A Conversation with Mark Tweddle on Imposter Syndrome

Mark Tweddle and I discuss the implications of imposter syndrome, notably when feelings of inadequacy might spur you to improve.

A Conversation with Mark Tweddle on Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a mindset where, despite objective indicators of accomplishment and strong performance, you feel anxious, doubt your abilities, and worry that others will soon discover you are a fraud or an imposter. Mark and I discuss negative and positive aspects of the feeling of being an imposter, how it can encourage you to improve, foster a helpful humility, and where it can lead you astray into trying to bluff your way forward with an attitude of  “fake it till you make it.”

Mark Tweddle runs YouTellYours.com with his wife Lynn Ferguson. Together they lead people to share their stories for better productivity, development, and team dynamics. Mark focuses on business operations and the challenges of leading teams and facilitating their development. You can find him on on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/marktweddle/. He is a regular attendee at Bootstrappers Breakfast and gave a great talk at Lean Culture in 2021 on “What’s Your Story?”



Here is an edited transcript of our conversation

“Imposter syndrome is when your inside does not match your outside”

Sean: Hi, it’s Sean Murphy. I’m here with Mark Tweddle. We’re going to spend a few minutes and talk about impostor syndrome, and different ways of looking at it and managing it. So Mark, why don’t we start at a high level with your view or your definition of imposter syndrome? What’s going on?

Mark: I feel that impostor syndrome has a much narrower definition than would at first appear. Because some good things go on when we have a little bit of self-doubt. We want to make sure that we’re on the right route or making the right decisions. Also, when you are doing something new with a high risk or high stakes, like starting a business or climbing a mountain, you will feel challenged, but that’s not imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is, as my wife would say when your inside does not match your outside. When the way that you feel you’re being perceived is much better than the way you perceive yourself. You feel this risk that you will be “found out.” Suddenly, you will be ridiculed or lose your job when everybody finds out that you’re not half as good as they thought you were.

Sean: My father used to talk about people he knew who were never in doubt and never right. So a certain amount of self-doubt or sense of challenge is healthy: if you never experience self-doubt, you might be seriously on the wrong track. But you’re saying that when people don’t feel as competent as they perceive others are treating them, there is a disconnect that leads to “I’m an imposter.”

Mark: Yes. For example, you get a promotion and realize that you don’t know how to do the new job. But people expect you to be able to perform at this new level–that’s why they gave you the promotion. So now you’re worried they will find out and bump you back down, kick you out, or punish you somehow.

One definition I like is the “persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved, or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.” It’s often accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud, despite evidence of one’s ongoing success. You probably don’t feel like an imposter if you are on the bottom rung. It’s when you’ve moved up.

Sean: It might be your first job: you’ve graduated, and you tell yourself, “I don’t know why these guys hired me, this is nothing like school. They are going to find me out, call me on Friday at 4:30 and I will be on the street.” When you find yourself in this situation, what are self-recovery techniques? What would you suggest people do?

Mark: Mindfulness. I know that’s overused, but it’s where you should start if you feel a mismatch between what’s going on and how you feel. You need to figure out what that’s about. What is at the root of your perception?

Is it “I don’t believe in myself,” “They have an inflated view of me,” “I’m uncomfortable with praise,” “I have a fear of success,” or something else? There could be all sorts of different things going on.

It might be that “Today, I found out more about the project I’m working on and I realized it’s much more complex than I had considered. As a result, I am not going to be able to do it as fast or as well as I thought I would. And when people find that out…”

Sometimes you are over your head

Feeling Imposter syndrome can mean you are in over your head
Sean: There are two possible situations. One where you don’t have the confidence, but you do have the capability. And one where you have learned something: you’re over your head. In the latter case, is it imposter syndrome or recognizing reality?

Mark: The feeling of imposter syndrome is a signal. So the act of mindfulness would be to recognize the signal and look beneath it. Then you can choose what action to take. If the project has suddenly turned out to be much more complex than you ever imagined, and you don’t know how to do it, then you can take action to get help. Once you take action, the imposter syndrome will probably diminish.

If you don’t have faith in your capabilities, you need to take action to improve your capabilities or your confidence in yourself. Either way, you’ll be taking action. And the imposter syndrome will start to wash away and ultimately disappear because you took action on the underlying problem.

But if you decide to ignore it and grind your way through, it won’t get better because you are not attacking the root cause.

Sean: So the advice to ignore or suppress it, to “fake it till you make it,” is probably not the best approach.

Mark: Yeah, I would say that that’s not the best way to deal with it. “Fake it till you make it sounds” like just doing the grind. Whereas, if you are mindful about it, you ask, “What are the actions I can take that will be the most effective to move me forward?” Rather than giving some BS to your boss like, “Yes, I’ll get that done.” Doing or saying anything to avoid getting caught will make you feel worse. You are not in flow; you are in fight or flight all the time.

Sean: When I start having dreams that I am taking an exam that I have not studied for, I know that I am beginning to feel that I am in over my head. I don’t think that’s imposter syndrome, but I pay attention to it. It’s an early warning indicator–or a slowly dawning realization–that I am over my head. That’s a different sensation from adding the last piece to a puzzle. The sudden discovery that this will be much harder than I thought. It’s like being in an elevator that drops a few feet and jolts to a stop. Your knees buckle, and you think, “Hmmm, I did not know it could do that.”

Mark: Let’s take it to a more micro level: say you were asked to present on change management at a leadership conference at your company. You may have nerves, but that would be normal. It might be that you don’t feel you know enough about the topic to present and you feel like an imposter. You might be worried you are not enough of an expert and are going to get found out. But it could also be that you have not given many presentations, which has you worried. If it’s the latter, you can address a lack of experience with some presentation rehearsal and training.

Mindfulness is key to self-recovery

Sean: I agree with what you’re advocating here: try to unpack your sensation of being an imposter and figure out the right action. Too often, I read the advice to feel more confident or don’t worry about it. But that’s not what you’re saying at all. You’re saying it’s an indication to take action: what skills are you missing, and what else can you do to affect the situation? It’s like an indicator light on your dashboard. Now you have to figure out what’s going on.

Mark: Yes, you’ve got a red “check engine” light that’s turned on. Perhaps I should take it to a mechanic and see what’s going on.

Sean: I saw a video where a guy explained how to fix the flashing “12:12” on your alarm clock. Buy some black electrician tape, cut a 2-inch strip, and carefully cover the LEDs on your clock. That’s “fake it till you make it.” Let’s cover up our misgivings.

Mark: There is always an exception and a truth to these things. I am not saying, “Don’t take action.” There is some action to be taken. But “Fake it till you make it” sounds like action, but it’s not. Or, at most, it’s thoughtless action.

“Fake it till you make it” confuses activity with results

Sean: I remember witnessing an exchange between two senior managers. They were discussing a problem they were jointly responsible for. At one point, one of them said, ” You know, I don’t think you appreciate how busy my team has been.” The other responded, “I don’t think you appreciate the difference between activity and results.”

One problem with “Fake it till you make it” is that it confuses activity with results.

I want to pick up on one thing you said earlier about remaining aware that you might be wrong. I was working with a skilled developer, and we were trying to debug a problem that involved stringing together multiple command line programs where the output from one was fed downstream into the next. We went through the sequence once, reviewed the result, and agreed, “OK we have confirmed there is a problem.”

Next, he typed all the commands and their arguments into a file we could run. I thought this was strange and asked, “You’re a fast typist; why are you doing it this way?” He said, “First of all, we now have everything laid out, so if there is any question of what we did, we have a record. Second, when we make changes, we will create a new run file so we can track what we have tried over time. I don’t want to rely on our memories for what we’ve done. So we’re going to keep careful records because half the time you discover in these situations is you think you’ve done something that you haven’t, or you believe that the command you’ve given is correct, then you look closely and realize it’s not. So from here on in, we’re keeping a log.

It was a good lesson for me. Experts remain alert to the possibility that they can make a mistake. It does not affect their self-image to check their work because they realize they can screw up a straightforward task as easily as a complex one. Straightforward was another word I learned early in my career. I would never tell an engineer that a task was simple or easy because they would immediately disagree. But if I said it was straightforward, I acknowledged the possibility of making a mistake even though it was less work than a more complicated task.

Mark: I think “fake it till you make it” encourages taking random actions: you don’t know why anything works and so why not keep trying things at random. You substitute more action for curiosity and thoughtful review and diagnosis. Roll the dice, maybe this time it will work.

I’ve seen people managing a project who have no idea how to get it done, much less on time and on budget. But luckily, someone on the team felt responsible, knew what to do, and worked the long hours needed to get it done. So the project manager looks good, gets a promotion, and now has no idea how to manage an even more complex project. In some cases, they took this as a wake-up call to get the skills they were missing. And that creates a virtuous cycle where they are less anxious and scared, and they can learn more and learn faster. But I have seen others where ‘fake it till you make it” became “fake it till you break it.”

It’s hard to tell the difference between lucky and smart

Sean: It’s so hard to tell the difference between lucky and smart because our internal narrative says, “Well, I made a decision and it worked out really well. I must be smart, right?” It’s rare we say “I guess I was really lucky, I should be doubly careful next time.

Mark: You have to ask yourself what type of person you want to become. Do you want to live in a random world? Or do you want to live in a world where you’re constantly curious and figure out how things work and how you can make things better?

You told me a story about a time you went to your boss and asked him how to solve a problem you had and he said, “I don’t know. We will have to figure it out.” And that was a moment of enlightenment: your boss was not like a teacher who knew how to solve every problem you had on your plate, and it was OK to admit it.

At one point, I had a research job. I read this one scientific paper, and I spotted a mistake. So suddenly it was like, these revered scientists–that I’ll never be good enough to be like–make mistakes in their peer-reviewed published papers. Papers that have been presented and discussed in symposiums and all the rest of it. Here I am, a new graduate, who caught a dumb mistake, but a big error, in one of the paragraphs.

That made me realize that even the brainiest Japanese scientist can make a mistake. So I shouldn’t expect myself not to make mistakes. I want to do my best to spot when they happen and try to learn something from them.

Sean: Mistakes are inevitable because it’s not enough to observe carefully if you want to make an improvement. Observation is necessary but not sufficient. You must have the courage to make a small change–or a medium one, or even a large one–and then test the impact it has. And not everything you try will work.

Mistakes are inevitable: now what?

Mark: There is still a “now what?” I have figured out I am feeling imposter syndrome, and it’s not pleasant. I would like it to go away. I’m pretty certain it’s because I am missing an area of knowledge or experience. So what am I going to do? If I get that knowledge, does that make it better, or is something else also going on?

There’s also something about the concept of confidence. I remember reading about a study that gave information about a patient to some psychologists and asked what they would do and how confident they were of their diagnosis and treatment plan. The interesting thing was that as they gave the psychologists more information, their decisions did not improve, but their confidence in them did.

And I wonder if there is a flip side to that: today, we have more information than we can read. Does that mean we don’t feel confident about our decisions because we know there’s always more information?

Imposter syndrome is talked about more often now. With the ridiculous amount of information that bombards us today, I wonder if information overload could lead to imposter syndrome. Do people ask, “If only I could read all of the information on this and knew all of it, I could make the right decision?”

Also, if you need help and seek help but cannot get it, you must recognize that the situation will not improve. You may need to do something more drastic, like find a way to extract yourself from the problem or the project.

Sean: You have to predict the likely range of outcomes from a decision you’re trying to make or the alternatives you’re considering. How much difference is there between the likely outcomes? Because gathering information has a cost in time and effort and delays the result.

I think it’s a mistake to say, “I need more information.” After a certain point, more general information is not helpful. Instead, I think you need to be specific about what information would change the decision you are prepared to make today. How much difference would it make in the outcome? Of course, some critical information might make a huge difference. If there is a specific risk you are concerned about and a key piece of information will help you manage it better, then you should gather it. But if you seek more information because you lack the confidence to decide, you may never get enough.

Mark: You may feel imposter syndrome because you don’t have the resources or skills you need for a particular task or project. You may lack data, information, or knowledge. Data is raw numbers or facts, information organizes the data into a structure that makes sense of it, and knowledge adds experience to the information. For example, you have all the facts about bicycles and the information about how a bicycle works, but until you sit on the bike and start to peddle, balance, and steer, you won’t have the experience to be able to ride it where you want to go.

Sean: I think that’s a good framing: imposter syndrome is not so much about “If only I knew X” as much as “If only I had the experience to diagnose a situation and take effective action.”

Well, I think we walked around it, Mark. Do you have any final remarks?

Mark: No, I think we’ve covered the basics. Thanks for the conversation.

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Photo Credit: “Businessman walking in surreal desert” licensed from iStockPhoto ID 1062765058
I thought this captured the sense of unease and moving into unfamiliar landscapes that imposter syndrome can trigger.

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