We need to talk about 'imposter syndrome'
Do you ever feel like a fraud? Are you worried someone is going to find you out? Do you have an internal voice always questioning if you’re good enough? If so, this is something we really need to talk about. Because it’s not something that is unique to you – it’s called ‘Imposter Syndrome’.
You can also hear this article as a podcast
Before we start, can I just check – should you even be reading this? I mean, what experience do you have to run a vegan business? And come to think of that, how long have you been vegan? I know people who have been vegan for 30, 40 even 50 years – how can YOU talk about veganism if you only went vegan a couple of years ago?
Now, please don’t stop reading (gosh, talk about giving a motivational talk!) because of course I’m joking with you!! All the answers to those questions is: “Yes, of course you can”. You have unique experience and expertise that makes you really valuable. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in business, or even how long you’ve been vegan, you deserve to be doing what you’re doing and helping us bring about a vegan world. But – did those questions and those doubts sound familiar? Have you heard them before? And if you have, I suspect you heard them not from someone else, but from the voice in your head. Do you have that internal voice always questioning if you’re good enough, asking why people should buy from you, telling you that everyone else who is doing what you’re doing has a lot more experience than you? Because this is something we really need to talk about – and it’s not something that is unique to you – it’s called ‘Imposter Syndrome’.
You might have heard the term before, especially if you’ve suffered from it. It’s the feeling that you’re an imposter – that you are not good enough, or haven’t had enough experience, to be doing what you’re doing. It’s like going to an event full of successful business people and feeling that you’ve walked into the wrong room, that you don’t belong there. It’s a fear that you’re only one prying question away from being exposed. And, to be honest, this topic keeps coming up in the business clinics that Lisa and I run with our members. It’s even something that has stopped some people booking onto our networking events – they don’t feel like they have the credibility, the experience or the knowledge to talk about their business in a virtual room full of other business owners. They feel like a fraud.
And even worse, it’s the reason so many people undercharge for their services. They don’t believe the value of what they deliver. I’ve even heard people apologising before telling someone how much the cost of their product is – and if you don’t believe your own worth, then how can you ever convince the people you are selling to?
So we really need to talk about imposter syndrome. And more importantly, if you have it, how you’re going to overcome it. And I’ll start with a true story just to prove that it’s not just you: I have marketing-based degrees and qualifications, I spent 20 plus years helping companies with their marketing, I’ve had my own marketing agencies, and I’ve worked with some of the biggest companies in the world. I was even a regional board member for The Chartered Institute of Marketing. But when I came to write the Vegan Business Tribe course on marketing, do you know what my first thought was: “What on earth do I know about marketing?!” Seriously. I had a moment of panic that I might not be good enough to write it. I got a huge flash of imposter syndrome. What if someone who knows more than me read it and outed me as knowing nothing about marketing? Now, thankfully, I’ve got Lisa who gave me one of her raised-eyebrow looks and just told me to get on with it. But the first thing you have to learn about imposter syndrome (and this is really important that you understand this) is that EVERYONE has it. And I mean EVERYONE. Don’t just believe me, believe the scientists – a 2007 study showed that 70% of us will suffer from impostor syndrome.
We’re all looking around thinking ‘Am I supposed to be here?’. And I’ve had this conversation with lots of different kinds of people. People who have never had their own business have imposter syndrome. People who have had a business for 10 years have imposter syndrome. Someone who has done a month-long course and then needs to teach other people what they have learnt get imposter syndrome. And I even know a medical GP with a lifetime of medical knowledge who launched her own plant-based health service and still got imposter syndrome. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? If we’ve all got impostor syndrome, then who do we think we’re impersonating? And that is the key to beating it, because once you realise that everyone else feels the same, that everyone else feels like they are only one tricky question away from being found out, you can start to realise that it’s actually a bit of a game.
And it’s really important that you do start recognising it for what it is because imposter syndrome will really hold you back. Your mind won’t be keeping an eye open for opportunities if it thinks you’re a fraud; you will be saying no when you should really be saying yes; you won’t push your company out there as much because you’re worried about people’s reactions. It might stop you doing the Instagram stories you should be doing, it might stop you approaching the people you should be approaching or making the phone calls you should make. It will stop you building a connection with your audience. So, how do we get rid of it?
Once you realise that everyone else feels the same, that everyone else feels like they are only one tricky question away from being found out, you can start to realise that it's actually a bit of a game
The truth is, you don’t. Not really. Because you are going to grow. And as you grow, the seniority of the people you mix with will grow, the audiences you reach will grow, your career will grow. And each time you keep moving on up, you will be greeted by the next level of impostor syndrome. So what we’re going to learn today is to embrace it instead. The best way to get over impostor syndrome is to accept if everyone has it, you might as well be the best damn imposter you can be.
If you’re starting to feel impostor syndrome, that means you’re doing something right. I actually now love it when I start to feel impostor syndrome because I know that I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone and doing something that is going to move me forward. It’s like the moment before you get onto the rollercoaster, it’s still scary but ‘good’ scary. Does the idea of going to an event with a lot of other business owners start to panic you that you might get caught out or looked-down on? Great – because that means there is what we call a ‘barrier to entry’. So if you just turn up, no matter how you feel or how terrified you are, you are already a mile ahead of all the people who didn’t turn up because they felt they were imposters. How great is that? You are still an imposter just like them, but you’ve taken a step they didn’t. You reacted differently to the feeling. You will have heard the phrase ‘fake it until you make it’ – well, that’s not quite the way to approach this, but it’s not a bad place to start. The sooner you realise that everyone else is questioning if they are good enough and getting worried they might be found out (even some of your heroes and people you look up to) the quicker you can start working on being just as good an impostor as they are. And this is important because just having a ‘vegan’ business is not enough. Perhaps your business makes something that replaces an animal product, or perhaps you support other businesses that do, or maybe a portion of your profits is what is going to help feed the residents at your local animal sanctuary next month – and if you truly want to make a difference, then you need to have a SUCCEsSFUL vegan business. There is a bigger good here, there are lives at stake, millions of them, and that’s a really good reason to put yourself out of your comfort zone.
So how are we going to do this? How are we going to embrace the impostor syndrome? Let’s start by talking about ‘being an expert’ – because this is probably the biggest trigger of impostor syndrome that I come across. You think you simply don’t know enough for people to listen to you, or for people to pay you money for what you know, or for you to have a valuable opinion. And again, I see this at every level imaginable (from someone starting up their first business right through to someone who’s been in business for 10 years) they don’t think they know enough to be seen as an expert. The truth is everyone is an expert to someone. If someone really needs (and will pay for) some information to help them solve a problem, it doesn’t matter if you only learnt that information yesterday yourself. Everyone is an expert in something: vegan nutrition, how to make clothes from vegan materials, how to set up a pay-per-click campaign, how to chop vegetables in the right way – seriously, there are YouTube videos with over 10 million views on how to chop an onion. If you wanted to teach your audience how to chop an onion, do you think you need 20 years of cheffing skills and to have a Michelin star to do that? If you want to teach someone who has never cooked before basic knife skills, you could have just watched a bunch of other people’s videos and done a bit of practice the day before. To that person, regardless if you only learnt the right way to chop an artichoke yesterday, you are a bona fide expert in artichoke chopping. You have knowledge they do not. Bring that into a business setting and, regardless if you only learned how to do something the day before, if someone needs that information to solve a problem then it will be valuable to them and they will pay for it.
Maybe you ARE teaching something like vegan baking skills but are worried about what experience you have. Well, to teach someone like me how to create a vegan cake you would really have to start at the basics. Measuring out ingredients, how to test if a cake is baked yet, how to take a cake out of the tin without it falling apart. That might seem like such simple stuff to you, but to someone like me who has never baked a cake in my life, you are an expert and it’s exactly the information I would want. I wouldn’t challenge you because I think some continental baking technique is better than what you’ve just told me to do – I would lap up and pay for your content if I found myself in an emergency cake-baking situation for Lisa’s birthday.
So remember, you only need to know more than the audience you are talking to, you only need to know more than I do about vegan baking (and trust me, that’s not a lot) for me to see you as being an expert.
What you know isn’t really the problem – because there will always be the right audience for what you know. So if you are really going to play the game of being a better imposter, or this idea of fake it until you make it, you just need to be able to convince someone else you are an expert to be able to get away with it until you convince yourself.
The more credibility you can prove you have, the easier it is to keep reminding yourself that your voice has worth. Can you get an honorary or volunteer role with your industry body to represent them in some way? That is why I took on a role for the Chartered Institute of Marketing for so many years. It stopped me getting into situations where I had to fight impostor syndrome. If you are booking a speaker on marketing, you’d take the guy who was on The Chartered Institute of Marketing’s regional board, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t start questioning him on what he knew before inviting him to speak, you wouldn’t challenge him to prove he was an expert! And you can do this too: approach the organisations in your industry and see if you can get a role with them. No money has to change hands. They get someone out there representing and mentioning their organisation, and you get the added authority to make you feel less of a fraud.
Or can you get a qualification? Can you get a platform such as writing a column? Can you win an award or even just get shortlisted for one? Can you get introduced by others as an expert to avoid you having to introduce yourself as once? You only have to convince one person to get on a podcast as an expert guest: the person whose podcast it is. But they will introduce you to hundreds or even thousands of listeners as someone who is worthwhile listening to. And the more you take on this role, the better the imposter you become, the more you will grow into it and the more you will believe it. The more you will believe the words coming out of your own mouth. And before you know it, you will go from speaking to small audiences to larger ones without ever having to prove yourself. I get asked to speak at some events simply because someone saw that I spoke at some other event – so assume I must know what I’m talking about! If Plant-Powered Expo thought I was good enough to put on a stage then surely I’d be a good person to speak at some European Food & Drink conference about the vegan marketplace?
The more you take on this role, the better the imposter you become, the more you will grow into it and the more you will believe it. The more you will believe the words coming out of your own mouth.
Once you’ve started to build up all this evidence that lets you convince not just other people but yourself that you deserve to be where you are – the next thing you need to do is to start putting yourself in the same place (either physically or digitally) as the people you are trying to impersonate. And this might sound counter-intuitive! You are worried about being found out so go put yourself amongst the people who you are worried you don’t measure up to?! Yes, absolutely. And this is really important. Because like I said – EVERYONE has impostor syndrome. Get to know the people you look up to and who inspire you as vegan business owners and personalities. It might be that it takes a while to get to these people, but if you’re operating in the vegan marketplace then the chance is that owners of successful vegan businesses are only a few steps away. Start on LinkedIn or go to an event (either digitally or physically) and hang around the speakers area to meet the people you are trying to impersonate. You will find that they are just people and more importantly that THEY HAVE IMPOSTOR SYNDROME TOO! Make them your friends, help them out and overtake them if you can. If you truly have a business that can take the vegan cause forward, they will likely even help you do it.
And the final way to embrace impostor syndrome is getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. Perhaps one thing that is really holding you back is not feeling like you can give a presentation or record a video of you speaking. You see how confident everyone else seems when talking or on-camera whilst you stumble over your words. So simply GET BETTER. And I know, I know, that’s so easy to say and so hard to do, but I mean it. For example, if you think that not being able to do videos is holding your business back then it is your duty (not just to yourself, not just to your business, but to the vegan cause) to create the confidence to record them. If you are a vegan nutritionist and you know that people can stay healthier by ditching meat then it’s your duty to all those people who could be living longer, healthier lives (and also the animals that will be saved as a result) to get your message out to a wider audience.
Use this kind of motivation to do the things that your confidence is stopping you doing and remember that confidence is learnt. Just like impostor syndrome, most of the people who seem confident have just practised being confident over and again until they have got so good at pretending that you think they actually are. For example, recording videos or even just doing Instagram stories: I guarantee you that if you dread the idea of recording a video of yourself now, then by the time you’ve recorded your tenth video you will at least be able to do it without panicking. And you don’t have to start off by uploading everything you do. You can shut yourself in a room with just you and a camera in an empty house or office and make something you know no-one will ever see – just to get used to speaking to a camera. If you want to learn how to do presentations or talks then start by talking to a group of your friends instead of a room full of people you don’t know. Invite them around and make a social event out of it or invite them to a group Zoom session. Convince them to let you try out a presentation on them so that you get used to delivering it, and in return you can provide a bottle of wine or a pot of tea.
Remember, you’re probably not going to get any big gigs on day one so use smaller opportunities to get comfortable. Come to our next Vegan Business Tribe networking meet-up to meet other people on the same mission as you. It’s the perfect place to get used to speaking about your business in a safe place with people who are rooting for you to succeed. Perhaps your local vegan fair is asking for speakers or are doing an online live stream of exhibitors. Do these kinds of events, speaking to a handful of people at a time, to get over your nerves. You might not want the first time you are interviewed to be on a podcast that has 10,000 listeners. Make all your mistakes on the one that has 300 listeners and gain your confidence as you build up your experience.
Having done these smaller practices where you’ve been pretending to be someone you feel like you are not in situations that you can be more in control of, then you can learn to recognise what impostor syndrome feels like – and more importantly, learn not to panic when you start feeling it. Start to recognise it for what it is, get ready for it, know it’s going to come and make it your friend. Remember that everyone else is also feeling a bit of a fraud, so if you know that this feeling is going to come you can make sure it doesn’t knock you off balance when it does. Know that when you first stand up to speak you’re going to get impostor syndrome, so make sure you’ve prepared and rehearsed your first 60 seconds to give you more confidence. Know that when you get an email that you’re not sure how to answer that it’s going to trigger your impostor syndrome, so be ready for it and have a mental response prepared that says “OK, time to fool this person that I know what I’m talking about” not “Oh lord I don’t know what I’m doing or why I’m here!”
And before you know it – you’ll find that you will have forgotten you are an impostor, or you’ll realise you’re getting away with it which is just as good. Growth (whether it’s personal or business) is addictive. When you feel that you are actually getting away with it, when you feel you’re doing things that you couldn’t have done before now, it’s actually a really good feeling. Use it to catapult you onto the next challenge.
In business, you need to identify the things that are holding you back and address them. And sometimes they are uncomfortable things but you don’t need to do it on your own. Surround yourself with people who are on the same mission as you, and you can find plenty of them as members at Vegan Business Tribe.
If you are taking any step to improve yourself then I already believe in you – you are not an impostor. The fact that you are actively reading this about how to tackle impostor syndrome means you are already miles ahead of the people who let fear stop them from taking action. And this isn’t just me giving you some motivational pep-talk, you’re still here reading to the end which means you have the determination you need to tackle the obstacles you hit, and that’s what makes you successful in business.
What we've just covered:
- If you’re feeling impostor syndrome, it means you are doing something right. So embrace it as an indicator that you’re moving forwards.
- Remember that almost EVERYONE gets impostor syndrome. 70% of us will have it at some point, so if you know everyone has it then make sure you’re the best damn imposter of the lot!
- You don’t need to know as much as you think to be an expert. You only need to know more than the audience you are speaking to, even if you only learned it yesterday.
- Getting credibility gives you the evidence you need to prove to others you are not an impostor – and more importantly to convince yourself. That might be an additional role you take on, an award you win or are shortlisted for, or a presentation you can reference that you have done.
- Go and meet the people you want to emulate. Either digitally or physically, go to the same shows and conferences, connect with them on LinkedIn. You will find they are more like you than you would ever realise, and many of those will have impostor syndrome too!
- Get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Record videos without feeling you have to post them. Do the small gigs to get experience before you do the big ones. Remember – confidence is learned, it’s not something you are just born with.
- Be ready for impostor syndrome when it comes. Know it for what it is, expect it, and have an answer for it instead of panicking.
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