It's all too easy to look at successful entrepreneurs and think they have it all together. I look to my colleagues who have cool exteriors and successful practices and wonder – how have they nailed it so effortlessly?
If the Covid-19 situation has taught us anything, it's that we're all working this out as we go along – and that, like me, all entrepreneurs can feel overwhelmed and unsure. So why is so-called "imposter syndrome" so prevalent? And how can we overcome it to get through these times with confidence and self-belief?
The myths behind imposter syndrome
I co-founded Uprise with Matt Rowe in 2009, and we've been working hard and delivering provable marketable digital marketing for over a decade now. Despite a long list of accomplishments, imposter syndrome sits there behind the scenes; a nagging feeling of self-doubt that somehow we're not worthy of the results we've achieved, or that we've made our name through sheer dumb luck.
I'm not sure what it is about imposter syndrome, but it seems to be something that virtually every entrepreneur suffers from. Your traditional view of an entrepreneur might be loud, brash, and overconfident, but the reality is pretty far off.
Sure, entrepreneurs might be risk-taking, outgoing, and confident (although not every entrepreneur is an extrovert!). And yes, we're damn passionate about our ideas and offerings – and will soon talk your head off about our business if you let us.
But truth be told, all of us have doubts. All of us feel like we don't really know what we're doing. Many of us feel like frauds or worry about poking our heads too far out and being cut off by tall poppy syndrome. And all of us think that everyone else out there is doing it better than we are. We don't say this much publicly, but we're thinking it.
Imposter syndrome feels like a lack of something, or that we're not good enough to be where we are. But we can't all be lacking. We can't all be not good enough – especially when we look at the incredible successes that great people achieve despite, privately, feeling like imposters.
If we recognise that this is something that we all deal with – and that it isn't a reflection of our real skills or talents – then it becomes less of an individual issue, and more of something we all need to overcome together.
So what can we do about it?
Practising a skill
I 100 per cent suffer from imposter syndrome, although it's something I've been coming to terms within the last year. It was way harder when I was starting out Uprise Digital at 21. I even used to wear a wedding ring in meetings just so I looked older than I was.
Although I'm now old enough – and confident enough – to feel I don't need to wear the ring and "fake it til I make it", more experience doesn't prove the magical fix for imposter syndrome that we think it will be when we first start out. If you want to overcome your own misgivings about your own skills, you have to take them head-on. Like any other skill, it was something that I worked on.
These days, I like to recognise those moments when I'm struggling with confidence, and adjust my mindset. Perception is everything, after all. That way, I can do what I need to do and make decisions and lead my team confidently and consistently.
Opening up conversations
But working on that skill can only happen if you're open and honest about what you're dealing with.
My colleagues in the Entrepreneurs Organisation (EO) feel the same. Take, for example, Warner Cowin, CEO of Height PM.
"I still suffer from imposter syndrome terribly," he says. "I still have times when I'm concerned that no-one will come to us for work, that customers won't like us. But discussing that sense of imposter syndrome openly is so valuable. It helps you understand that it's okay not to know; to have times of uncertainty."
Openness goes further than just talking to other entrepreneurs. It's okay to share those anxieties with your team as well. Together, you can come to appreciate and understand the concerns that you all have. You are, after all, real people. Imperfect, diverse, and working together towards a common goal.
Cowin talks with his team about the challenges of imposter syndrome. Together they work on how to deal with it.
"Every time we have a quiet period or things drop off, we freak out a little bit – but we know that the sales will come; the customers will always come. If senior members of the team show vulnerability, the rest of the team knows it's okay to do the same – and that's been incredibly powerful for our culture."
Finding your tribe
For Sussan Ockwell, Director of Optimism, imposter syndrome has been a prevailing theme throughout her career – something that was especially hard in the early days of her business.
Ockwell says she absolutely suffers from imposter syndrome.
"Everyone does. Especially as a young female business owner 30 years ago, I always felt so alone. I would wear black suits to networking events, and have my hair up to try and fit in, but never felt like I did."
Ockwell dealt a blow to imposter syndrome by finding a tribe of people who experienced the same things and were up against the same challenges – including imposter syndrome.
She's quick to credit EO as a big part of that – a place where she found she could fit in and relax without judgment.
"You realise that even the most incredible entrepreneurs sometimes crash and burn and that's okay. Stuff happens!"
Oddly enough, imposter syndrome often holds people back from joining networks of like-minded people. After all, you're hoping to surround yourself with successful entrepreneurs, and the thought of putting yourself among greats can be a debilitating one. But that's exactly why you should do it.
Cowin says that he'd never met a more welcoming group of people in his life in EO. I'd agree. Not to give away too much of what goes on behind the curtain, but even the biggest names in New Zealand business are making it up as they go along.
In short, you don't have to be perfect.
Right now, more than ever, imposter syndrome is a big issue. The fear that we might not make the right decision, or the stress of not having all the answers, can be exacerbated by everything that's going on and it's likely impacting on many entrepreneurs' mental health.
At EO New Zealand, we're big believers in the power of peer-to-peer learning. Let's leverage that to get past our imposter syndrome and feel confident that we're doing the best we can to grow the best businesses we can.
- Tim Pointer is the co-founder of Uprise.