Impostor Syndrome: Why We Feel Like Frauds & What to Do About It

Getting the girl, getting the job, getting the right reputation—my entire life was all about the “getting”. I was on a continuous conquest of everything I thought I needed for happiness. But after getting comes stewarding, and that’s where my problem began.

A lot of what I pursued were things that would somehow show the world I was somebody; I made it. But what do you do when you get the stuff, convince the world—if they’re even paying attention—but you yourself remain unconvinced?

Welcome to Impostor Syndrome Land.

I lived here for a long time, in constant fear of the curtain lifting at any moment and exposing me for the fraud I thought I was.

I didn’t believe I truly earned anything. I thought “How did I get this girl, this job, this reputation, etc., when I don’t always feel like I know what I’m doing?” And more importantly, “How do I keep all of this when I don’t even feel like I have what it takes?”

I felt like a forest whose ground wasn’t dense enough to hold up the trees it grew. I was certain that, at the next slightest trimmer or breeze, all the trees of my relationships, career, accomplishments, etc. would come crashing down one by one, and I had no idea what to do about it.

The Challenge

I got a hold of a book on leadership by the late Max De Pree in which he outlined a list of questions every follower had the right to ask his leader. One question in particular grabbed my attention: “Have you bothered to prepare yourself for leadership?”

As the youngest of 9 kids, the formative years of my childhood were spent being groomed by my siblings into an ideal follower. Nevertheless, I still dreamed of being a leader. However, dreaming is as far as it ever went.

I would dream of leadership dropping in my lap though a job promotion or maybe a landslide election victory—if you’re going to dream, might as well dream big, right? But the thought of actually preparing myself for leadership never even crossed my mind.

“Have you bothered to prepare yourself for leadership?”

This wasn’t just a question; it was a challenge to the way I approached every area of life. Have I bothered to truly prepare myself for relationships, dream job, parenthood, etc.?

This challenge called for a decision: begin working towards truly becoming the man I wanted to be in all areas of life or continue pursuing the things that only make me look like him.

Weighing the Options

The problem with putting all of our focus on “getting” stuff and racking up accomplishments is we often end up overlooking truly “becoming” the type of people who can successfully steward all that they get.

Take lottery winners for example; they get their wealth in a unique way that doesn’t require them to become the type of people who are able to earn and manage large sums of money. This is a big reason why lottery winners are more likely to declare bankruptcy within 3 to 5 years than the average American1. They may have gotten wealth, but they never truly became wealthy. The only people who are able to keep and grow wealth are those who put in the necessary time and effort to become wealthy on a core level, in thought and behavior—not just in their bank account.

This is true in many areas of life. Not everyone who gets running shoes develops the discipline to become a runner, not everyone who gets a leadership position puts in the effort to become a leader and, sadly, not everyone who gets a child cares enough to truly become a loving and responsible parent.

On the other hand, a major drawback to focusing on “becoming” is that it’s typically a much slower and far less enjoyable process.

Take my immigrant parents for example. My mom and dad have only worked entry-level jobs in the United States and to this day live a very humble life. I think the last pair of tennis shoes my dad bought himself was well over a decade ago when I hooked him up with my employee discount while working at a shoe store. And yet my parents are incredibly generous givers. They spent many years living a frugal lifestyle so that one day they could become the type of people who are able to financially help others.

The odd thing is that many of the people my parents have helped often appeared much wealthier than my mom and dad. They lived in bigger homes, drove nicer cars, certainly wore newer shoes but at the same time had real financial struggles.

The old proverb comes to mind that says, “One pretends to be rich, yet has nothing; another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth.” -Proverbs 13:7

But despite their financial instability, those people were still somehow able to enjoy the very same things only the wealthy could truly afford.

So is a little financial instability a fair price to pay for a life of comfort and luxury? Looking at the prevalence of debt in our society, millions of people sure seem to think so.

After all, 75% of Americans own at least one credit card2, and the average balance of a single card is around a whopping $6,5003. Those are staggering numbers and they’re only going up.

There’s no doubt about it, getting what we can’t afford is now easier and more culturally acceptable than ever before. This begs the question if it’s even worth embracing the arduous process of truly becoming somebody when, for a small monthly payment, we can live as though we’ve already arrived.

Readying for the Reckoning Day

Almost everything in life has a reckoning day where the real is separated from the counterfeit. In boxing, for example, the reckoning day is fight night. One fighter may look like the favorite to win, but everyone will know for sure only after he’s been tested in the ring.

During my time in Impostor Syndrome Land, the idea of an impending reckoning day is what I dreaded the most because I didn’t feel prepared—and I wasn’t. Yet, everything I read on the topic told me to relax, it was all in my head and I wasn’t as incompetent as I thought I was. Although that may be true in some cases, it’s certainly not true in all cases. I may have gotten the girl, but I truly wasn’t prepared to be a good husband. I got the  job, but there was still a lot for me to learn to be successful in it. Had I simply brushed off that impostor feeling instead of seeing it as a warning and a call to prepare, I would have ended up flat on my back whenever my fight night rolled around.

So even if at the moment it may not look like it’s worth putting in the time and effort to prepare and truly become the person you may seem to be, it’ll definitely be worth it on the reckoning day.

Building a Foundation

Take skyscrapers for example. Some of the world’s tallest buildings also have incredibly deep foundations—some as deep as 279 ft4. Before building up, builders first dig down until they find a layer of lithified rock called bedrock—the solid ground upon which sturdy foundations can be built.  Building on top of loose soil with no solid foundation would leave a high-rise building incredibly susceptible to collapsing during an earthquake or a severe storm.

Let’s say there are two builders building identical skyscrapers at the same time. Builder A begins digging down to the bedrock—creating a solid foundation for the skyscraper.  Builder B decides to save time and money by jumping straight to building up without digging out a foundation.

From the outside, it may look like builder B will complete construction under budget and weeks ahead of builder A.  But here’s the defining question; whose building would you rather be in during a sever windstorm? Even though Builder B may initially appear to be a “winner”, when tested, his crumbling building will expose him for who he really is.

Embracing Being Behind . . . for a Season

In this social media age, there’s so much temptation to be that corner-cutting builder—doing whatever it takes to appear successful on Instagram even if it’s not totally true to reality. But look at comedian Steve Harvey. He is one of today’s most famous TV personalities. Yet, his journey to the top certainly wouldn’t have been the envy of the internet. Harvey spent 3 years living out of his 1973 Ford Tempo while doing comedy gigs before he finally got his big break5. And the thing is, there are countless stories like Steve Harvey’s of people who rose to great heights only after first hitting rock bottom.

The same phenomena can be observed even in nature. The Bamboo is a perfect example. In his book Atomic Habits, Author James Clear describes how a bamboo plant is mostly unseen for 5 years as it builds extensive root systems deep underground. However, when it’s time for it to come up to the surface, it explodes 90 feet into the air within 6 short weeks.

So is it worth going deep and laying low, risking looking like a failure for a season, in order to one day achieve great heights? I think so.

There’s nothing wrong with getting things. However, getting things cannot be our life’s main focus.

To go back to the boxing analogy, a good boxer doesn’t put all their focus on getting the victory. In the weeks leading up to a fight, a boxer’s number one focus is to be physically and mentally prepared for the fight. That’s what determines whether or not he’ll get the victory. Likewise, how well we prepare when no one is watching is what determines how fast and how high we’ll rise. In other words, the process of becoming all that we want to be is what also inevitably gets us what we want to have.

Truly “becoming” somebody—not just “getting” the stuff that make us look like somebody—is the cure to feeling like a fraud. Embracing the less glamorous path of process is the one-way ticket out of Impostor Syndrome Land.

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