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Welcome to this Navigate the Chaos blog post. To hire Michael for a keynote speech, workshop, or presentation be sure to visit the Contact page. You can also purchase a copy of the latest Navigate the Chaos collection and download the Google calendar for free.

How often do you suffer from impostor syndrome?

Today is February 26 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you suffer from impostor syndrome?" Christopher Reeve once wrote “We can either watch life from the sidelines, or actively participate. Either we let self-doubt or feelings of inadequacy prevent us from realizing our potential or embrace the fact that when we turn our attention away from ourselves, our potential is limitless.”

Navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well will often involve becoming acclimated to an elevated status in your profession. The college football player who gets drafted into the National Football League, the college dean who is chosen to serve as a campus president, or the part-time actor who lands a leading role. Invariably some form of impostor syndrome may find its way into your head. Those who practice the art of living well recognize it, but then ensure such a state of mind is quickly set aside to focus on the task at hand. The imposter syndrome is a harsh self-assessment, mindset, and little voice inside of you that says “the others at my level have succeeded because of their talents and dedication whereas my achievement is based on luck and the extra effort that was needed to compensate for my lack of true giftedness. This state of professional fear involves a constant worry that you be exposed as a fraud. You may believe the mirage of serendipitous and barely-made-it achievements that is your career will one day be lifted, revealing to your peers and mentors the shameful truth – you flunked it.

The imposter phenomenon was first described in the 1970s by clinical psychologists working at a women’s college, after they noticed that a large proportion of the students felt nervous of their academic success and were worried of having their true capabilities exposed. Since then, it’s become apparent that men and women in all walks of life experience imposter feelings: in fact, one estimate suggests that around 70 percent of us will go through a period of these self-doubts at least once in our lives. Tina Fey made a poignant observation on it: “Ah, the impostor syndrome!? The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania, and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh god, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud. Seriously, I’ve just realized that almost everyone is a fraud, so I try not to feel too bad about it.”

American publisher Katharine Meyer Graham learned to identify and overcome the impostor syndrome. She led her family's newspaper, The Washington Post, from 1963 to 1991. Graham presided over the paper as it reported on the Watergate scandal, which eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. She was the first twentieth century female publisher of a major American newspaper. Graham's memoir, Personal History, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.

After her husband’s suicide Katherine came to realize she loved the job of running the newspaper. She had intended to pass the paper to her children, but discovered she loved the job. Initially, the going was rocky. "I seemed to be carrying inadequacy as baggage, I felt I was always taking an exam and would fail if I missed a single question. The problem was, I was learning from the top. The best way is to work your way up, assuming more responsibility, but I never had that chance. My insecurity added to the problem - and I was right to be insecure. I didn't know anything."

As Rupert Cornwell wrote in a February 14, 1997 article “Crucially, however, Graham knew enough to appoint Ben Bradlee as editor in 1965, to form the partnership that transformed the Post from an unremarkable local paper into the equal of the New York Times. Today she admits to a sense of achievement, but little more. The real credit belonged to Bradlee and others. ‘I was lucky enough to stay with it, to keep going, and the thing worked. If I have one quality it's doggedness, just hanging in there.’” Graham’s stick-to-itiveness resembled a common strategy those suffering from imposter syndrome use to move forward. Jon Dorenbos is one example.

Retired professional football player Jon Dorenbos discussed the impostor syndrome in his book Life is Magic: My Inspiring Journey from Tragedy to Self-Discovery and wrote “it was hard to convince myself I belonged in an NFL locker room in the beginning. But if you say that to yourself – what the hell am I doing here? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The quickest way to torpedo your confidence is to wonder if it is justified. It did not take me long to identify insecurity that is the one thing most present in an NFL locker room. A lot of high school and college players, as well as coaches, are scared shitless that they do not measure up. I saw it for 15 years. Some of the most insecure people I have ever met are superstars.”

  • How often do you suffer from the impostor syndrome?

  • Have you encountered someone who suffered from impostor syndrome?

  • Does it surprise you to learn that so many professional football players suffer from impostor syndrome?

  • What do you think about when you hear that even the best at their game can suffer from impostor syndrome?

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