This is an audio transcript of the Working It podcast episode: Imposter syndrome: Turning self-doubt into a positive

Sian Beilock
One of the ways that I think about how our brains work is that you have to sort of competing systems. You have this evolutionary, ancient lizard brain that is really the seed of our self-doubts and our emotions. And then you have this really important front part of your brain, your frontal cortex, that tends to keep those emotions and neural alarm signals at bay. But sometimes the lizard brain wins and those negative feelings and self-doubts take over. And that can be especially true when you’re aware that you’re the only one in the room, the only woman in the room. Or maybe you’re worried that people will look at you differently because of where you came from, or your race or ethnicity. And any of these sorts of situations and stressful situations writ large can cause those neural alarm signals to take over.

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Isabel Berwick
Today on Working It with me, Isabel Berwick, we’re talking about imposter syndrome. The feeling of being a fraud, who’s managed to convince everyone around us that we’ve earned a spot at the table when in fact, we feel totally underqualified and full of self-doubt. And let’s face it, it can be a familiar feeling for all of us. But I want to know what’s actually going on on our heads when we’re spiralling into anxiety. And I’m hoping that by the end of this episode, we’ll all know how to continue to advance in our careers without feeling that we shouldn’t be there. To help, we’re going to hear from a couple of people. Viv Groskop author, comedian and host of the podcast How to Own the Room. And Viv is also a regular writer for the FT. Viv, hi.

Viv Groskop
Hi.

Isabel Berwick
And we’ll also be hearing from Sian Beilock, who you just heard in that opening. She’s president of Barnard College, which is part of Columbia University in New York. And she’s also a cognitive scientist who studies how people perform under stress. Sian’s gonna help us understand the psychological part of this. Here she is again.

Sian Beilock
The really interesting thing about imposter syndrome is it’s way more about the feelings like you feel that you shouldn’t do well. But imposter syndrome is often coupled with a really great performance so the feelings are kind of decoupled from how you actually do. And one of the biggest indicators of imposter syndrome are these feelings of worry and then success. So I always tell people who feel like that to remind themselves that it actually is predictive of success rather than anything else.

Isabel Berwick
So the anxiety that we feel can have a good outcome, essentially.

Sian Beilock
It can. And one of the things that I think we often fail to realise about imposter syndrome is that these feelings of self-doubt, if you can keep them in check and manage them if they don’t overwhelm you completely, are a really great way to seek feedback, right? They’re a cue to look at your surroundings. And we know that leaders for example or successful people in everything from business to education, do really well when they understand how other people are thinking and understand some of the feedback. And I think imposter syndrome gives us sort of a cue to look around and make sure that we understand what other people think. But everyone feels imposter syndrome. And reminding yourself of that, that everyone feels self-doubt and that self-doubt can actually be used to your advantage, is really powerful.

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Isabel Berwick
So Viv, apparently we all experience imposter syndrome. And right now I’m sitting opposite you, a vastly more experienced podcast host and performer, and I’m just about ready to hand you the mic and let you take charge. But do you ever feel imposter syndrome? Do you remember any specific moments?

Viv Groskop
Yeah, I was just about to say, now you’re making me feel imposter syndrome. Of course we all feel it, and I really appreciated what Beilock said just there about reframing it as self-doubt. And I feel as if what she’s encouraging is this kind of reframe. And I think for some people, it would be helpful to think, oh, this is just anxiety or this is maybe overachievement, you know. It’s having too much anxiety around a project because you’re trying to outperform or you’re trying to overdeliver, which is how it ends up being predictive of success as she alludes. But I do think it’s dangerous for us to accept it generally as a concept. And this is something I’ve been talking a lot about in events recently. It’s something that after Covid a lot of people have come back to work. I think in the last five years, people have picked up on this term imposter syndrome. And now that they’re back at work and in communal environments again, they suddenly think, oh, this is something I could talk about, something I could think about in terms of myself and my own career. How do I work on that? What’s going on? Do I have imposter syndrome? Everyone wants to talk about it, and I feel as if we should not just glibly accept it. You know, the original formulation of the term comes from the early 70s, a study done in the US, first women going into the boardroom. And of course they’ve coined this term imposter syndrome because those women very often were literally almost like imposters, you know. Underqualified frauds is exactly how they would have been treated. I’ve spoken to women on the podcast, like Aline Santos who’s VP of marketing at Unilever who talked about even in the 90s, going into a C-suite for the first time wearing a man’s jacket with shoulder pads, wearing aftershave instead of female fragrance so as not to distract the men in the room. Wearing glasses with clear glass, because she don’t need to wear glasses in order to feel like she fitted the role. So this idea of imposter syndrome, I think, really belongs in the 70s, the 80s, maybe the early 90s, but now I think we should let go of it and call it what it really is, which is moments of insecurity, moments of self-doubt. And of course, you know, I started doing stand-up comedy 10 years ago, and I experienced those feelings all of the time. I mean, what sort of person would you be if you didn’t? This is what I always ask people. You know, let’s think about who doesn’t have imposter syndrome. Not wanting to make this political or divisive, but I would hazard a guess that Donald Trump does not have very much imposter syndrome or Boris Johnson. I have no ambitions to mimic their leadership style, and I don’t think most people have those ambitions. So think about maybe having a healthy dose of this if it makes you feel good. But I would question really whether we should accept this term generally anyway.

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Isabel Berwick
That’s really interesting because I think so much pressure is put on us as women to change. And maybe imposter syndrome is part of that because once you put a label on something, it becomes a thing. And I think certainly in the 90s we probably did feel insecure in working environments at some points but we wouldn’t have had a label for it. And I do think that’s a big thing. But I think there’s also an issue here about structures and leadership and managers. And I had a chat to Sian about how that can help.

Sian Beilock
I mean there’s no doubt in my mind that organisations need to change if the end result is that you don’t have diverse people around the table contributing. Because we know from lots and lots of research that when you get diverse viewpoints and lived experiences around the table and people feel included like they can speak up and challenge, you get better outcomes. However, I think we often also, all of us as individuals and organisations, put out this idea that feeling self-doubt is a bad thing, that it’s negative, that you shouldn’t talk about it. And I think there’s real power in claiming it. You don’t have to know all the answers. Part of getting better at something is learning. And part of putting your viewpoint out there is a way not to say, this is my viewpoint and I will die by it, but it’s to get feedback. Is this a viewpoint other people hold? Because if it’s not, you should want to know that. So the more that we as managers and individuals can help make it OK for people to say they feel like an imposter or to have self-doubt, the more we’re on a trajectory to learning and getting to a better place.

Isabel Berwick
So let’s just go to the bad place where you do fail. What would be your advice for listeners if you do, for example, stand up on a stage and you dry up, or you know, I think the worst thing that’s happened to me is that I have, you know, tripped over a cable on my way up to collect a prize for this podcast.

Sian Beilock
Well, first of all, I’d be willing to bet that most people don’t remember the trip. Only you, right? And so this is something else we tend to do. We spotlight on our own worst performance but other people aren’t paying a lot of attention, so that’s just good to remember. Everyone’s paying attention to themselves. They’re not paying attention to what you’re doing. So that’s number one. The second is, I do think it’s really important to make sure that it’s not just a perception of failure. There’s a difference between failing, bombing a test versus thinking you failed, but other people actually think you did really well. So one thing I keep on talking about is feedback. Like it’s good to get feedback for someone who feels that self-doubt, get feedback from your boss, get feedback from your colleagues. It may be that you’re going to learn that that self-doubt is really more internal than anywhere else. And again, that gives you power to say, OK, I feel this, but it’s not coming out in terms of performance. In fact, imposters often do really good at things, and so I just need to know that the self-doubt is there, but it’s not going to drive what I do.

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Isabel Berwick
So Viv let’s talk about what happens when you do fail in fact. An episode of your podcast has always stuck in my mind. Like, what’s the worst thing that can possibly happen? There was a woman who wet herself on stage on your podcast wasn’t.

Viv Groskop
Yes that’s right (laughter), Mel Robbins, the US, she’s a life coach. She’s one of the best paid public speakers in the world. She’s got over a million followers on Instagram, giant following. And she does probably about 300 public speaking engagements a year in front of thousands of people. And on one occasion, I think she said she was wearing a very long skirt so no one else really realised but she actually wet herself. And I had read about this and not heard her ever speaking about it so I asked her about it on the podcast and I thought she might say, actually, can we not talk about that, but she was very happy to talk about it. And she just continued and hoped that no one would notice. And they didn’t particularly, or if they did, you know, nothing happens as a consequence. And we do think there’s going to be some terrible consequence when we fail, and we think other people are going to judge us and notice. But in the example of you tripping over, in fact, that would be a positive. You would be endeared to people. People would like you for doing that because everyone either thinks, oh, that’s exactly what I would do if I went up there, or I’m so glad that’s not me, and then they just like you more. So it’s a very interesting thing and I notice this a lot in performance or when I’m talking to people about presentations, we fear so much. Messing up for ourselves is one of our greatest fears, you know? And there’s a whole cliché around public speaking that, yeah, at a funeral people would rather be in the grave than giving the oration, right? It’s supposed to be one of the biggest fears that we have is of exposing ourselves in front of other people in exactly that way that was described at the top of the show where we are the only one, where we’re separate from the tribe. That feeling of all eyes looking at us. It’s that fight or flight. It’s a really ancient instinct in us. So we have that great fear. But the flipside is when we see others fail and everything goes wrong for them, we generally don’t hate them. Most good people don’t hate that person. They have compassion. They think it’s funny. So I wish that we could look at that fear more objectively and think, let me have the compassion for myself that I have for others, and let me just mess up sometimes because it really won’t be the end of the world. Maybe don’t take that advice if you work in investment banking (laughter).

Isabel Berwick
But it’s, I mean that’s, there are physical iterations of that. But also sometimes we over-reach ourselves at work. And I do slightly worry that, you know, part of this empowerment narrative that is particularly fed to women now encourages people to go too fast sometimes, and then they’ll fail, perhaps in a workplace or, you know. Is that something you’ve come across with the groups you’ve worked with?

Viv Groskop
Yeah, I think there’s an interesting narrative that’s emerging at the moment that I hear from, I don’t want to generalise too much but let’s just go for it, you know, people over 40 complaining that people under 40, and the bigger the age gap, the more extreme this complaint is, that they are overreaching or they think younger people should have a seat at the table before they’ve earned this, or they should be over promoted. And younger people complaining that their point of view is not welcome in certain places. And there’s a really uncomfortable conversation that’s going on behind closed doors at the moment about what it means to earn your stripes. And I think that Covid has made this even more acute because generally older people think you earn your stripes by being physically present, by building face to face relationships, by learning what to do in your job, by listening to other people’s conversations and maybe sharing some of that person’s network. Well, Covid’s completely turned that on its head now because people expect to be independent, expect to choose their own times of working, their own basis of working. So the whole definition of earning your stripes has really, really changed. And I think our idea of overreaching is being completely redefined, you know. A younger generation is not willing to take on extra workload, to work those extra hours for nothing. They’re questioning that. And an older generation is saying, well, this is ridiculous. How on earth do you expect to get on when you don’t do those things? And those two points of view are really incompatible and at odds with each other at the moment. I think it’s going to take a while for this to work itself out. But meanwhile, I do think that, you know, with imposter is very strong, but I think sometimes older people in the workplace have a tendency to treat younger people as imposters, mirroring a lot of this female narrative that we’re alluding to here. And I notice Sian Beilock, in all of her contributions that she made in those recordings we’ve just heard, she elides the issue of women and minorities or anyone who feels other. So that conversation is also broadening out, you know. Imposter syndrome is something that can be felt by anyone who doesn’t necessarily feel entitled. And the whole question of entitlement, I think, is becoming hugely problematic in the workplace.

Isabel Berwick
I think that’s going to be another episode. And you write a lot for me about sort of trends in the workplace. You know, following on from imposter syndrome and this conversation about generational difference, what do you think is coming up in terms of wellbeing or feelings of anxiety in the workplace? Is anything developing now?

Viv Groskop
I feel as if the conversation people may want to have, and that some companies are managing really well, and other companies completely ignoring, is mental health. And that expression, which we never would have talked about 10 or 20 years ago, it means completely different things to different people. And I think we’re really failing to acknowledge that sometimes. So sometimes mental health has a lot to do with, are you making us work too much overtime, are you systematically underpaying us for years on end and we’re just realising that. Are you breaking the promises that you made in Covid? And these are really unionised type of issues. They’ve kind of got nothing to do with mental health, even though they have a mental health impact. But they can only be really solved in a very old fashioned, unionised kind of way. And then you’ve got the much more touchy feely kind of way of looking at mental health, which is, is your manager sympathetic to you, taking days off because you have issues around depression or anxiety? Younger people much more comfortable raising these issues, perhaps not meeting with the responses that they expect. So I think that’s going to become a growth area and you need to have a policy in place and a conversation in place around those things. I do think there’s still a real gap between the way people talk when they’re at work and being listened to and monitored, and that kind of on and how they speak and what they expect and what they’re like when they’re talking off the record. So amongst themselves or to someone like me, and that I think is a real potentially explosive nightmare. It’s going to be a problem in the next 10 years, because what we think of privacy and the elision between our private self and our work self is being completely eroded by a younger generation who really expect boundaries to be completely blurred. Whether that’s healthy or not, it’s a whole other question. But they expect to bring what they would call their authentic self to work. And we don’t really know what this means yet or whether that’s going to work or what it looks like. And it’s very much at odds with the workplace that we’ve built.

Isabel Berwick
That’s really interesting because maybe that would spell the end of imposter syndrome to a certain extent, if it’s OK to be vulnerable, to fail, to embrace that. Do you think this sort of 70s, 80s, 90s, quite outdated concept is going to fall too?

Viv Groskop
I hope so, but I worry slightly that there’s a naivety there. I’m in my late 40s so I feel as if I’m really poised between understanding that older generation and the things they did to get on at work and understanding the younger generation that desperation for change and that things can’t stay the same as they are. But I do think it’s important to recognise that you can’t have the same freedoms in your working life if you have an employer than you can when you’re just doing whatever you want for yourself. I really think we should talk more about the difference between working for a company and being a creative or a solo entrepreneur or a freelancer because bringing that freelance culture under the umbrella of an employer, it’s almost impossible. Of course you have rights and you have protections, but you also have a contract, you know. And I mean, you know, an emotional and a psychological contract that when you’re at work, you’re going to do the work. And navigating that difference between securing that work and treating you as the authentic individual that you want to be treated as, that’s tough.

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Isabel Berwick
So if I wanted just to read a couple of comments that were under your features, so like this one: the root of all workplace anxiety is the fact most of us are stuck in jobs we don’t like and that makes sense as most jobs that exist are essentially meaningless and boring, and not to mention stagnating pay and the rising cost of living. I believe deep down, all of us want to be in one of the professions that are popular with kids as those professions offer self-actualisation, and to put it simply, are fun. But unfortunately, once we start growing up, reality hits, and we settle for whatever B.S. job we think we can tolerate. Otherwise, it’s almost certainly a life of poverty and failure trying to be the next Leonardo DiCaprio. Perhaps I am self projecting, regardless. Well, rant over.

Viv Groskop
I’m worried about this person. This person is me if I had stayed in a job. So I really identify with that. But I think if you genuinely feel that way, you need to recognise that you have choices in your life. However, my anti-capitalist son would be angry with me for saying that you need to recognise you have choices in your life because not everyone does. But you can always rejig things. You can always make changes. You don’t have to stay in a job or a position that you absolutely detest. Life is just too short to do that.

Isabel Berwick
And perhaps we’re in a particular moment of anxiety and imposter syndrome as it we don’t love the term, but it could also refer to coming back to the office or being in the workplace. So here’s a quite poignant comment: I’m a socialite. I knew my colleagues and I liked them. I worked really well with them. I met them for the first time after one of those strict lockdowns at a picnic in the park. It was all very pleasant, but I came home enormously tired with lots of tension. I just lost the habit of being with people. This is to say that managers should consider that people have struggled in lockdowns. They need a bit of time to rebuild their confidence. Encouragement can be helpful, but remember that people are different and it’s easy to jump to judgment without knowing what’s going on in their minds. Yeah, I think we’re really in that moment now. Actually offices are really full, but I think for a lot of people that are really struggling.

Viv Groskop
Yeah, they really are. I had a huge response to a piece I wrote recently about how there doesn’t seem to be an open public conversation about how do we recover psychologically and emotionally from Covid. There is some people who want to just wipe the slate clean and forget this ever happened. There are some people who want to preserve the gains that they’ve made, the discoveries they’ve made about themselves. There are other people I’m a bit like the poster, you know, who are really traumatised extroverts who hated, I hated the entire pandemic, but then found themselves when they go back into those environments where there are lots of people suddenly feeling more like an introvert. And this is going to be a period of change where you do notice in comedy and in theatre, I’ve noticed lots of different performance settings, audiences don’t often know quite how to behave. There’s a delay sometimes in people getting a joke because, lots of comedians have said this over the last two years, people have forgotten how to be an audience. So we have forgotten how to be social beings. We have forgotten how to be great, fun colleagues. And we will remember again and many of us are remembering faster than others. But we need to have a place for that conversation.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Isabel Berwick
So our conversation here has got me wondering if part of the perceived rise in imposter syndrome at this moment is actually down to the mental health crisis we’re facing? I talked to Sian about that.

Sian Beilock
Yeah. I mean, there’s no doubt that mental health is on the top of our mind and on so many people’s minds. And again, I think it comes back to accepting that you don’t have to be perfect in what you’re doing, that it’s OK to have worries, it’s OK to feel like you don’t belong, and that what you need to do is get feedback and keep on going. And no one’s born a thriver or a choker in my mind. These are skills, the thriving that you acquire over time. And so being OK with not knowing, being OK with being uncomfortable putting that out there is one of the big keys to success.

Isabel Berwick
Viv, what would you want people to take away from this podcast?

Viv Groskop
I love the expression “No one is born a thriver or a choker”. That’s really borrowed from Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset versus fixed mindset. So if you remember when you were a child, people might have said to you, you’re rubbish at maths or you’re not good at sports. These things don’t exist. You don’t want to be putting yourself in those kind of pigeonholes. You know, no one is born to thrive or a choker. I love that. The most important thing I would like people to take away is this insistence on gathering what Sian Beilock is calling their feedback. I would call that evidence, and I’m always saying to people, gather data. We did a podcast with Margaret Heffernan, brilliant business thinker who would featured regularly in the FT. And her great piece of advice is, every Friday morning, sit down with yourself for five minutes and just make a private list that you never have to show to anyone else of your invisible wins for the week. Maybe three things or five things. And these are things that nobody would have noticed. So a client that you kept who wanted to leave, some business that you won, that was, you know, quite small fry, but you still won the business. A colleague who gave you a small compliment, like keep a list of these things. And then you always have evidence of the invisible wins that are clocking up in your working life instead of waiting to celebrate the massive things. Gathering evidence as well about your abilities. You know, as a speaker, as a colleague, as someone who gets things done, keeping a visible note of these things that scientifically proven that if you have it down in black and white, and you’ve seen it go in through your eyes, then you really take it in and you believe it. So don’t allow yourself to become hijacked by feelings. Gather a case of evidence in favour of yourself.

Isabel Berwick
Exactly. I think it’s that thing that one learns in therapy, it’s essentially to counter emotion with data and objectivity and arrive somewhere with something concrete rather than the fuzzy feeling. But I think we’re always going to be scared to get up on stage, but it’s OK to trip up on the way there.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Isabel Berwick
So with many thanks to Viv Groskop and Sian Beilock for this episode. Please do get in touch with us. We want to hear from you. Where at workingit@ft.com or with me @IsabelBerwick on Twitter. If you’re enjoying the podcast, we’d really appreciate it if you left us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. If you’re an FT subscriber, please sign up for one of our new Working It newsletters. We give behind the scenes extras from the podcast an exclusive Work and Career stories you won’t see anywhere else. Sign up at FT.com/newsletters. Working It is produced by Novel for the Financial Times. Thanks to the producer Anna Sinfield, executive producer Joe Wheeler and mix from Chris O’Shaughnessy. For the FT, we have editorial direction from Renée Kaplan and Manuela Saragosa and production support from Persis Love. Thanks for listening.

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