What Sandberg was describing was the impostor syndrome. Experienced by such high profile and diverse individuals as long-time television host Oprah Winfrey, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Oscar-winning actress Jodie Foster, and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, the impostor syndrome is the feeling of inadequacy that high-achieving individuals experience despite evidence to the contrary. High-achieving individuals feel that they are frauds and attribute achievements to luck instead of intelligence or personal merit. People who experience impostor feelings believe others overestimate their ability and fear that their inadequacies eventually will be revealed.
I remember experiencing impostor feelings as a Ph.D. student, and even now as a professor; the fear that others will eventually discover that I somehow do not belong in this career often surface. It is one of those fears that permeate but nobody ever talks about. We may talk about different fears as academics and they may range in intensity from seemingly minor—i.e., having technical difficulties during a conference presentation, to seemingly catastrophic—i.e., getting denied tenure. But the one fear that we don’t talk about is the fear that sooner or later others will discover that we are not cut out for the positions we hold. The voice inside my head is usually the loudest right before I start teaching or delivering a conference presentation. The voice may say things like:
“Uh, oh. The audience is going to find out that you are not really equipped to conduct research and you have no clue what you’re talking about.”
“That ‘40 World’s Best Business Professors Under 40’ award, you got it because of luck!”
“You landed the tenure-track position because they needed a Latina and you fit the profile.”
The impostor syndrome lingers like the guest who has overstayed a welcome, except that impostorism has no job or home to go to and decides to stick around for as long as possible. I finally decided to embrace this visitor, and named it “Chicle.” Chicle is the Spanish word for “gum.” Just like gum on your shoe, impostorism can stick around and become exceedingly difficult to get rid of. I just ended my fifth year as a tenure-track professor and Chicle is here with me. It used to be the most debilitating visitor on earth. For the first couple of years as a professor, Chicle had the power to send my heart racing 100 mph and break me into a sweat every time I would step foot at the front of the classroom.
Anecdotes abound on the adverse impact of the impostor syndrome. So what can be done to counter its effects?
■ NAME IT. Whether you call it impostor syndrome or an alias (i.e., Chicle), there is tremendous power in recognizing it. As J.K. Rowling, author of “Harry Potter”, once said, “Always use the proper names for things… Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” It’s really a “thing.”
■ NORMALIZE IT. Remember, that others experience impostorism no matter how incredibly brilliant and successful they are. For instance, writer and poet Maya Angelou once said, “I have written 11 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.’” Or Academy Award-winning actor, Tom Hanks, who mentioned that no matter what he’s accomplished, he’s thought, “When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?” When Chicle starts rearing its ugly head, it helps to think of these individuals. Despite being in the highest echelons of their fields, they experience self-doubt, feel like they got to where they are by sheer luck not talent and fear that eventually people will discover that they are not who they think they are.
■ (ATTEMPT TO) UNDERSTAND IT. Where exactly do these impostor feelings come from? It’s a question that I’ve often pondered and found useful in coping with the effects of impostorism. We may or may not understand the underlying causes of our feeling like impostors. I have come to understand that at the core is my belief that I do not belong in academia because I don’t necessarily fit the profile.
When I start feeling intimidated and thinking I am not at the same level as others, it helps me to remember what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said about comparing herself to other justices. She noted, “It is very, very difficult coming from a background like mine not to feel a bit intimidated. No, I may not be cultured in the same way. I may never be Ruth Bader Ginsburg and have her total recall of opera, but I do my own thing and it has value too…If you’re comparing yourself to others you’re often going to find yourself short on something, especially if they have a background different from your own. But you’re there for a reason—you’re there to do something that’s unique to you.” Do you and only you.
■ EMBRACE IT. I realize Chicle may never go away, and have learned to embrace it. When Chicle visits me, I no longer allow it to paralyze me. I see Chicle’s presence— the self-doubt and feelings of insecurity—as a sign of stepping into greatness. As Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, author of “This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President,” said, “The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.” Now, the only fear that is greater than being discovered as a fraud is losing my friend Chicle.