The Imposter Syndrome

It is rare to run across an accomplished human who has not experienced the imposter syndrome, the sense that you do not have the qualifications necessary to be doing what you are doing. It could be serving as a Speaker’s Ambassador at TED2022, which I did this past week, or as a pastoral counselor helping clients deal with their own imposter syndrome, or as a corporate speaker.

I rarely feel truly qualified in my areas of endeavor. Every time a counseling client decides they’d like to work with me, I always want to ask, “Don’t you know that my doctorate is a Doctor of Ministry degree, and not a PhD? I mean, my mother certainly knew the difference. The imposter syndrome is common to most of us.

It’s been my privilege to speak with TEDWomen speakers about the imposter syndrome in the weeks leading up to their TED Talks. They all wonder how they were chosen to speak for TED. “Didn’t they mean to invite the other Jane Smith, you know, the one who solved world hunger?” Every speaker nods when I talk about the imposter syndrome. It doesn’t matter whether they are astronauts, trapeze artists, or particle physicists. The imposter syndrome is pretty universal.

I do know people who never experience the imposter syndrome. They are the people who are, in fact, imposters. A certain former president comes to mind. Those who never experience the imposter syndrome are those who are unaware of their abiding shadows, those parts of themselves that keep rearing their ugly heads to remind us of our flawed humanity. If the problem is always “out there” and never “in here,” you might be an imposter.

Fortunately, that is not the case for most of us. We are not inclined to say, “I alone can solve this.” We are inclined to say, “I have no idea what I am doing, but if you want me to give it a try, I’ll be happy to do so.” Which is how people end up giving a TED Talk. They keep showing up and giving their best, and eventually they accomplish something that causes people to take notice. They are usually the last to think what they have accomplished is worth noting, however, hence the imposter syndrome.

My first TEDxMileHigh talk has been picked up by “Big Ted” and was released on TED.com two weeks ago.  In its first couple of weeks, it’s had 500,000 views, which is not uncommon for a newly released TED Talk. On the other hand, it is a little unusual for a talk that is four years old. I’d like to be excited about that, but since I spend most of my time thinking I didn’t deserve to have the talk picked up by TED in the first place, I have a hard time taking it in.

When I was first crafting the speech, I kept losing my place when I was trying to memorize the talk. I kept getting lost between the same two paragraphs. I finally realized I was losing my place because I needed a transition sentence between the paragraphs. The night before the talk I came up with this – The call toward authenticity is sacred, and holy, and for the greater good. I ran the line by Briar, my coach at TED, and she said, “Perfect.” It ended up being the most quoted line of my talk, a line I used in my next TED Talk, and used again on the dedication page of my memoir.

Before a TED Talk is published, a lot of energy is spent fact checking the talk. “Did that conversation really take place? Can multiple people verify its accuracy? Do you have documented evidence for the statistics you used?” The talk that was published two weeks ago was given four years ago. Before it could be published by TED, I had to verify the accuracy of every story. That included the story of Kyle, the former manager of a Denver bike shop that no longer exists. Though I didn’t know his last name, I found him on the Internet. When I called, he was on vacation in South America. He said sure enough, he remembered the conversation, and would be happy to verify its accuracy. He even told me the name of the employee who had treated me badly. His name was Blake. Of course, it was Blake.

The folks at TED already know you are going to find documentation for everything you say, because they have done their homework before they even ask you to speak. They find people who are not imposters. And what is the best indication someone is not an imposter? Well, I imagine it’s someone who is afraid they are an imposter. Because those are the people who are always filled with self-doubt, working hard to make sure they are not talking out of their behind. They are confident, which has allowed them to achieve some modicum of success, but they are also humble, because they know a lot of their success is because they were in the right place at the right time. They know the part that good fortune plays in achieving success.

I always feel all warm inside when someone acknowledges they are experiencing the imposter syndrome. It usually means they deserve to be receiving the accolades they are enjoying. They’ve done the work to get there. They have benefitted from good luck along the way. And the contribution they make has come from living out the call toward authenticity.

I am very grateful for the TED Talks I have done, and for the success they have had. And yes, I still tend to feel like an imposter.  And so it goes.