You Don’t Know Sh*t, and That’s Okay
Impostor Syndrome and why we should stop trying to be in control.
Think about your experience, what you’ve done, where you’ve been, who you’ve worked with, books you’ve read. You have decades of knowledge in your head. Every day, your brain is taking in millions of data points (34 Gigabytes, actually) that have come together to form your cognition.
If you’re 30 years old, that’s 372 Terabytes of information. You’re an expert. On simple things like driving, cooking, using the internet. You’re probably an expert on more technical things as well, software development, customer service, engineering. You know so much stuff.
But you actually hardly know anything. You use the internet everyday – do you know what packet loss is? You been driving most days for 10-20 years, do you know what the carburetor does? You know your piece, but that is such a tiny part of the whole.
Everyone thinks they’re smart until they try to use someone else’s shower.
We cannot trust our judgement blindly, especially in two areas:
The perspective of others
How frustrating are the following for you: scissors, writing in a spiral notebook or binder, using a handheld can opener, using the number pad on your keyboard, using a measuring tape, writing with pencil, reading coffee mugs and text on pens, using an ice cream scoop, swiping a credit card.
If these don’t trigger much frustration for you, you’re probably right-handed.
65% of people think their intelligence is above average…
So we come to a paradox. We know a lot. We don’t know much at all. Getting comfortable living in this paradoxical situation is key. We should fully appreciate our vast knowledge and capabilities while recognizing that we are completely clueless in the scope of the world.
This should motivate us do two things:
- strive to learn more, gain perspective, about ourselves, others and the world
- accept errors with kindness, both ours and those of others
If we come to terms with the fact that we are ignorant of so much, and realize that everyone else is too, then mistakes get quite a bit more forgivable.
Most of us feel generally capable most of the time. We feel like we have a good handle on most things, but are completely ignorant in many others. When that ignorance gets highlighted, we can develop issues like the Imposter Syndrome.
Impostor syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Impostors’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.
This is extremely common with high achievers and especially newer managers. The added pressure of being in a leadership position raises our expectations and makes us feel even worse about what we don’t know. This can lead to burnout, stress, sleepless nights, depression, overcompensation and in extreme cases, has resulted in suicide.
Let’s paint a picture.
Imagine that you’ve just gotten your first management position. You have everyone looking to you for answers. Your employees, your boss, your peers, all expect you to have your shit together. To have everything under control. To have all the answers.
But you don’t.
You scramble to figure it all out. You get frustrated when things don’t go like you said they would. You make up answers to questions you don’t know the answer to. You feel like a complete fraud. Like you’re letting everyone down and you have no one to turn to. Weeks, months go by like this. You’re doing everything you can to make it work, but you know it’s not working. It’s affecting you at home. Can’t sleep. Haven’t exercised.
One day, your boss asks you how you’re doing. This time you don’t say ‘pretty good.’ This time you tell her the truth, that you’re struggling to get things under control and you’re not sure if you belong in leadership.
“Ha…if I quit whenever I felt that way, I would’ve quit 1000 times.”
The weight is lifted a bit. You’re confused, because she always seems to be in control. To be calm.
The goal should not, cannot, be to be “in control.” That’s impossible. The goal should be to have clarity. Clarity into what you know vs what you don’t know. Clarity into what you can control vs what you can’t. Clarity into what you should do vs what you should delegate.
Through that clarity, we find three things:
- acceptance of the current situation, including our (lack of) capabilities
- direction toward what we want the situation to be
- peace of mind, that we’re figuring it out just like everyone else.
That is why great leaders seem in control. They’re not actually in control. They’re at peace.