For many of us who are seeking to live big lives, follow our curiosities, and accomplish significant things we can sometimes find ourselves in the midst of a narrative that we are not entirely in control over. We might compare ourselves to other talented people in an ensemble, or not feel as though we measure up to others at a conference, or be worthy of the acclaim that we are receiving, and all this can fall into imposter syndrome. This feeling is usually one that attacks our sense of worthiness and pride, and replacing them with anxiety and shame. But what if this feeling is actually a very old symptom that has been faced by great leaders, thinkers, artists, and business people since the beginning of time and by acknowledging it this way we can see how it connects us to a lineage of greatness that actually confirms our legitimacy.
To understand this we have to think about who has faced it. Besides this list of women who openly acknowledge their feeling as fakes, there is also a long list of musicians, kings, and even prophets who have admitted to feeling unsatisfactory in who they are. Everyone from David Bowie, to Serena Williams, Maya Angelou and Tom Hanks have come out as having difficulty with this. When you see people onstage crying in gratitude, and speaking about how they never thought they would be where they are it is a sign of their surprise and shock at the level of success they have reached.
With so many great people commenting on imposter syndrome it begs the question of “What makes us ‘great’ anyway?” When we label the people themselves as great, we add on a degree of qualification that may not be fair. It is not as if winning a Grammy, makes you a better person, it simply means you are more well known and that you do great work. This is a critical distinction that we must make and realize, the difference between acclaim and character. When we grapple with the darkest parts of ourself and come out better, that is what makes us great. Often times these moral tests can result in deeply honest performances, powerful speeches, or heroic actions but as Joseph Campbell expounds, “the heroes journey is about the death of who we were and the rebirth of who we have become”. So it is important to note that the world can be cheering for our accomplishments, even though we have not done mush to contest those parts of our character that are truly challenging.
If you are feeling imposter syndrome it may actually be that you have a sensitivity to your own level of growth, and while you may feel undue praise or as though you are an outsider in a room of “great people” remember that the words of William Fredrick Halsley Jr. “There are no great men, there are only great challenges that ordinary men are forced by circumstances to meet.” The feeling of imposter syndrome itself should align you with all of the other people who have recognized their own humanity in spite of the acclaim the world might cast upon them. It is humility at its most pure form, and if you can manage to honor that humility and seek to live up to the image in which you are cast, then you stand a chance of being truly heroic.