Why I feel like a fraud

September 27, 2010 | Jason Cohen

Guest post by Jason Cohen.

I feel like a fraud. I’ve been at this for 16 years and I still feel like a fraud. I’m just waiting for the day they see through the façade, but they keep coming back every year.”   –Jason Young

impostor-syndromeAh yes, the awe-inspiring words of confidence from the seasoned entrepreneur. My friend Jason intended this as soothing words of solace during (one of my) periods of personal freak-out while Smart Bear was in its infancy.

I felt like a fraud every day. Here I was, selling a wobbly, buggy tool and pawning myself off as an expert in a field that didn’t exist. (My software was the first commercial tool for code review.) Every second I felt like I was putting one over on the world.

I would explain how my tool cuts code review time in half, but was that actually true or had I just repeated the argument so many times that I stopped questioning it? I would instruct customers on “best practices” for code review, but who am I to tell other people how to critique code? I would orchestrate purchases, but should I be handling large sums of money with no knowledge of accounting, cash-flow, invoicing, purchase orders, or “enterprise sales” process?

Aren’t I too young? Isn’t the tool too crappy to charge for? Aren’t I too inexperienced? Don’t I need an MBA or at least some sales training?

Is Smart Bear a “real company?” What does that even mean?

Objectively, and with hindsight, my feelings were misplaced. The tool really did save time and headache; customers said so. As much as I doubted the title “Code Review Expert,” I had developed more experience with more teams in more situations than any one person could (because everyone else was busy doing their actual jobs). And sales isn’t as mystical and unknowable as I feared.

Still, emotions don’t respond to logic. Jason was telling me that these feelings don’t go away, even when they ought.

The other thing he was saying is: You’re not alone. As it turns out, it’s not even just business founders. Mike Meyers said “I still believe that at any time the No-Talent Police will come and arrest me.” Jodie Foster said “I thought it [winning the Oscar] was a fluke. The same way as when I walked on the campus at Yale. I thought everybody would find out, and they’d take the Oscar back.”

It turns out there’s a psycho-babble name for this: Impostor Syndrome. As Inc Magazine points out, studies show that “40% of successful people consider themselves frauds.” Ask any small business coach; they’ll confirm how prevalent these feelings are. It’s even common with PhD candidates.

Although not an official psychological disorder, and generally not crippling, if you have these feelings it’s useful to know that it’s common and there’s something you can do about it.

See if these sound familiar:

  • You dismiss compliments, awards, and positive reinforcement as “no big deal.”
  • You are crushed by mild, constructive criticism.
  • You believe you’re not as smart/talented/capable as other people think you are.
  • You worry others will discover you’re not as smart/talented/capable as they think you are.
  • You think other people with similar jobs are more “adult” than you are, and they “have their shit together” while you flounder around.
  • You feel your successes are due more to luck than ability; with your failures it’s the other way around.
  • You find it difficult to take credit for your accomplishments.
  • You feel that you’re the living embodiment of “fake it until you make it.”

But wait, how can this be? This overwhelming lack of self-confidence is the opposite of the traditional entrepreneurial stereotype. Don’t founders forge ahead even when others say success is impossible? Doesn’t a founder invent a new product based on her confidence that others will want it? Doesn’t the very idea of starting your own company scream “I’m doing it my way, and my way is better?”

But it does make sense. Consider what it means to be a perfectionist. The perfectionist sees flaws in everyone else’s work; there’s always a way to make it better — her way. She doesn’t respond well to authority dictating how things must be; neither is she comfortable delegating to those who (by her definition) clearly don’t care as much as she does.

Sounds like the stereotypical attitude of the arrogant startup founder, but wait! At the same time, the perfectionist is never happy with her own work either, seeing (inventing?) a never-ending stream of flaws that require attention. No matter how highly others regard her work, the perfectionist insists it’s incomplete and unsatisfactory. She can’t accept the idea that others would be impressed with her accomplishments, since to her they’re mediocre works-in-progress. She worries that one day they’ll realize she’s right.

Our entrepreneurial motivation is not confidence, it’s an insatiable desire to improve. It’s not about thinking your ideas are better than everyone else’s, it’s about never accepting any idea as being best.

Can these feelings be constructive? Yes, if they’re a sign that you’re striving to learn and improve. As Andy Wibbels says:

If I don’t feel like a fraud at least once a day then I’m not reaching far enough.

If you aren’t scared shitless then why bother?

Here’s what it looks like when you’re channeling these self-doubts into something constructive:

  • I doubt my title as “expert,” so every day I read, write, and immerse myself in my field.
  • I doubt the quality of my software, so I fix bugs as fast as possible, I write unit tests proactively, and I thank my customers for their patience.
  • I doubt I deserve my reputation, so I work hard to earn it.
  • I’m not as good as I want to be at speaking/ writing/ programming/ designing/ managing, but I can see myself slowly improving.
  • I’m not a “real company” yet, so I concentrate on making my customers successful, so they don’t care about corporate size or structure.

On the other hand, here’s what it looks like when these doubts are harming you:

  • I doubt my title as “expert,” so every night I worry about what will happen when I’m discovered as a fraud. I’m absent-mindedly looking for trivially-easy jobs I could take where this pressure won’t exist. (Looking for an “escape-hatch” is a well-documented behavior.)
  • I doubt the quality of my software, so I spend lots of time covering it up with graphic design and heavy sales pitches.
  • I doubt I deserve my reputation, so I live in constant fear of exposure. I can’t sleep at night and I loathe myself for lying.
  • I’m not as good as I want to be at speaking/ writing/ programming/ designing/ managing, so I go out of my way to avoid any of it, and feel like a trapped animal when I’m forced to do it.
  • I’m not a “real company” yet, so I feel guilty every time someone gives me money or believes anything I say.

If you’re letting these feelings get to you too, at least recognize it so you can deal with it logically.

And when logic fails, maybe this will help:

You believe that Mike Meyers and Jodie Foster are talented, right? You might even believe that I’m an expert in peer code review. Yet we doubt ourselves every day. And we’re wrong.

You know we’re wrong about ourselves; that means you’re wrong about yourself too.

Don’t stop striving to become better, just stop holding yourself up to an impossible standard.

Sometimes getting it off your chest is the best medicine: Leave a comment!

This post was originally posted on January 18, 2010 on Jason’s blog “A Smart Bear”.

Jason Cohen founded Smart Bear Software, maker of Code Collaborator, a tool for peer code review and recent winner of the Jolt Award. He took Smart Bear from start to multiple millions in revenue and 50 percent profit margin without debt or VC, then sold it for cash. He is also a founding member of ITWatchdogs, another bootstrapped startup which became profitable and was sold. He’s also a mentor at Capital Factory (like TechStars or Y-Combinator in Austin). And he’s the author of Best Kept Secrets of Peer Code Review, the most popular book (35,000 copies) on modern, lightweight methods for doing peer code review effectively without everyone hating life. He blogs at “a smart bear.” Email him: jason (at) asmartbear (dot) com.

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{ 1 comment }

@webmindset Chris (not impostor) September 27, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Not too bad… I’m sure we’ve all felt things like this at one point, but dwelling on them would be terrible and rob others of expertise.
Nice work. Hopefully it will hit the right people and we won’t be robbed of their work if they are just about to pack it in.

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