This article was originally written in December 2020 and shared with colleagues at Grafana Labs. It arose from the common and deep experience of Imposter Syndrome that arises when we find ourselves working with many brilliant people. It was written with the assumption that all readers would be colleagues at Grafana Labs, which made it unsuitable for a global readership.
Since then, the article has proved popular, and I have often been asked for a version that can be shared publicly. So, in response to those requests, here is an adapted version with those assumptions removed. It is now targeted at anyone struggling with Imposter Syndrome at work.
Okay, so that’s a pretty provocative title. But it seems, from conversations I’ve had, that feelings of inferiority are common.
I’d like to start by getting one thing straight. The world is full of amazing, clued up people. So, regardless of whether you are the newest intern, or a CEO, there will always be people that are better than you, at many things. And worse - these people may work at the same company as you.
Now, it is easy to take this personally - to find oneself feeling inadequate, stupid, experiencing imposter syndrome, etc. This article is aimed at those of us that do feel these things, and hopefully offers some ideas and practices that might help with this particular struggle.
Let’s unpack the title a bit. “How to Succeed when Everyone is Better than You”. Firstly, “How to succeed”. We all want to succeed, right? There’s nothing unusual there. “When everyone is better than you”. That’s the controversial bit: comparing ourselves to others.
As a starting point, we can ask whether we need to be better than others? Do such comparisons matter? Do they serve us? What are we actually looking for from these comparisons? I would suggest that there are likely a few possible components:
This one is actually relatively simple, perhaps surprisingly. I have often doubted myself. I have wondered why I keep getting paid. Sometimes I feel like I’m wasting time, messing around, not being productive, yet no-one has ever complained to me about that. I have, reluctantly, come to the conclusion that my opinion is actually not very accurate here. What matters is whether my boss (and implicitly my colleagues) actually think I’m contributing sufficiently to the work of my team. If my company employs managers who value honesty, we can generally expect that, if they had a concern, they would at some point have told us about it. If they haven’t, then actually, we’re fine. If you’re not sure, perhaps it is worth asking! Ask your boss if they have any concerns about your performance and contribution to the team. You’ll either end up with confidence you are doing well, or clarity on what you can improve: win-win either way!
This is great. There is so much we can learn from working with bright colleagues, and we, and the company, can only profit from sharing the deep skill that is available here.
But keep in mind that the things that make you different from others are also valuable. Don’t just develop those abilities that you admire in others; also seek to discover the things that make you unique, and develop them as well. One of the greatest strengths in a company is its diversity; fitting together people with the same strengths can be additive, but fitting together people with different strengths can be multiplicative.
This one can be dangerous. Using others to form a sense of oneself is a fraught process, and likely profoundly inaccurate. It may help to decompose what is going on here. When we compare two colleagues, we use our eyes, ears and brain to assess each of them. We are using the same mechanism of perception to make the comparison, making it a fair comparison. However, when we compare ourselves to another person, we are using our eyes, ears and brain to assess the other person, and our inner perception to assess ourselves. This means it is never a fair comparison. We will be (potentially painfully) aware of all of our (apparent) failings. Quite possibly we put in effort to hide these (apparent) failings from the world. Whereas our colleague on the other hand manages to hide their failings from us. As I said, it isn’t really a fair comparison.
Before we dig deeper, I’d like to get one thing straight: having a clear sense of ourselves and our worth is hard. Our society does not teach us this. It just seems to expect us to know how to do it. Some of us succeed at it, some of us become good at pretending we succeed at it, and some quite simply fail.
Let’s start with a simple statement: we are good enough as we are. Again, our society doesn’t help us learn this, but it is true. We don’t actually need to prove anything. We’re here, and we’re allowed to be here. If you wish, spend a little time reflecting on this. Perhaps even, sit in an armchair, with a nice warm cuppa. Say these words to yourself, “I’m good enough as I am” then notice what happens in your body when you do. Let yourself feel okay. This feeling okay about ourselves is our birthright. We don’t have to earn it.
Another reflection we can try: I was recruited to do my job. In passed through the recruitment process. This recruitment process recruited you. That says something about you. It says that you managed to convince your new colleagues that you were capable of functioning as a member of the company. That is done. Past. Doesn’t need re-doing. It says a lot about you, even before considering anything else. How does it feel if you say this to yourself while sitting in that armchair, “My colleagues chose me to be their colleague”.
One more reflection: it takes one to know one. If we recognise one of our colleagues as being brilliant at what they do, we can reflect that there must be something in us that is seeing that. This ability to recognise brilliance when we see it has another perk: it means we can recognise opportunities for growth and development. So we can, in our armchair, reflect, “what in me is seeing brilliance in my colleague?”
Switching away from reflection to a different approach - if we are not feeling good about ourselves, I would encourage you to try a simple “gratitude practice”. This can be very simple. For the next week, set aside five minutes each day. Grab a piece of paper (or a word processor) and write down three things that you appreciated, or were grateful for during the previous working day. If you can, pay attention to what is happening around you. Notice things worthy of appreciation. It can be simple things: a colleague makes a helpful comment during a team meeting, someone approves a change request of yours, or just having had fresh air on a walk, or having enjoyed lunch. This exercise is not about changing any details of our life, it is rather about changing the emphasis of what we notice. As we start to notice more things we appreciate about our lives, our experience of ourselves will change.
One final approach: one can again sit in our armchair. Close our eyes, take some deep slow breaths. Check in with our body, what can we feel? Whatever we notice, pleasant, unpleasant, painful even, can we just welcome it? If we can’t find anything, just take some deep slow breaths, and notice that. Just for five minutes, see if you can welcome it, let it be there, welcome it as one would an old friend. The idea here is that often what is most unpleasant about our experience is not what we feel physically, but rather that we don’t want that to be happening. If we decide to let it happen, to let what is there, be there, it can, rather surprisingly, be quite a relief. So, try it, just take some time to sit quietly, welcoming whatever is happening in our body or mind.
Once we start to master this - start to feel and recognise that we are good enough as we are, we can then really start to engage with the vast array of skill present around us - at this point, we are really well set up to learn and grow in a healthy way.
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