Imposter syndrome. It’s the feeling that pure happenstance or just dumb luck is the reason you’re in this current role. It’s a sense you don’t belong, you aren’t good enough, and – real soon now – everyone is going to see you for who you really are.
You might have felt this before, and I’m sure many of your peers are feeling it right now. When the topic comes up amongst friends and co-workers, when someone asks, “How many of you have felt Imposter Syndrome?” I’m surprised how many confident, talented, and hard-working humans raise their hands instantly.
Where does it come from? Why does it exist in talented and experienced humans?
I don’t know. Not a psychologist. Just another human. Trying to figure it out. A little bit at a time.
It’s one of the items on a terrifyingly long list of irrational human behaviors that I don’t understand. Still, where I’ve had success is giving the behavior a name so I can see it. This allows me a chance to succeed at Step 2.
The Untitled List
There’s a list on the last page of my current personal notebook. It has no title. Each time I finish a notebook, I dutifully translate the current version of this list from old to new notebook.
This untitled list is my Sabotage List. It’s a list of important projects I’m currently not doing for… reasons. I’ll explain some of the reasons as best I can shortly, but the majority of the hard work is honestly building and maintaining this list.
Important projects I’m not doing. Essential projects. Doesn’t make sense, right? Well, become comfortable with irrationality if you’re going to finish this piece. Yes, they are important. Yes, I am actively not working on them. Yes, under self-inflicted duress and just between you and me, yeah, I acknowledge I’m not actively working on these projects. Why? Here are some world-class, totally reasonable excuses:
- Next thing on the list! Been super busy.
- I’m working on step one this week and will report back shortly.
- Blocked on Person X, who needs to deliver thing Y.
- It’s on the calendar!
Do you know when someone is spinning you? Not lying, spinning. I do, and I don’t need to hear a single spoken word to sense it. All I need to see is the same instant subtle physical discomfort before they answer the question. The unease accompanied by manufactured enthusiasm designed to be a cover and saccharine excitement deployed as a targeted distraction. I know it because I do it too.
Why am I sabotaging myself? I don’t know. Not a psychologist. Just another human. Trying to figure it out. A little bit at a time.
An easier question is: why keep a list?
As promised, here are some obvious-to-me reasons that are woefully incomplete as to why I might not be engaging:
- The project doesn’t deliver obvious value. I can’t see why I would execute this project when the return on investment is so low. (Yeah, so, why is it on this list?)
- The work is complicated, so complicated that I instinctively don’t know how to start. When I consider the project, I’m drawing a blank. (Yeah, so, you’ve completed far larger and more complicated projects many, many times.)
- There is downstream scariness and/or professional discomfort that will occur for one or more of my team members due to completing this project that I don’t want to face. (NooOooOOow we’re getting somewhere.)
- … or it’s something else. LALALALlalaLALLALA. I don’t know. Not a psychologist. Just another human. Trying to figure it out. A little bit at a time.
Sabotage is a strong word. It’s declarative. It accuses. That’s why I picked it. The Sabotage List isn’t for you; it’s for me. The goal is not to resolve each item on the list. The goal is to make sure it exists as a visible artifact rather than carefully tucked away in the deep dark corners of my brain. Invisible. Hiding, but with an impressive weight.
When I review the list, I don’t have a proscribed process, but I am always aware it’s there. Occasionally and always unplanned, I glance at the list and wonder for a moment, Why is this here? What is the reason I choose not to act?
Often the silent efficient irrational defense mechanism prevents me from thinking deeper, but sometimes… sometimes in that brief reflection, I find revelation. Oh, I’m not working on this because… 10 years ago, THIS happened, and it hurt, and I’ll never forget that hurt thank you very much. My prior experience left a mental scar, and simply knowing that it exists is immense progress. Not because I found a way forward, but because now I know why I stopped.
A list carries weight. It often documents a set of things you need to do. This is a flaw in the Sabotage List. I sometimes cross an item off the list, but I’m never done. It’s never empty. The Sabotage List, like Imposter Syndrome, is a name for a thing, but also a reminder that there is much I don’t know and, no, I’ll never be a psychologist, but I’ll always strive to figure it out.
A little bit at a time.