Our society has long highlighted financial success as the pinnacle of human achievement. As many of our systems and structures now appear to be crumbling, we have a chance to reconsider how we define success for ourselves. Many of us have begun to consider whether having feelings of imposter syndrome is a result of feeling under-qualified, or simply because our job is not a good fit for our skills and interests. You may be asking if the work you're doing is the work you are meant to be doing. While you may have a level of success in your career, this success may feel like it lacks meaning. Even if you're able to do your work, you may still feel like you're faking it.
Society’s response to feelings of impostering has long been to encourage individuals to fake it until they make it. The better response might be to pause and figure out if you're faking it for a job you really want or if you're faking it in order to fit within a social narrative that encourages what you "should" want for yourself. When I write, paint, or make works of public art, I am not ever faking it. When my friend follows his passion for hand-crafting wooden objects, he feels deeply content. When another friend silkscreens activist t-shirts, she feels fulfilled. For all of us, these are hobbies; we are scared to make them into our full-time careers. Choosing to pursue more creative roles would require us to rebel against, at least temporarily, social norms we have deeply absorbed about financial success and personal value.
If you find yourself in a similar position, it may be time to determine if you are indeed doing the work you are meant to do. To determine if you are impostering, ask yourself this: if you had all the confidence in the world, would you still be conflicted about your job? If the answer is yes, you may be in the wrong job. We spoke with several creatives, who all agree: the secret to living a more fulfilling life is to connect more closely to your intuition and values. If you feel like an imposter, you probably are.
Research in the mid-90s noticed that the imposter phenomenon can be projected by parents who selectively value certain aspects of their child while undervaluing others. Although not discussed in that research, we may be able to extrapolate that a society could have the same impact on individuals. When society overvalues economic success and undervalues everything else, there is dissonance between what we are told to want and what we may actually want. Exorbitant financial success is not universally meaningful.
This is where we have systemic failure. When we value only one view of success, everyone works towards that. As a result, people may find themselves in careers or roles that are lucrative but that lack other levels of personal meaning. Therein, imposter feelings may emerge. Those feelings are exacerbated further when we look at our accomplishments relative to others in our field, notes Richard Gardner, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Las Vegas Nevada who has been conducting new research on the topic. We often see moderate success as failure because society shines accolades on super-achievers. This reductive view of success limits how people understand what successful careers can look like and may force them to take a career path that is counterintuitive (i.e. when we choose a career in accounting over painting because we don’t believe the latter could possibly pay the bills).
A society that actively encourages individuals to act as imposters on their pathway to career success is broken. Rather than respond to individual feelings of insecurity with compassion, our culture encourages sufferers to turn their fear into action. As a result, many are told to quiet their intuition and surge ahead. Yet ignoring intuition and speeding ahead is bad advice.
“I never felt like an imposter until people called me out for things they didn’t think I should be doing,” said Heron Preston, artist, creative director, designer, and DJ affiliated with his own label. He knew since he was a child that he was going to design dream worlds. Following his intuition led him to architecture, t-shirt design, photography, fashion, music, and maybe in the future, his own restaurant: “When I was young, there was never even an idea of being an imposter. There were no borders or guardrails or boxes.”
Preston only began to feel like an imposter when other people began to place boxes around his work. “Unhappiness projected onto other people is what gets in the way. People don’t believe that something is possible, and they project that on you, which makes you wonder if you’re doing the right thing.” His solution to overcoming feelings of imposter syndrome is simple: ignore the boxes and surround yourself with a good support system. “I step out of the box all the time. My friends support it and I support my friends. You get in trouble when you allow in outsider perspectives that don’t align with your intuition."
Dr. Gardner corroborates that community matters. Who you go to for feedback about your work impacts how you see your capabilities and achievements. In his research, he found that when people reached out to their in-group for feedback, they often felt more like an imposter. However, when people reached out to an out-group, they felt less like an imposter. For creatives, he argues, this means going to a variety of people for feedback on your art. “Go to other artists for technical skills but go elsewhere for self-esteem and confidence.”
It can take time to grow that confidence in yourself and your intuition. Sam Ewan, managing director of innovation agency dotdotdash and longtime experiential marketer, shared that he keeps research files on everything and uses that research to hone his intuition. When he reflects on his career, he believes his secret to success is knowing something well, building up confidence in that knowledge, and trusting his intuition to guide him into the right ideas, creative moments, and career opportunities.
“Stop comparing yourself to other people and understand if you enjoy the work you’re doing,” he adds. If not, check in with your intuition, follow your curiosity, and move on to the next thing. When you are feeling like an imposter, he notes, you might be one, and that’s not the end of the world. Just step back, ask if this is the right work for you and if not, move on. Don’t push ahead just because you feel you should. Push ahead when you know you should.
And, if you still don’t trust your intuition, you may just need to practice. “Figure out what you need to hear and say that to yourself and others,” said fashion designer and technology executive Dona Sarkar. “When I advise someone to go do the thing and they do it, I realize my inner voice is actually right. I knew that I was right about them—and about me too.”
David Schwarz, co-founder of HUSH, notes that he has always inhabited two worlds: business and art. At times, he's felt like his balancing of both is an act of impostering, and yet he notes that straddling both worlds is what has most contributed to his career success. “There is a schizophrenia in terms of both of these sides. There is always another version of me not in the mix at a certain moment.”
For David, the interplay between his two sides is a long meditation on the path to a full expression of self, since he believes that who he is exists in the intersection between commerce and design. He credits finding himself at this understanding only through a deep belief in his own intuition. "I use intuition more than any other skill so far in my career. I’ve followed things that just felt right at the time," he said. "I’ve made business decisions and important project decisions with limited data because they just feel right."
However, he argues, you don’t always know what feels right, right away: "My intuition doesn’t always snap to true north. Sometimes it takes a while to work it out. It’s not like a cardinal direction. But it is a magnetic north and it will eventually get there." Because of this, he is prone to change his mind and re-evaluate a decision as he gathers more information. He thinks that is essential: the biggest pitfall can be to make a snap judgement. Sometimes, "intuition requires more time to bake, but when it’s baked you can be certain it’s the right thing to do."
Take the time to listen to and tap into your intuition, and you'll move past any feelings of imposter syndrome. Thank yourself for those uncomfortable feelings, since they can spur growth if you listen and do the work.
Kristina Libby is a writer, artist, and technology executive living in New York City.