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The Impostor Syndrome: Not Just in Academia

Here's a good read for those of you interested in the impostor syndrome. Apparently it's not just those in academia. The industry route is rife with the fear of being found out, or only being successful because of dumb luck rather than skill and practice:
In other ways, though, entrepreneurship is a perfect breeding ground for the syndrome. "People who have had bad experiences in organizations may see entrepreneurship as the only way out because it allows them to control their lives," says Manfred Kets de Vries, a psychoanalyst and professor of leadership development at Insead, in France. With no boss, company founders can avoid critical scrutiny. Buffered by their relative control of the environment, entrepreneurs may feel ill-equipped to survive in the outside world. "I've always felt if I stopped doing Cornucopia, who would hire me?" says Stockwell. "If I think about it rationally, I know there's good reason I'm successful. But it wouldn't take a lot to shake my confidence." Adds Steven Myhill-Jones, CEO of Latitude Geographics Group, a $2.5 million geographic-analysis software company in Victoria, British Columbia: "I know my company, but I don't have skills that I could go apply somewhere else. I feel like a lot of what I've done has been a fluke or good timing."
It looks like CEO's, particularly those who started as entrepreneurs  have the same problems as assistnat professors in that they are expected to know everything about everything going on in their company (group), but the company (group) thrives because of their non-technical skills:
Another Achilles' heel has to do with expectations. The public assumes CEOs will be knowledgeable about every aspect of their businesses, and business is getting more complex. In this respect, those with scant education are especially vulnerable. "It's like the skills I have are just commonsense skills, like being able to relate to people," says Stockwell. "They don't feel as valid as knowledge-based skills." Myhill-Jones, for his part, is the founder of a software company who knows very little about technology. "To this day I can't do the work we do," he says. "I can make a comment on the user interface or something. But I don't understand the underlying technology."
I actually feel that I'm pretty technically proficient, but it sure didn't take long for the students and postdocs in my group to run way out in front of me. I sometimes feel like I shouldn't touch anything in my own lab:


Charley Noecker said…
Thanks for bringing this up, John. I firmly believe most of us think we're not as good as other people think we are; and furthermore, it's a major driving force behind the excellence we achieve. In fact, I would tend to trust "impostors" more than people who believe their own PR -- with only a few dozen exceptions.

Here's the take-home lesson I recommend: go ahead, let the impostor anxiety drive your excellence, but always reserve time for a well-rounded life with family, and defend it fiercely. Because you really are pretty hot stuff, even after setting aside that time.

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