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The Lever #032 - The Cause and Curse of Imposter Syndrome

When you are new at something you probably overestimate how good you are at it.

As you get better you come to understand how much you don't know, leading to a phenomenon known as Imposter Syndrome.

Here is why that is, and what you can do about it.


But first:

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​You know that person.

They show up at work, fresh out of school, clutching a brand new certificate.

And boy, do they have ideas.

By the end of their first day they've let everyone know what they are doing wrong, and how to do it better.

Meanwhile you've had to go back and fix all their work.

It’s the arrogance of overconfidence.

But on the other hand...

As the pendulum swings in the other direction you get the underconfident expert.

Knowledgeable in their field. Good at their job.

But harboring a gnawing anxiety that they are a fake. A fraud.

That they shouldn't be here, and everyone will soon see them for what they really are.

An imposter.

Imposter Syndrome

The American Psychological Association defines imposter syndrome as:

“the situation in which highly accomplished, successful individuals paradoxically believe they are frauds who ultimately will fail and be unmasked as incompetent.”

Accomplished Imposters

You've probably heard of Neil Gaiman.

A highly acclaimed British author, he has won the Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker, and Newbery medals, among others.

He is prolific with exceptional works that span a variety of mediums:

• American Gods (novel)

• The "Sandman" series (comics)

• Coraline + The Graveyard Book (movies)

If there is a room of creatives, he deserves to be in it.

Which is why this story (original on his website) is so interesting:

Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things. On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.” And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”

He had been talking with Neil Armstrong.

And if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, then what chance do the rest of us have?

Enter Clance and Imes

In the 1970's Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., began studying a specific population of high-achieving women who expressed feelings of inadequacy despite their accomplishments. In collaboration with Suzanne Imes, Ph.D., together they conducted interviews and surveys with high-achieving individuals, aiming to understand the underlying psychological processes that led to self-doubt and the belief of being an imposter.

During their research, they identified common patterns and themes. They noticed recurring behavioral and cognitive patterns that contributed to the imposter phenomenon. Based on their observations, they developed their groundbreaking framework known as the "4 P's of imposter syndrome".

The 4 P's

The 4 P's framework was first introduced in Clance's book, "The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear That Haunts Your Success, (1985)" which outlined their findings and presented strategies for individuals struggling with imposter syndrome.

These four P's stand for:

Perfectionism: Individuals with imposter syndrome often set extremely high standards for themselves and feel the need to achieve perfection in everything they do.

They constantly fear making mistakes or falling short of their own unrealistic expectations.

Procrastination: Due to the fear of failure or being exposed as incompetent, individuals with imposter syndrome may engage in procrastination.

They delay starting or completing tasks, seeking reassurance or more knowledge before taking action, which can further contribute to feelings of self-doubt.

Persistence: Despite their achievements and success, individuals with imposter syndrome attribute their accomplishments to external factors such as luck or timing, rather than recognizing their own abilities and efforts.

They may feel that they need to work harder and persistently overcompensate to maintain their façade of competence.

Personalization: People experiencing imposter syndrome tend to internalize negative feedback or setbacks, taking them personally and considering them as evidence of their incompetence.

They attribute their perceived failures solely to their own lack of ability, dismissing external factors or circumstances that may have contributed to the outcome.

These 4 P's provide a framework for understanding the cognitive and behavioral aspects of imposter syndrome, allowing individuals to recognize and address these patterns in order to overcome self-doubt and embrace their achievements.

How to Beat Imposter Syndrome

If we all have imposter syndrome, what can we do about it?

Here are actionable tips to address each of the "4 P's" of imposter syndrome:

Perfectionism: Instead of striving for perfection, focus on setting realistic and achievable goals. Embrace the concept of "good enough" and recognize that mistakes and imperfections are a natural part of the learning and growth process.

Practice self-compassion and acknowledge your efforts rather than fixating on flawless outcomes.

Procrastination: Break tasks into smaller, manageable steps. Create a clear plan or timeline for completing each step, and hold yourself accountable to follow through.

Set deadlines for yourself and use strategies like time blocking or the Pomodoro Technique to stay focused and avoid unnecessary delays.

Persistence: Practice acknowledging and internalizing your achievements and successes. Keep a record of positive feedback, compliments, and milestones to remind yourself of your competence.

Challenge the habit of attributing success solely to luck or external factors by recognizing your own skills, hard work, and unique qualities.

Personalization: Develop a growth mindset and reframe setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth. Recognize that everyone makes mistakes and experiences failures at times. Seek feedback and constructive criticism from trusted sources to gain perspective and understand that setbacks are not solely indicative of your abilities.

Remember that external factors, circumstances, or collaboration may have played a role in the outcome.


Everyone feels like an imposter some time.

Keep in mind the 4 P's and apply the tactics to combat those behaviors.

A common theme running through each step is "feedback".

Track your results, review often, celebrate your wins.

And if you need to talk to someone, do it.

You'll probably find that they feel the same way you do.


When you are ready, here are a few ways I can help:

1. Subscribe to The Lever (if you haven't already)

This covers a science-based productivity concept each week, in about five minutes. Try a free chapter of my new book when you subscribe. And if you like it...

Peaceful Productivity outlines the time-management system I've created over the years as a ship's Captain and business executive. It will help you plan, prioritize, and get more of the right things done. Also available on Amazon  

This short course will teach you the fundamentals of a powerful timeblocking system to make sure you never miss an obligation and always show up prepared. Give yourself the space you need to create the life you deserve.

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