This is the first of a regular series of rules for life by Pete Shmigel, a former senior state and federal political advisor and CEO of Lifeline Australia.
‘I should never write another word.’
That’s the thought that went through my head over the Easter long weekend when I read a couple of columnists with awesome and insightful contributions to make.
My internal monologue then went into several crescendos. ‘You have nothing to say.’ ‘Your times as a CEO and senior political aide were just lucky and don’t count.’ ‘You can’t fool anybody.’
In having the occasional bout of what’s come to be known as Imposter Syndrome since the early 80s, I know that I’m not alone. I recall the CEO of one of the big four banks telling an Australian of the Year ceremony about feeling like a fraud on stage with community heroes. I know the truly inspiring leader of one of our most admired charities, which does countless good for thousands of disadvantaged people, sometimes falls depressed for his supposed ‘damned lack of impact’.
Other acquaintances procrastinate because they’re secretly convinced they’re not capable of a task, while others again manifest physical signs like accelerated heart rates, sweatiness and use of the top-shelf self-medication that too many rely on.
It’s understandable why Imposter Syndrome is so prevalent among contemporary leaders. We live in a society that supports superficiality at many levels. Kids at school are taught to think about their ‘personal brand’; TAFE New South Wales offers courses on not only ‘creating content’ for the Internet but ‘taking the perfect selfie’.
Confidence if not bravado is encouraged and reinforced in many businesses and organisations, and often repulsively rebadged as ‘leadership’. How many times have you heard somebody walk out of a meeting and say: ‘fake it until you make it’? It’s like wink-and-nod for: ‘none of us really know anything except that we’re all playing the same game together.’
In a highly specialist economy, increased specialisation also plays a role. The more specific our knowledge is in a limited field, the more we can also ignore alternative forms of knowledge from other disciplines. After all, an engineer or scientist might just make us look bad.
Simply put, contemporary society is very good at promoting a convenient shallowness. When we for some reason see that shallowness in ourselves, it’s confronting. It’s Imposter Syndrome and the self-doubt, stress and other symptoms that come with it.
But feeling these things doesn’t in fact mean we are useless, undeserving or fraudulent. It means we’re quite obviously human.
The major faiths have long counselled us in this regard. In the Christian tradition, we are extensively invoked to not covet, but also reminded that jealousy, envy and temptation are normal experiences. A Buddhist expression tells us that ‘comparisons are odious’ and monks explain that comparison is a way of building up expectations that can never be fulfilled and are readily converted to self-damaging resentments.
Modern psychology tends to tackle Imposter Syndrome from the popular starting points of self-awareness and self-talk. Common steps that American psychologist Dr Jacinta Scarlet and others urge us to take (and if you notice closely I took two of them above):
- Name it. Realise and recognised that those feelings of doubt, insecurity and anxiety are in fact Imposter Syndrome.
- Normalise it. Know that – of the other 500 guys and gals in the ballroom of the Wentworth for a 7.30am post-COVID corporate breakfast – many others also get Imposter Syndrome (even if they don’t display signs). You are not alone: you are normal.
- Claim it. Consider the underlying sources of your insecurity. Why are you always trying to please people or why do you always need to feel in control or why does a colleague’s success feel like a risk to you? What pattern of behaviour have you been repeating since well before you were in this high-flying gig?
- Re-direct it. Direct your energy into something other than yourself. Be it exercising your body rather than mind, or working in a soup kitchen. or doing the books for your local P&C, it’s remarkable how self- beneficial being of benefit to someone else is.
This is good common sense from our psychologist friends. But this new column is called ‘Tough Love’ for a reason. It’s where I’ll share some practices that I’ve learned from people in positions of power – whether that’s in the conventional or unconventional sense of the word – to manage their work, lives and families. Their evidence base may be a single sample, but they may resonate with several. Here goes.
Find the hardest thing you can do and just do it
This was said to me and other corporate types by Reverend Bill Crews of the Exodus Foundation which every day supports thousands of homeless and disadvantaged people – and started from literally nothing but a dying Uniting Church parish in Sydney’s Inner West.
If you feel like a fake, prove to yourself that you’re not. But choose an area of endeavour outside your working world. Whether that’s humanitarian or personal – like running a marathon or talking a painting course – take a huge challenge outside the pattern that keeps telling you that you’re unworthy.
On a 100 kilometre Oxfam walk once, I was struggling up an ascent and had a moment of realisation: you’re not in pain – you’re afraid. Subsequently, I’ve used that moment a lot when I feel like a fraud. I just tell myself I’m experiencing fear or anxiety, which are just emotions which always pass, and I can then clear-headedly deal with the situation.
You gotta keep a win file
So said to me a rising telco superstar who in fact has made it to the top. It’s a common corporate cliché to ‘appreciate our successes’; it’s less common practice to objectively record – without losing perspective and humility – the things that you personally have accomplished in business, public service, politics, or other organisational settings.
Pull that file out from time to time and look at its content: that clipping, that letter of congratulations from a respected colleagues, or that family holiday that your long hours paid for. Those wins are real. They are exactly why you are where you are. They didn’t solely happen because you’re a member of the Lucky Sperm Club or some kind of a cosmological fluke. They reflect who you are, your power to create, and that you, sir or madam, are totally okay.
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