Have you ever had that nightmare where you’re sitting in an examination room in front of a panel of experts, watching a timer count down to zero?
You’re being asked a series of critical, complex questions, and you’re running out of time to answer.
In fact, you haven’t answered one correctly, or at all, and as the examiners prepare to make their final assessment of your work, you realize that you haven’t understood any of their questions.
Your career depends on this test.
They’ll find out. They’ll think you’re a fraud.
As the panel of experts eye you suspiciously, and time runs out, you wake up in a cold sweat, thankful that the examination wasn’t real.
Strangely enough, many of us experience this feeling in our waking lives. It’s something commonly known as “impostor syndrome,” but it’s recently been dubbed the impostor experience by psychologists.
This experience has been recognized in as much as 70 percent of the population and across all demographics. Though not considered a clinical psychological syndrome, it still has a harmful effect on many people.
The experience often leaves individuals feeling isolated, like they can’t talk to anyone about it for fear of being “exposed”
These feelings tend to snowball if not addressed, and they can leave you with a sense of depression, crushing self-doubt, and a feeling of dread at taking on new or challenging tasks.
Everyone from genius-level scientists (Einstein suffered from it late in his career), academy-award-winning actors (Jodie Foster, Natalie Portman, and Denzel Washington), and famous authors (Neil Gaiman) have all admitted to feeling this very thing.
But it’s not limited to high-achievers; it’s also been studied in a wide range of groups, including those about to start a new endeavor or career, teachers, students, entrepreneurs, people who have recently had a failure, and even those who have had recent success. Success actually tends to spawn even deeper feelings of the impostor experience in some.
Do any of those groups sound familiar to you?
It seems to me that online content creators and digital entrepreneurs both sit squarely in the cross-hairs for the impostor experience.
What can you do if it’s happening to you?
Enter the power of interactional expertise (aka authority) for vanquishing impostor syndrome.
In 1950, the genius mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing (of Imitation Game fame — think Sherlock but a real person), created what would become known as the Turing Test for testing intelligence in robots and AI for human-like characteristics.
In the original test, if the examiner was unable to distinguish the computer’s answers from a human’s answers to a set of questions, the computer was deemed able to pass as human (or as intelligent as a human — think Ex Machina without the murders).
So, what if the test was used to compare human intelligence?
Little did Turing know, more than 60 years later, social scientists would use his test on a wide variety of fields to learn whether or not human subjects could use “… their ability to pass as members of groups to which they do not belong.”
A famous example of this test was documented in Nature (International Journal of Science) when sociologist Harry Collins passed himself off as a gravitational physicist by answering a set of questions judged by nine expert researchers in the field.
In “What Happens When We Turn the World’s Most Famous Robot Test on Ourselves?” for The Atlantic, Evan Selinger wrote that what Collins proved was that his “interactional expertise” — from having spent many years studying the physicists themselves — gave him the ability to speak on the subject as intelligently as the experts who had many combined years of formal education and field experience.
“Asked to spot the real physicist, seven were unsure and two chose Collins … Nature sent the questions and answers to Sheila Rowan, a gravitational-wave physicist at the University of Glasgow. She was likewise unable to spot the impostor.”
The humble sociologist became an expert on quantum physics simply by socializing and talking with the experts over the years, and thereby he passed as an authority on the subject by proxy.
How to beat your own moments of self-doubt and the impostor experience
Become a lifelong student, no matter what level of mastery you’ve achieved in your education or career, and teach others what you learn.
There are a handful of things we can do to vanquish self-doubt and further ourselves along the path toward interactional expertise and becoming an authority in our chosen niche.
“Learners make the best teachers.” – Sonia Simone
My colleague Sonia Simone wrote some great tips in 4 Unexpected Methods for Becoming an Authority on Nearly Any Subject, including:
- Recognize that there will always be people who are smarter and more skilled than you are, and be okay with that.
- Break down complex subjects that you understand well for others who may not.
- Find fellow apprentices who may not know as much as you and begin to teach them.
- Commit to a sincere desire to help others.
Those go hand-in-hand with some guidelines for beating the impostor experience from the American Psychological Association:
- Talk with your mentors to receive supportive and encouraging supervision.
- Recognize your level of expertise by teaching others.
- Write down what you’re truly good at and what could use work to get a firm understanding of your abilities.
- Let go of unhealthy perfectionism and celebrate small wins.
- Reframe your thinking about what you want to achieve and what is realistic for you now.
- And lastly, if you’re still in a funk, talk to someone who can help you even more, like a therapist.
From the Turing Test for humans, to helping your fellow humans learn something new, we can’t let the feeling of being an impostor keep us from getting honest about our own abilities, and feeling confident about where we are on our individual paths.
In other words, you don’t have to have a PhD in order to sound smart. All you need is the desire to keep learning from those who may know more than you and the passion to teach others who may know less.
Fear not, you’ll get there.
Please drop me a comment. I’d be fascinated to know if you’ve ever suffered from “impostor syndrome” yourself and any solutions you’ve found to overcome the experience. Cheers.