A Little Bit of Impostor Syndrome Is a Good Thing

Self-doubt lights the path towards growth and learning.

According the National Institutes of Health, impostor syndrome is “is a behavioral health phenomenon described as self-doubt of intellect, skills, or accomplishments among high-achieving individuals.”

Taken to an extreme where it becomes a pathology, impostor syndrome is probably a bad thing. But for most of us high-achievers, I see a bit of self-doubt about our capabilities as a good thing. 

The Relationship Between Self-Doubt and Confidence

The opposite of self-doubt is confidence. Here is the formula for confidence:

Trying (and failing)-->Learning-->Repeated Attempts-->Experience-->Skill-->Confidence

Confidence is the eventual internal state that we all want to get to. But nobody starts at “confidence” because nobody starts with “experience.” If you don’t start at “confidence,” then you start at the opposite, which is “self-doubt.”

Self-doubt is the normal starting state.

Doing Something New Is Supposed to Feel Scary

If you feel self-doubt, well, you are supposed to.

Many people have a fear of public speaking. This fear usually sounds something like this: “I’m afraid of getting it wrong, I’m afraid people will think I’m stupid, I’m afraid I’ll forget what to say, I’m afraid of being judged,” etc. Essentially this boils down to the potential for negative consequences.

The negative consequences that people are afraid of when they get on a stage, I am not afraid of because I know from experience that those things just don’t happen. The keyword here is “experience.” The feedback loop looks like this:

Fear of potential consequences-->try the thing-->bad consequences didn’t happen-->less scared next time

What Does It Mean If You Always Feel Confident, And Never Feel Fear Or Self-Doubt?

This is the main point of the note.

I’ll argue that if you always feel confident, and you never feel self-doubt, it means you are staying way inside your comfort zone, and playing it way too safe.

If you’re a “high-achiever,” this is a Very Bad Thing. It means you are never putting yourself into the try-->fail-->learn-->gain experience-->build skill-->master feedback loop. It’s a recipe for career stagnation (and personal stagnation too).

If you never feel impostor syndrome, you aren’t pushing your limits far enough.

Testing Your Limits—Traveling to the Edge of the Comfort Zone

I used to play a video game called Warcraft 3. My training partner, Rob Lopez, once told me that the fastest way to get better is to play against people slightly better than you. I remember feeling scared at the prospect of losing most of my matches, but I have never forgotten Rob’s words. There’s something magical about that zone of fear, where you are right at the edge of your capability, that turbocharges the mind and the learning process.

This is why I want you to seek out a little bit of impostor syndrome. That edge is where you will grow the fastest. If you are a “high-achiever,” you must continue doing this over the course of your life or you will go from being a “high-achiever” to a “low-achiever.”

Alvin's Story

I’ll give you an example from one of my emotions & finance chats: Alvin (name changed as always), a developer at a supply chain software firm.

Alvin has a strong track record as an individual contributor. Alvin was given the opportunity to plan, project manage and lead a new software initiative spanning multiple locations. Obviously, Alvin is being tested for moving into a higher leadership position down the road.

Alvin expressed “impostor syndrome” at the prospect of leading meetings with engineers and executives who have more experience and higher titles than him. Moreover, Alvin had no experience coordinating a large project of this scale. The dominant emotion was self-doubt. Despite that emotion, Alvin decided to accept the opportunity to lead the project.

Not all stories have a happy ending. Alvin’s performance in leading the project was a mixed bag. On the plus side, he gained a strong mentor in an executive two levels above him in the organization. On the minus side, that mentor had sharply negative feedback for him on some aspects of the project. Ultimately, the project was shelved (although it sounded like the project getting shelved wasn’t Alvin’s fault).

Ultimately, what happened was that Alvin gained confidence in his own ability to lead projects. As a side effect, the organization also gained confidence in him, as he demonstrated to his mentor that he was able to act on and incorporate constructive feedback. If he hadn’t put on his “impostor syndrome” hat, he wouldn’t have had those opportunities for growth or connection.

Nobody is Ever 100% Ready to Do Something New, and Maybe You’re Better Than You Give Yourself Credit For

Last point: even if you don’t have “experience” doing something, you may be much more prepared than you realize. When other people give you opportunities, they recognize your readiness, even if you don’t.

I’m going to wrap up with a surfing analogy. (I love surfing. I’m also not good at it.)

Catching a wave in surfing is hard—I see a wave coming in, I start paddling hard, and 90% of the time, the wave just flows past me. But once in a while, I catch it, and before I know it I’m on top of the board, balancing perfectly, in control of my position and direction, and zooming in towards the shore.

Doing something new, which I don’t feel prepared for, but I actually AM prepared for, feels something like that:

I don’t know if it’s working, don’t know if it’s working, don’t know, and then all of a sudden the success is indisputable and there’s this rush, “holy **** I can’t believe that worked.”



We are looking for the opportunity to feel self-doubt, and kick off the try-->fail-->learn-->experience-->skill-->mastery/confidence feedback loop.

1-     What’s an area of your career or life where you feel mild impostor syndrome? If you don’t feel self-doubt in your career or life, what growth area do you feel drawn to that also feels uncomfortable?


When we test our limits, falling off the board is a very real possibility. Catching the wave is also possible.

2-     When I test my limits, what aspects of failure can I accept? Can I imagine what success might look like?


Nobody is ever 100% ready to start something new. Welcome the self-doubt--it's a sign that we are on the right path.

3-     How can I get started, even though I don’t feel 100% ready?

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