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Imposter syndrome in Startups

Feeling like a fraud? You are not alone. Why do so many feel like we cannot shake the feeling that we have not earnt our accomplishment? Read on to find out more about the imposter syndrome.
AnnaG

AnnaG

Content Writer
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imposter syndrome blog

Let’s try to find out why we are having this feeling of not having earned our accomplishments. In the course of this article, we will cover the grounds on the infamous imposter syndrome in the workplace. What are the signs, why is it common within the startup scene and are you actually able to overcome it? We will also get insights from successful founders and new ones, to see how they view the imposter syndrome.

What is imposter syndrome? 

The theory behind it

It all began when psychologist Doctor Pauline Rose Clance realized that her experience of feeling not worthy enough and like a fraud when she attended university was actually a very common struggle of working professionals in general. She observed the concern among her patients, and defined this unwarranted sense of insecurity later in collaboration with Suzanne Ament Imes as the “imposter syndrome” or “imposter phenomenon.”
(Interesting fact: in the beginning, they thought it was unique to women). Here you can find their scientific paper. 

Definition of Imposter Syndrome & example

So what is the actual meaning of an “imposter”? The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “a person who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others.”  Meaning that imposters often share the feeling of not belonging within a specific scene. Let’s take entrepreneurship as an example. Of course not every entrepreneur feels unworthy of his or her achievements, but it is common that within groups of high-achieving people, some individuals cannot shake the feeling that sooner or later someone will find out that they are not as successful, bright or achieving as everyone thought they were – even if they are. This concern is often hidden by acting hyper-confident. So while impostorism has become a common scientific research topic, let’s break it down further into how imposters act. 

Signs of imposter syndrome

Evidently, feeling out of place does not immediately indicate that you are having the imposter syndrome. Nonetheless, there are a few signs of imposter syndrome that are rather common. 

  1. The feeling of not deserving the success. Achievements are attributed to external factors instead of acknowledging their abilities. Often success is explained by luck or mistakes rather than their own hard work. 
  2. Perfectionism and Procrastination. Feeling inadequate in their role, people with imposter syndrome often default into perfectionism and procrastination as coping mechanisms. 
  3. Fear of exposure. The fear of being exposed as a fake is something a person with imposter syndrome struggles with. Their peers might realize that behind the confident appearance, a woman or man with little confidence and low self-esteem hides. 
  4. Fear of failure. Failing at some tasks is human, but people with imposter syndrome are especially hard on themselves. This might also mix with having high levels of anxiety. 
  5. Trying to be the best at all times. This is one way of compensating for the fear of humiliation and shame (see 4) and 5) ).
  6. Comparison of success. Among young professionals with imposter syndrome the constant comparison of their abilities with others is very common. Common self-doubt questions are: What did I do differently? Why did the other person get the promotion and not me? This is especially true when you are comparing yourself to a person with much more experience. 

Imposter syndrome in startups

The startup scene is vivid, cool and yes, competitive. Even though all startup journeys are different and each founder or employee brings a different skill set to the table, the startup atmosphere can quickly lead to feeling like a fraud or not deserving the accomplishments you worked so hard for. We gathered some reasons why impostorism in startups is particularly high. 

  • Goals are challenging and mistakes are affecting the well-being of the startup. Evidently the stakes are high and stress is on. Fear of failure is present in the workplace. 
  • Competitiveness and performance: Being exposed as the reason for a problem or actually never even coming up on the radar of the boss is something that is a big stress factor on not only a professional, but also a personal level. Let’s not compare it to a shark pool, nonetheless, as in every other business, your performance is being evaluated and compared. 
  • Overachieving: Your peers are working over hours. Of course you will have to as well. The imposter syndrome causes us to constantly compare each other and try to be the best at all times. 
  • Competence and skills: Proving that your existing skills are “good enough” for the role is a challenging task. Startups are often founded by or they employ people with little work experience in the respective field. Naturally the fear of judgement from others is central in the brain of a person with imposter syndrome.  

Examples given by founders & experts 

Why do many people feel like impostors in their respective fields? We should talk about the topic bluntly instead of trying to fake it until we make it. Actually, Maria Baumgartner, founder of Speedinvest Heroes, interviewed multiple startup founders and experts on a broad range of topics including the imposter syndrome. (Find “Founder Talk” on Youtube)

For example, Klaudia Bachinger, founder of WisR, addressed the struggle when being asked about imposter syndrome. She is familiar with feeling like an imposter as during “her own personal journey”, coming from the film industry, it was difficult for her to proudly state that she actually is an entrepreneur now and that her project is real and successful instead of talking it down. 

Selma Prodanovic, entrepreneur and founder of various successful businesses also stated that many founders, including her, fight the feeling of emptiness inside despite having success. She sees the biggest problem of imposter syndrome in the fact that “the more success you have outside, the worse it gets”. A founder is expected to be positive all the time, she says. Hence one forgets that founders are also humans and need a place to “break down” once in a while. 

Maria also talked to Hannes Aigner, CEO of mikme, about the imposter syndrome alias “I’m my company syndrome”. He witnessed the imposter syndrome in the past in every company he worked with. For him “it’s fascinating how high identification eagerness of founders are around their companies”. Having so many responsibilities, especially in the beginning stage of a company, is an issue, according to Hannes. Nonetheless, he states as well that in his opinion the imposter syndrome is “homemade”. That’s because he shares Selma’s opinion about the fact that founders are ordinary people. They can be wrong and once you accept that it is only human to be wrong sometimes and that feedback from clients or customers is not personal, then you will be able to see the imposter syndrome as a personal journey of maturing. 

“It’s real”, so Nermina Mumic, co-founder of Legitary, when being asked about imposter syndrome. She finds that especially women struggle with imposter syndrome. She agrees that it is hard to be less self-critical and stop comparing yourself to super-experts and top-notch entrepreneurs. Her recommendation to overcome the imposter syndrome is to learn how to own your success and your achievements. 

 

How you can use imposter syndrome for your benefit 

Reading the article so far, you might have wondered how to overcome imposter syndrome. Here is how you are able to do that: 

  1. Talk about it. Share your thoughts, fears and feelings with someone you trust. That could be a mentor, a friend or colleague. 
  2. Be frank about your feelings. 
  3. Intense feelings of imposterism can prevent you from sharing great ideas. Don’t force yourself to pitch an idea, but maybe give it another consideration. 
  4. Try to overcome your fear of exposure and failure by documenting your successful projects and collecting positive feedback. 
  5. Learn as much as you can from people with more experience.
  6. Recognize the things you are truly good at and the abilities you would like to improve.
  7. Be mindful. No one is perfect. Learn to celebrate your success.
  8. Reframe your thinking. Instead of trying to overachieve, set boundaries and use the time as effectively as you can. 
  9. And why not have a mantra to tend to when things are stressing you out: 

You have talent, you are capable and you belong with your success.

Summary

This article walked you through what imposter syndrome is, what the signs are and that it is especially common in founders and within the startup’s crowd. We discussed possibilities to overcome the imposter syndrome. But maybe we got to see it from a different angle. Maybe we got to look at it like Ryan Holiday did in his article “You’ll Never Really Feel like You’ve ‘Made It’ (And Why That’s a Good Thing)”. He debunks that we might never achieve what we worked so hard for. His theory is that once you have accomplished one thing, the next task is already waiting to be tackled. He claims that we forget that the transition or “our personal journey” is the actual confirmation, validation and achievement of our hard work. One just needs to pay attention to the journey. Ultimately, we hope that learning more about the imposter syndrome may have helped some people out there be reassured that they are not the only ones experiencing it. 

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