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Was I a fraud? Was I faking it? Was I capable of doing what I was pretending I could do, or was I going to be exposed?
I wondered if our pilot felt the same way in his job that I’ve often felt in mine.
Lisa and I were about to land in Moscow. It had been a long day. Our flight had been canceled and we’d been rebooked on an evening flight. We were traveling from Bergen on KLM. The flight was smooth and we were just about to land.
The plane was very close to the ground and I could see warehouses just below us and on each side of the runway. Suddenly, the engines roared back to life, the plane pitched upward, and we were headed back into the sky.
A moment later the pilot came onto the intercom and this Dutch guy spoke to us in perfect English with a slight American midwestern accent–weirdly comforting. “We’re going to be another few minutes. We were a little too high for the runway so we’ll be making a few turns before landing.” He went on to explain that we’d still be arriving at the gate a few minutes early. He was eerily calm. Good.
I couldn’t help but wonder if he was really as calm as he sounded. Was this routine? Or had he just blown it? Was he actually calm, or is he just good at sounding calm? How did it feel to blow the landing in front of several hundred people? He certainly seemed like he had it under control.
He reminded me of many of my court appearances. I was always pretty good at sounding like I had my stuff together, even as I was falling apart. I smiled easily in the courtroom and spoke confidently even as my brain kept reminding me that I had no idea what I was doing.
Imposter syndrome hung over me most of the time
That imposter-syndrome feeling gets right down into my bones when it happens. It’s hard to think of it as just a feeling, alive only in my brain. It feels as if it’s stamped onto my cells, in my heart, my lungs, the core of my being. It feels as if others can see it on my face as clearly as I can feel it in my body.
My brain tells me that I’m credentialed, experienced, competent, and capable of doing the task in front of me. But the rest of me says “you’re a fraud, you got here because you were lucky, and you tricked these other people into thinking you’re smarter than you really are.”
Imposter syndrome rears its ugly head at the worst times:
- I felt it when I first appeared in court on something I’d never done before.
- I felt it again when my cases got a little bigger.
- It pulsed through me when I tried my first jury trial.
But it wasn’t just in court that I felt it.
- I felt it when I talked to landlords about leasing space.
- I felt it when I hired my first employee, and my second, and my third.
- I felt it when I explained my goals to my family, to my employees, and to my friends.
- I felt it when I met with the banker, the accountant–even when I met with the copier salesperson.
It didn’t go away when we expanded from one office to many. It didn’t go away when we added dozens of employees. It didn’t go away when we borrowed lots of money, bought lots of things, gained lots of clients, and put a whole bunch of money in the bank.
Maybe it’s not a feeling of being an impostor, but more just a feeling that at any moment, somebody will ask “Do you actually know what you’re doing?” or “Why should I listen to you?”
Maybe I would have lost that feeling if I’d stopped growing, changing, and evolving? I suppose, if we stand still and keep doing what we’ve learned to do, then the feeling subsides. Maybe, once we stop trying for more, we do actually know how to do what we do. Maybe, if we do the same thing often enough that we master it, then we can believe, internally, that we know what we’re doing.
But standing still has never been part of my nature. I enjoy stretching, growing, leveling up, and doing a little more. As a result, I’ve felt like an imposter all along. I still feel it now.
I tried to fake it until I made it
When I started having these imposter feelings, the phrase “imposter syndrome” wasn’t really in vogue. It wasn’t much discussed.
Now, thankfully, we seem to have an awareness of the concept. Unfortunately, we don’t all realize that our feeling of being a fraud is just like everyone else’s. We worry that we’re actually frauds. “Imposter syndrome” is something for other people. Deep down, we know we’re the real thing, the real fraud. We’re not suffering from imposter syndrome–we’re legitimately faking it. These conversations in our head are wacky but they feel like they matter.
Old-fashioned peddlers traveling from town to town selling snake oil had no such inner debates about what they were. They were frauds and they owned it. They only worried about other people finding out; their own knowledge that snake oil didn’t do anything was irrelevant.
We tend to believe that we got lucky, somehow landed in this position without anyone realizing we’re not qualified, and that we’ve got to power through the feelings and hope for a good outcome. The powering through is filled with stress, anxiety, sleepless nights, trembling hands, and worry. Some can’t eat; some eat too much.
This is one of those things we don’t discuss
Sitting down at the bar association luncheon and chatting with other lawyers typically involves conversations about things like how many lawyers we have in our firm, where our offices are, and how we feel about the new judge. Then we gossip about the other lawyers.
Lawyers rarely talk to other lawyers about insecurities, fears, and our deep concerns about failure. We keep the chitchat shallow and we avoid probing the depths of one another’s insecurities.
But those insecurities lurk beneath the surface–for all of us.
Those sharply dressed lawyers in the courtroom are feeling it, as is the lawyer running for office, or running a company. The airline pilot feels it too. Most professionals are pretty good at covering up their feelings with smooth talk, asking a jury for a verdict or explaining to passengers that “we’re still ahead of schedule.”
It could be a sign of something serious
That imposter feeling happens to most of us if we’re growing. As we move up, take on bigger projects, harder cases, and more sophisticated work, we come to worry, on some level, about whether we’re up to the the new challenge. That’s pretty normal.
But sometimes, it’s more than than we can handle, and it’s debilitating.
Sometimes the fear degrades our performance, or worse, stops us in our tracks. Instead of taking on the challenge we back away. We let the work go to others and we never give the world the chance to benefit from our performance.
Imposter syndrome is, for some lawyers, a career-damaging phenomenon. Even in the face of training, experience, and objectively successful outcomes, the lawyer’s perception of themselves remains unchanged. That’s a very real problem.
When imposter syndrome is holding you back–when it’s keeping you from offering your gifts to the world–then it’s time for professional help. Serious issues deserve serious attention from someone you trust, not solutions from some guy on the internet. Get yourself some real help from someone with credentials, talent, and experience.
But it’s often a sign of growth
For most of us though, what we perceive as imposter syndrome isn’t a serious problem. It’s just part of the process of taking on the new, the bigger, the more complicated, the riskier; it’s a by-product of our professional development.
I certainty don’t like the feeling of imposter syndrome. I’d rather be cocky and confident when facing something big. But I’ve reached the point where I kind of expect imposter feelings to join me when I’m doing something new.
It’s not easy, but I’ve somehow come to see the feelings as a good sign. They’re telling me that I’m going for it. They remind me that I’m stepping into my discomfort zone. They come along for the journey when I’m on a path that’s taking me toward something better.
Sometimes I welcome the imposter feelings. They’ve proven themselves to be a valuable ally on more than one occasion. When properly channeled, these feelings get me moving. They motivate me to do better. They get me up early, keep me up late, and push me to put my nose to the grindstone as I prepare for the impending challenge.
The imposter feelings can become your little buddies and travel with you on your journey. They don’t have to be debilitating–they can be motivating. They don’t have to bring you down. They can lift you up as you elevate your game, keeping you focused on your performance and making you better.
If you’re not faking it, you’re probably not making it
I’m not a big advocate of the fake it till you make it mantra. I believe you can actually be ready, prepared, and equipped for the task at hand.
But being completely prepared doesn’t always make you feel less like an imposter. The feelings persist even when you’re fully equipped to tackle the problem.
Doing the work we do is technically complicated. The people involved bring lots of emotion into the mix. The variables are constantly changing, and goals and targets get adjusted even when we’re in the middle of a project. It’s all very tricky.
There are legitimate reasons to feel concerned about whether you’ll be successful in your assignment. The nature of our system often results in at least one lawyer getting less for our client than we hoped to achieve. We can’t all win all of the time.
Most of us feel like imposters at some point during most of the challenging projects we undertake. It might come at the outset, it might come at the conclusion when we don’t get the result our client sought. Expect it; it’s coming along with you. It’ll be there with you some of the time.
In fact, it’s the lawyers who don’t feel it at least occasionally that worry me. I discussed this idea with one of my associates and he expressed that he was “over it.” He said he’d gotten past it long ago. It wasn’t a coincidence that I’d been concerned about his career stagnation. He’d stopped learning, growing, and pushing himself.
Worry when you’re feeling cocky, confident, and certain
The lawyers who don’t sometimes worry that they’re imposters are often the same lawyers who are firmly settled in their comfort zones.
Lawyers stretching, growing, learning, and leveling up are going to feel like imposters sometimes. It’s a good sign.
Lawyers who say “I’m over it” are often really saying “I’m done.” They’re saying I’m done with expanding my horizons, dreaming bigger dreams, done with having more of an impact on the universe.
You’re not done yet. That’s something I’ve learned about you. You’re going to keep taking on the new, the bigger, the interesting challenge. You aspire higher. You’re moving up. You’re going to feel uncertain sometimes, because you keep pushing.
You’re getting where you want to go
We landed in Moscow without incident. Our pilot, whether he was feeling like an imposter or not, landed the plane on the second attempt. The wheels touched down smoothly and we had a quick taxi to the gate. As soon as we were on the ground I was checking to see if my SIM card worked, and I completely forgot about the need for a second shot at the runway.
Imposter syndrome is a thing. It’s going to happen. There’s only one way to completely stop it and that is to stop landing the plane, stop stretching and growing, stop becoming the lawyers we aspire to be. That’s probably not who you want to be, nor is it what you want to become.
Our destiny is to keep growing, to keep moving up to the next level, to keep taking on more challenging work. Bring your imposter feelings along with you. They’ll enjoy the ride and you’ll always bring them in for a safe landing.
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