Is impostor syndrome the result of skipping an important step?

Why the beginner phase matters and how to do it right

Cassie Kozyrkov

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Disclaimer: I’ve only ever flirted with impostor syndrome. I’ve never been married to it, so perhaps I’m the worst person to give advice about it. Maybe it’s best if you take me with a grain of salt here.

You know you’re married to impostor syndrome when you’re convinced that you’re not good enough at your job despite being in it for years and getting solid performance reviews.

Just how clueless do you think your boss and peers are not to notice that they’ve been harboring a dodo this whole time? If they read you like a book, there’s no point in hiding. And if they are that clueless, there’s even less point in hiding. Do you really think they’re suddenly going to catch on after so many years? They’re too daft to judge your skills anyway. How could you possibly be an impostor in either of those settings? And yet, so many long impostor syndrome marriages are still seeking their divorces.

Photo by the author.

I’ve often wondered whether impostor syndrome and run-of-the-mill beginner’s trepidation are more closely related than we realize.

Personally, I experience impostor syndrome as the frisson of fear you feel when you’re stepping into a growth opportunity. A kind of “wow, they let me in here?!” But then you work hard, you learn the ropes, and grow into your role, so the feeling goes away. The whole point of being a beginner is that you’re not good enough yet. Perfect. Go learn!

So here’s a question for all of you, dear readers, to rip apart in the comments: is long-term impostor syndrome a symptom of trying to skip your beginner phase? Do people saddle themselves with it by hiding instead of humbly putting their cards on the table on day one?

If you’re confident the answer is no, stop reading. My musings will only annoy you. But if you’re intrigued, read on. Unlike most of my meticulously-argued posts, this one is a shot in the dark which I hope you’ll find useful, whether it’s because you think the idea is interesting or it’s because you’re so annoyed by it that you drag a much better one out of the exercise of arguing with me. This hill is 1000% not the one I care to die on; it’s just an observation…

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Cassie Kozyrkov

Chief Decision Scientist, Google. ❤️ Stats, ML/AI, data, puns, art, theatre, decision science. All views are my own. twitter.com/quaesita