Imposter Syndrome: How Can You Use Doubt Positively?

We’ve all been taught that doubt is bad. Doubt is weakness. Doubt means you don’t believe in yourself or your ideas. Doubt is less persuasive, doubt is insecurity.

But what about arrogance and overconfidence? A mixture of ignorance and conviction in people can be dangerous – in the past, it led to the 2008 global financial crisis and the Brexit referendum.

In his book Think Again, Adam Grant defines imposter syndrome as competence exceeding confidence. On the other side, armchair quarterback syndrome is where confidence exceeds competence. The sweet spot is somewhere in between.

However, Grant argues that it’s better to err on the side of imposter syndrome. The humility of knowing that we can be wrong and fallible would probably have prevented the disasters mentioned above. With a healthy sense of doubt, Wall Street officials maybe would have stopped contributing to a broken system of bad debt leading to the collapse of the housing market in 2008. Prime Minister David Cameron was so confident of a Remain vote in the Brexit referendum that he felt forced to resign when the public voted in the opposite direction.

A potential benefit in imposter syndrome is that it drives us to work harder and to get better. If we don’t feel like we deserve the role or adulation we have been given, we may be motivated to prove ourselves even more. More importantly, imposters seem to learn better, seek out insight from others, and have the humility to know that they don’t know everything.

In some ways, it makes more sense that confidence should come as a result of competence increasing. Personally, my confidence got shattered quite quickly when I started in sales because I thought I was going to be much better than I actually was. Because my confidence was so high to begin with, it was pretty destructive, but luckily I still had the self-belief that maybe I could improve and finally see some results.

Grant advises us to be both confident and humble. Have faith in your strengths but also be aware of your weaknesses. Be confident in yourself but also have the humility to question whether you have the right tools in the present. Learning can be never-ending if you choose it to be.

Think Again: Real Wisdom Is Knowing When to Change Your Mind

Most of us probably go through our lives amazed at how wrong other people’s beliefs are. We’ll even sometimes try to change their mind and prove that we’re right and they are wrong. Most of the time though, we’ll meet stubborn resistance and others will defend their viewpoints ardently, even denying a multitude of points based on logic. In the end, we’ll probably give up, or agree to disagree as the friendship hangs on a thread.

Adam Grant, the Wharton psychologist who wrote Think Again asks us: Why are we so laser-focused on changing other people’s minds when ours is set in stone? How can we expect others to be convinced of our arguments when we show no willingness to consider theirs? How sure are we really that we’re ‘right’?

What usually happens when we form a belief or opinion is that we have pride and conviction in it. We then allow it to become part of our identity – the belief becomes rigid, to the point that we distort our reality to only see what we want and expect to see so that it confirms the belief. Especially in today’s algorithm culture, it’s easy to get stuck in filter bubbles and echo chambers where the only stimuli that surround us are the ones that reinforce existing beliefs.

Grant shows that we form three different archetypes while arguing our own beliefs and opinions: the preacher, the prosecutor, and the politician. The preacher requires no proof for their idea and delivers sermons on his ideals; the prosecutor relies on flaws in the other individual’s reasoning and tries to prove them wrong and win their case; the politician campaigns for the approval of the audience and attacks the character of his opponents.

Grant invites us to think more like scientists – people who are willing to find out where they may be wrong, in the search of truth. They allow peers to attack their ideas to see if they can uncover blind spots in their thinking and their experiments. They have the humility to doubt their beliefs and they are careful not to become too attached to their beliefs. They have the mindset of curiosity and discovery – they’re happy to find out that they’re wrong because now it means that they’re less wrong than before.

Try to know what you don’t know. Dare to disagree with your own arguments. Too often we favor feeling right over actually being right. Our calcified ideologies are tearing us apart, and we banish other people purely for their beliefs without understanding how they got them in the first place, and in the scary possibility that: We might actually be the one who is wrong.