On Being a Fake

“What’s talent but the ability to get away with something?”  ~Tennessee Williams

It Was Only A Matter of Time…

Have you ever had that feeling? You know, the one that insidiously slides up your back and envelops your brain and takes root. The feeling that whispers in your ear, “One day, they’re gonna figure it out. One day, your boss is going to walk in here and call it. She’s going to say, ‘The jig is up dude, I know what you’re doing.'” And on that day, you’re going to stand up, take your licks, and go home with your head hung low, because you just knew it was only a matter of time.

What are they going to figure out? That you’re faking it. That you’re a phony, a fraud, a liar, and a fake. That you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing. That you are that ONE person who slipped through the cracks, who got in to that school that you had no business attending. That you were that crafty little devil who conned the manager into making that offer for the job you didn’t deserve. That you had somehow managed to slip into line with all the “smart and successful” people, or the popular kids, or maybe, you find yourself playing in a band with “real” musicians.

Drummers and HR People, a Bit of a Personal Narrative

Speaking of which, I was always the drummer. You know, not a real musician. I just hit things, in the back. Despite the fact that I practiced almost all the time I wasn’t in school or doing homework, I was ‘just’ the drummer. I had a band director in middle school, I’ll never forget Mr. Bell. He helped establish my inner imposter. He used to say, rather emphatically, that there were two types of people in this world: musicians and drummers. Thanks.

Well I learned a few other instruments, took some vocal lessons, and wrote some songs. For a good chunk of my life, I played in bands, worked as a session musician, and toured the country playing music for a living…but it was never the real deal, ya know? There were people out there killing it. I just did my thing, it wasn’t any big deal. Just lucky, I guess.

After giving that whole ‘music thing’ a go, I had to grow up and find a real job. My focus in undergrad and grad school (don’t worry, they were just state schools – it’s not like I had the cred to attend an Ivy League school or anything) was always organizational behavior (OB). I wanted to be one of those cool OB/OD types like my old mentor, Dr. Chris Neck.

I was unsuccessful in scoring a cool OB/OD job at this time, but I did manage to con a nice Scottish person into hiring me for a Human Resources role. HR isn’t real business you know. You might get to sit at the table with the real biz people from Sales, Marketing, Finance, or Engineering, but mostly they tolerate you because “people are our greatest asset or whatever.” Less insight, Spencer. More Holiday party planning, was the chorus that I heard inside my head.

Despite having gone on to teach at the collegiate level, having worked with over a thousand leaders in several countries, advising some prominent companies on their people strategies, contributing to books, articles, and serving on advisory boards, to helping to build and grow a successful boutique consultancy – despite all of that, someday, they’re going to find out. The jig’ll be up, and I’ll be out on my ear.

I’m A Loser Baby…

We tend to think it’s just us. Everyone else has their shit together. Normal people don’t think about things like this. Regular folks just show up and do the jobs that they’re supposed to do. I’m sure they knew what they wanted to be when they were kids, and had absolutely no trouble selecting their major. Interestingly, it seems that it’s a whole lot more people than just you; it happens to most of us. It happens to successful, famous people too. Kate Winslet would say to herself before going off to a shoot, “I can’t do this, I’m a fraud.” Actor Don Cheadle once confided that, “All I can see is everything that I’m doing wrong; that I’m a sham and a fraud.”

Celebrated author, Maya Angelou once shared, “I’ve written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on them, and they’re going to find me out. Serial astronaut, Hubble Space Telescope Repairman, MIT Grad, and Columbia professor, Mike Massimino was “just a kid from Long Island who had no business here.” He was the one who didn’t belong.

Inside the Mind of the Imposter

So let’s think about this for a moment. Actors, authors, and astronauts (oh my!) have this issue. US Presidents have admitted feeling this way, this condition afflicts a large percentage of humans on the planet. It’s called Imposter Syndrome (or Imposter Phenomenon), and it’s a condition by which successful people credit their successes to luck, to being in the right place at the right time, to anything other than ability, hard work, or perseverance.

 Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.

This phenomenon was first described by psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance, Ph. D., and Susan Imes, Ph. D. in 1978. Feeling like things happen to you because of some sort of fluke or twist of fate turned out to be much more common than Clance and Imes had imagined. In their paper, The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention, they discuss the specifics of Imposter Phenomenon and the potential (culturally and societally aggravated) gender implications. Dr. Hannah Kent, recently did a fantastic TED talk on this topic, it’s definitely worth your time.

Next time – what to do about the Imposter Syndrome