Comment: The flip side of impostor syndrome

Jasmine Douglas, the founder of Babes on Waves, a network of female and non-binary business owners, discusses the unexpected powers of lower self-confidence.

Last summer, I was applying for tech jobs when I came across a role at a company that looked seriously cool. I had two years less experience than they were asking for, but in a very unlike-me move, fueled by daydreams of becoming a tech baddie on a tech-baddie salary, I thought why not? After all, I had my CV ready and it was a one-click application. No stress. 

By some weird stroke of luck, I was invited to an interview. And then another, and then another. I felt like the biggest impostor, scared that I would be caught out for scamming my way into the company. It turns out that a lot of people will relate. According to KPMG’s 2020 Women’s Leadership Summit Report, 75% of executive women across more than 150 of the world’s leading organizations have experienced impostor syndrome. 

I was so nervous I spent days and days preparing. After four stages of interviews, I was offered the job. But the feeling that I’d be caught out as an impostor who wasn’t really qualified to be there spilled over from the interview process into the job, and from that job into my own business Babes on Waves, a membership platform for diverse female and non-binary founders (especially WOC). 

More: Everything you need to know about... dealing with impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome is the incorrect assessment of your own capabilities. It’s that doubt in your mind that makes you believe your ability to get the job done is a three out of 10, when really you’re at a nine. Imposter syndrome can come from experiencing bias, stressful family dynamics or even cultural expectations. Sometimes, like in my case, imposter syndrome is the result of a misalignment between your capabilities and your years of experience. 

Whatever the cause, impostor syndrome is tough to deal with, especially if you’re a woman and even more so if you’re black, as recent studies have shown. But, contrary to what we’ve been told about manifestation, positive thinking and having ‘good vibes only’, feeling like a fraud can be a useful tool. 

First, people with low confidence tend to be more prepared and work harder. The other 500 candidates might have had years more experience than me, but they hadn’t matched the energy I put into my interviews and presentations. My manager told me they’d all shared the same boring pitch. 

Secondly, lower self-confidence makes you pay more attention to negative feedback. Disqualifying the positive is a cognitive distortion where you choose to only focus on negative feedback and not trust the good things people say about you and your work. 

While we should celebrate our wins, going too far the other way and becoming biased towards the optimistic can be fatal when it comes to business. If a customer has a complaint, I’m not going to just write them off as a hater. When things don’t go my way, I don’t blame the people around me or try to force things that just aren’t working. Call it pessimism, but focusing on my areas of weakness keeps me innovating and improving, while others are burying their heads in the sand and possibly missing out on chances to grow. 

But I’m not romanticizing self-doubt. Ultimately it’s about working with what you’ve got, rather than daydreaming and wishing for things to be different. 

It’s a waste to only act on your plans when you feel confident enough – the bar is always being raised, so you’ll always go through cycles of low and high confidence. Low confidence is not an inherently good thing, but it can be a valuable tool in getting us where we need to go. 

This article was first published in Courier issue 42, August/September 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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