aphorism does not in any way justify ignorance, it just means that it's alright from time-to-time to say, "I don't know, but here's what I think." Your opinion is probably more valid than you give yourself credit for and regardless it can often be just as important to share your passion as your expertise.

2. Ask

If you're not confident, sometimes you've just got to buck up and speak to someone. We're sometimes so afraid of inconveniencing others by sharing our concerns that we forget that most people genuinely want to see us succeed. It may be as simple as reaching out to your boss, colleague, friend or even online community to say, "What do you think?” Being vulnerable can suck, but it builds character.

The act of sharing with someone you trust can help consolidate your thoughts into something that you'll feel more confident with down the road.

3. Focus on the progress, not the stage.

This isn’t easy, but feeling confident is a journey. Working hard towards what you think is the best outcome is often enough to generate progress and feel more like a confident person who is awesome and deserving of success.

4. Believe in yourself

The truth is that unless you've got a terrible poker face, you’re probably the only one who knows you’re afraid. Embrace it.

Here at Atomi, we're not always going to make the best lesson that ever could or will exist. But hopefully by constantly striving to be better each day and being open about the challenges we all face on that journey, we can inspire others to push beyond their comfort zone and share their best selves.

Impostor syndrome is real, but you’re never alone. Deep down, we’re all impostors in one-way or another.

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