Impostor syndrome

Making it up as we go

As change agents, we seek journeys, projects, and roles that can change the world. We build lives of purpose that not only heal the deepest wounds within us but help heal others. We dare to envision a world more beautiful, prosperous, and free when others tell us it is naive.

We take on a lot. At times, we strive to accomplish the seemingly impossible.

But as we do this, we are often overcome by the inescapable feeling that we personally are just not up to the task. The vision is too bright. The responsibility is too heavy. The genius required is too great. We have somehow convinced ourselves and others that we are capable of great feats or qualified to take on important roles. But in reality, we are clouded by doubt. We don’t really know what we are doing. We are just making it all up as we go. 

We are haunted by the fear not only that we will fail, but that our peers will find us out for the frauds that we are. We tell ourselves that our organizations, our communities, and our society need someone more capable, more experienced, more confident. We’d be better off tackling something a little less audacious, something that asks a little less of us.

We find ourselves in the grips of impostor syndrome.

Comfort, growth, stress

Here’s a little secret: unless you are intentionally lying about your qualifications or identity, you are not an impostor. If you are feeling fear or doubt, you are just in the growth zone.

In the comfort zone, you take on roles and projects in which you feel safe, relaxed, and well-equipped. You can easily feel and project confidence. You can rest assured that you will find success so long as you go through the motions of your tried-and-true formula. But while you may have the opportunity to be effective (though you also may suffer from boredom and laziness), you have little chance to be as impactful as you might otherwise. You inherently aren’t able to offer the fullest expression of your potential because you are bound by the confines of what is safe and easy.

In contrast, in the stress zone, you are trying to do so much or do something so far beyond your capability that you become paralyzed or panicked. It is terrifying. It is not simply challenging, but likely impossible to be truly effective for very long at all. You are in way over your head and drowning. You are on the path to failure and burn-out.

But in the middle ground of the growth zone, you are tackling roles and projects which require you to stretch and challenge yourself. This is where you experiment and learn. This is where you ask something more of yourself than you have asked before. This is where you dare to venture into unknown territory. It is impossible to be truly confident, prepared, and assured here because you are attempting to do things you have never done before.

Where genius can blossom

The most impactful change agents split their time between the comfort zone and the growth zone. 

Some of their time of course will be spent on tasks and in roles that they can do efficiently and confidently and teach others to do the same. Otherwise, they’d likely take on too much and find themselves in the stress zone, overwhelmed.

But they also commit to stretching and growing themselves bit by bit every day. They commit to learning, experimenting, and even failing. In doing so, they allow themselves to make greater and greater contributions over the course of a project and throughout their lives. They also demonstrate the practice of growth to their teams, organizations, and communities and teach and give permission for others to follow suit. Perhaps most meaningfully, they get to experience more of what life has to offer them and what they have to offer the world. They feel their most alive.

In short, they commit to the growth zone because it is the only place where their genius can truly thrive.

As David Bowie once advised: “If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being. Go a little bit out of your depth and when you don’t feel your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”

Growing pains

We often interpret that pang of doubt or fear we experience as evidence that we are not ready or equipped for the journeys and roles we find ourselves in. We tell ourselves that if we were truly ready, we’d know it and feel it. We would ooze confidence. We would know exactly what to do.

But if we followed this logic, if we only ever acted when we were totally confident or knew exactly what to do, none of us would ever grow or offer our highest contribution. We would all be stuck exactly where we are right now. We would deny ourselves, our teams, our organizations, and our communities all the untapped potential and genius within us.

Just as we learn to listen to and move toward our pain, change agents learn to manage and even embrace fear and doubt. That pang of fear and doubt is not evidence that we don’t belong or aren’t ready. It’s the tell-tale sign that we are exactly where the world needs us. It’s the tell-tale sign that we are engaged in the process of growth and change with humility and awareness. 

Perhaps this is even what defines us as change agents. We are the ones courageous enough, enough to tolerate and even partner with our pain, fear, and doubt. We are the ones willing to risk failure, risk being wrong, risk looking stupid. We are the ones willing to admit we are just making it up as we go, because no one has ever gone where we are going. We are the ones embarking into the unknown.

If you are feeling that pang or fear or doubt, don’t run away from it. Follow it. It will lead you down the winding, beautiful path of growth, healing, and transformation.

This lesson is drawn from our training program Change 101. To access the full lesson, including images, diagrams, exercises, resources, and comments, join Change Community and enroll.

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