MAUGHAN If nobody knows what they’re doing, then I might as well just run full speed ahead.
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.
DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: Do you have impostor syndrome?
DUCKWORTH: God, I am overrated. People are going to find me out.
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DUCKWORTH: Mike, we got this email from this — I want to call them “adorable” — listener, and they signed the note “anonymous struggling postdoc.” Okay if I read to you?
MAUGHAN: Oh gosh, yes.
DUCKWORTH: I know, right?
MAUGHAN: That just makes me, like, sad for them already. It’s, like, go give that person a hug.
DUCKWORTH: You’ll want to do so even more after I read you what they wrote. Okay. “I am a research associate at one of the R1 universities. However, I constantly struggle with the feeling of being incompetent or the so-called “impostor syndrome.” I frequently question my ability to both perform future research and lead a research group. My questions are: is the impostor syndrome real? If not real, is there a better way to describe this feeling of being incompetent? If it is real, is it helpful to have that feeling to be motivated and productive? And lastly, if it is real and not helping us be productive or motivated, what can I and others like me do to turn this into a positive? Thank you. Signed, Anonymous Struggling Postdoc.”
MAUGHAN: Wow. This honestly made me think about, like, “Is God real? If God is real, da, da, da.”
DUCKWORTH: Yes. You know, we need Descartes.
MAUGHAN: It just feels such an existential, like, angst just bleeding through the paper here.
DUCKWORTH: Well, these are big questions. I actually had a student in my lab a couple years ago, and she was obsessed with impostor syndrome, I think for reasons that are similar to this “Anonymous Struggling Postdoc” — which is, you know, the question that many of us have, like, “Oh, is this feeling that I have, like, do other people have this feeling? And is it a positive thing, or is it a negative thing?”
MAUGHAN: Right. So often, we think we’re the only ones dealing with something. And when you think you’re the only one, then it gets worse and worse. But just by vocalizing, I think it does so much to say, like, “Oh wait, I’m not the only one that feels this way. And really successful people also feel this way, so maybe it’s okay that we feel this way, because you can still succeed.”
DUCKWORTH: Do you know what that’s called, by the way? You know, where you think you’re the only one who feels a certain way or thinks a certain way, and you look around and you’re like, “Oh, I must be the only one.”
MAUGHAN: I think it’s called pluralistic ignorance, but —.
DUCKWORTH: Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding.
MAUGHAN: Did I get it right? Nailed that.
DUCKWORTH: You got a bonus point. Yes. And the thing about impostor syndrome is that it is an easily Googleable phrase, and you will bring up, I don’t know, hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of hits.
MAUGHAN: It’s funny, I did a search on — you’re going hate this so much. I did a search on TikTok of this whole —.
DUCKWORTH: Am I going to hate it, because it’s TikTok?
MAUGHAN: Yeah, just because, like, you’re on Google Scholar researching impostor syndrome, and I’m on TikTok. But it was so interesting hearing people’s, like, experiences. I mean, there are people who are hilarious. There’s this one woman, @TheLizJane — she has this whole thing, like, “If my impostor syndrome could talk.” And then she pretends like she’s getting a call from her boss, giving her a raise and she’s like, “Oh, is this just because the company had extra money lying around?” And then they’re like, “No, it’s because you exceeded expectations.” And she said, “Oh, is that because the expectations were just really, really low, because I’m not good at this job.” She’s just playing this internal monologue trying to be very funny about impostor syndrome. But I think everyone kind of feels it, whether they’ll talk about it or not.
DUCKWORTH: So, I myself have not experienced impostor syndrome as much, let me say. I don’t want to say I’ve never experienced it, but when I think of my career, I think I’ve had, in some ways, the opposite problem. Like, I probably should be more humble. I should probably take myself down a notch or three in terms of what I think I can do or what I know. But I wonder about you, Mike. I mean, have you experienced this sense that you’re a phony?
MAUGHAN: You’re like, “I am great, but you — I wonder about you.”
DUCKWORTH: No! No. Didn’t say that. Said I am not as great as I think I am. I think that’s what I’m saying.
MAUGHAN: I’m just kidding. The story I think that comes most to mind with me — kind of a turning point in my own career — was shortly after I had graduated from business school. Qualtrics is still a pretty small startup at the time, and we don’t really compete with SurveyMonkey, but back then maybe did a little bit.
DUCKWORTH: This is what, like 15 years ago?
MAUGHAN: 10 years ago. So, I am in charge of launching our new employee experience product line and, and business. And I’m working with this guy, Johnny, and we’re going through things. We figure out kind of the direction we want to take things and we, you know, announce the direction we’ll be going with this new product. And I can’t know for sure, but three weeks later, SurveyMonkey, on their website, announces that they are launching the same product line.
DUCKWORTH: The exact same product line.
MAUGHAN: Yes. And what I’m 99 percent confident of, is that they were just responding to what we did. It’s like, “Oh, Qualtrics is doing that? Then we are going to do that.” And that was the moment that I thought, “Wait a minute, I’m three or four months out of business school. Johnny just came to us from McKinsey. We both spent a month looking at this and said, ‘Let’s go this direction,” but neither of us know this industry that well. Neither of us know what we’re doing yet, and SurveyMonkey immediately announces kind of like, ‘We’re going to do the same thing.’” And I thought, “Wow, if they knew who they were copying or what they’re following,” and that’s when I thought, “You know what? If nobody knows what they’re doing, then I might as well go for it and just run full speed ahead. We’re going to do the best we can. We bring all the information that we can. We’re doing a good job, but, like, we’re all just kind of making it up as we go. So, guess what? I might as well be the one that goes and does it.”
DUCKWORTH: Okay, that is such a psychologically healthy response. I think many people in the same scenario — like, “I knew nothing. The person I was working with knew just about as much. And, you know, people have the confidence in what we’re doing enough to copy what we’re doing.” A lot of people would’ve said to themselves, “I’m overrated.” But let me actually give you a little quiz on impostor syndrome, if I might.
MAUGHAN: Oh gosh, do you know how many quizzes — I feel like I’m back in school again.
DUCKWORTH: I know, it’s a very psychologist thing to do.
MAUGHAN: And I never know if I scored well or not.
DUCKWORTH: These are not right or wrong questions, Mike. These are just, you know, who you are —.
MAUGHAN: I just want to be told “good job” at the end.
DUCKWORTH: I’ll tell you “good job” at the end no matter what. Okay, let me read you some items that were developed by a professor who’s now at MIT, and her name is Basima Tewfik. She’s a professor of work and organization studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management. And she published this paper very recently, and it’s called “The Impostor Phenomenon Revisited: Examining the Relationship Between Workplace Impostor Thoughts and Interpersonal Effectiveness at Work.” So, let me read to you a few items. You can answer from not at all true to very true, or anywhere in between. Ready? At work, people important to me think I am more capable than I think I am.
MAUGHAN: No — I mean, I think we have a pretty healthy sense of what I am capable of.
DUCKWORTH: So, not true. Okay. “At work, others think I have more knowledge or ability than I think I do.”
MAUGHAN: In certain areas. I mean, I — I’m going caveat. I’m not giving you a perfect answer here, but in certain areas —.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, you are not very good at multiple choice here, Mike. You’re like the person who’s, like, writing in the margins.
MAUGHAN: Okay but here’s my thing. On certain areas or certain functions, yeah, I think people think I’m better at that than I am. But on other things — like, the things that I really do core to my job, I think people think I am as good as I am, probably.
DUCKWORTH: And so how would you answer that if were no margins on the paper and you had to — say you were taking a Qualtrics survey and you can’t write in the margins.
MAUGHAN: Based on the fact that it’s probably referring to the core functions of what I do, I would say that that is not true.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. “At work, other people see me more positively than my capabilities warrant.”
MAUGHAN: No. Yeah. No.
DUCKWORTH: “At work, I have received greater recognition from others than I merit.”
DUCKWORTH: And there’s just one more. “At work. I am not as qualified as others think I am.”
MAUGHAN: No, but now I sound arrogant. I don’t like answering these questions, because I feel like, I’m like, “no, I’m good at what I” — like, I don’t like that.
DUCKWORTH: Well, you’re very humble. I mean that truly. But I really like this short scale. I think this gets to the heart of what it really means to have impostor syndrome. The core of impostor syndrome is not just what you think of yourself, and it’s not just what other people think of you. It’s the very specific case that other people think you are great and in comparison you think you’re not as great. And all the items that I read you have this particular asymmetry.
MAUGHAN: So, at its core, impostor syndrome, then, is a gap between other people think I’m really good at something, but I think I’m not as good as they think I am. And so, I’m always afraid that in this gap someone’s going to find out I’m a fraud.
DUCKWORTH: Someone’s going find you out. Like, one day, the big reveal. Like, “Wow, Mike Maughan’s just not as smart as I thought he was.” I know I promised you feedback, and I can tell you great job. But I’m just going go out on a limb and say, you do not sound like you have impostor syndrome.
MAUGHAN: You know, for me, it was learning that I don’t have to be good at everything. In fact, I probably shouldn’t be. And that’s why you have a team of people around you who are hopefully smarter than you are, at least in the areas where you have deficiencies, right? You know, Howard Schultz, who you’ll know as the C.E.O. and — of Starbucks, right — he talked about how he had this feeling of impostor syndrome, but he said the level of insecurity that you have is a strength, not a weakness, and the question is: how are you going to use it? And I’ll just read something he said: “I would say that one of the underlying strengths of a great leader and a great C.E.O. is to demonstrate vulnerability. You can only demonstrate that if you’ve surrounded yourself with the right people who you can trust and who are not going to exploit your vulnerability.” And I think that’s a really interesting construct of how impostor syndrome, I don’t know, can sort of be mitigated? Is that a fair way to say that?
DUCKWORTH: Mitigated how exactly?
MAUGHAN: Meaning that instead of letting it cripple you because you’re so afraid of being found out, acknowledging maybe that, “Hey, guess what? They think I’m great at this, but it’s because I have people who are great at all these different aspects. So, I don’t have to be great at all of them.” Therefore I’m not afraid of being found out, right?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know Howard Schultz, actually. I would love to know Howard Schultz, but I did read his memoir. I think it’s called, like, A Cup at a Time or something like that. And I did not get the sense that he suffers much from impostor syndrome. Somebody who’s walking around all the time thinking, “God, I am overrated. People are going to find me out.” You know, confidence is I think, at the heart of what impostor syndrome was all about. And I — I have to just wonder and speculate about how much impostor syndrome there is at the upper-most echelons. I do know that Dean Erika James, who is the dean of the Wharton School of Business, so she’s, you know, my boss — or I guess my boss’s boss’s boss. I remember she came to my class, and she had a fireside chat where, in front of a very large group of students, she said — and I think she used the words “impostor syndrome,” but she certainly was bold enough to say that she knew exactly what it felt like for people to have expectations that she wondered, you know, whether she really had it, you know, to deliver. And so I — I don’t know. I mean, on one hand maybe you don’t get to become the Dean of Wharton or the head of Starbucks without just unlimited confidence. And on the other hand, you know, I think this is something so deeply universal that even if you and I can’t come up with, at our fingertips, like, a million stories of how it’s happened in our own life, it’s just — it’s part of the human condition to have people think things about us, for us to think how are we comparing to those expectations, and to sometimes have this asymmetry. You know, to some degree probably all of us feel this sense of not good enough, “I’m overrated,” at some point, because it’s kind of the nature of other people having standards and ourselves having insecurities.
MAUGHAN: And frankly, I think Angela and I would both love to hear from our listeners about your experience with impostor syndrome. So, send us a voice memo and let us know about your experience. Record it in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone, and email it to us at NSQ@Freakonomics.com and hopefully we’ll play it on a future episode of the show.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Angela and Mike discuss whether impostor syndrome is a psychological issue or just an organizational one.
MAUGHAN: You know, at Qualtrics we’ve always talked about this idea of measuring the competent, not the confident because —.
DUCKWORTH: Because it rhymes.
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Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about impostor syndrome.
DUCKWORTH: I’m wondering, since you know a little bit about this topic, if you read the New Yorker article on impostor syndrome that was published I think within the last year. Did you, by chance, read this?
MAUGHAN: I did not. But, tell me about it.
DUCKWORTH: So, it tells the origin story of impostor syndrome, and it does so by interviewing the two psychologists who originally coined the term — actually, originally it was called “impostor phenomenon,” but like so many things, a catchier name takes hold. So, what we popularly call impostor syndrome is actually when studied scientifically, is impostor phenomenon. But the two psychologists, who are women — and I bring that up for particular reason — their names were Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes. And I, I bring up the fact that they were women because when they tell the origin story of impostor syndrome, which goes back nearly 50 years, they say it was partly from their own experience and partly, actually, as clinical psychologists with female patients — high-achieving women who would come into their office, and tell stories of how they felt that they were impostors, phonies, overrated. So, there was, for a long time, and there still is, this sense that, you know, women may be in a lot of settings where they would have impostor syndrome. And then, I remember reading the follow up — like, you know how when a magazine or newspaper publishes a feature article and then later there’s, like, letters to the editor. I’ll just read you a little excerpt from one of the letter writers who’s a professor of education at Montclair State University. His name is Eric Weiner. And he writes, “Unfortunately, treating issues like impostor syndrome as psychological problems effectively pathologizes people, primarily women, who are living and working within systems that have been designed to make them feel like they don’t belong and don’t deserve to be there. Such treatment rewrites experience as an individual shortcoming.” And I, I guess I want to say that one reaction to impostor syndrome being an experience that many, many people have is that it misplaces the blame on the person. It’s like, “Oh, it’s a psychological thing.” Well then, it’s your fault-slash-problem, where it should be thought of as, like, a societal, structural problem.
MAUGHAN: Right. I do think that the idea that it’s situational and that some groups of individuals suffer from impostor syndrome more is probably a real thing. It’s interesting. I — I was talking to a friend. She is a human resources exec at a very large financial services firm. And I — I asked her, you know, “Have you ever dealt with impostor syndrome?” Her immediate response was, “Well, yeah, every day.” But she talked about the people that are most likely, in her experience, to feel like they have impostor syndrome are really these rockstar analysts who they’ve hired out of college, but they almost always, she said, fit into a traditional outsider group. They’re women, diverse, first-gen, et cetera. And she went on to explain that at a firm that’s so focused on high-performance, in an industry that has historical representation issues, it’s really difficult because they don’t have anyone that looks like them who has done it before. And she talks about this need to see others like them to quote “achieve before they believe” that they can do the same thing. And, you know, Michelle Obama, in her book The Light We Carry, talks a lot about being an “only” and being a “first.” And when you’re an only, you carry this massive additional burden, because you are sort of the person laying the groundwork and setting the stage for what this is like. And I wonder if that contributes to feelings of impostor syndrome, because there are no examples.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. So, there’s two ways that you can be an outsider — of course there are more than two ways, like socioeconomic status or cultural group — but very often people think of gender and then ethnicity. So, I did look into the research, and one systematic review — if you take the first category of being an outsider, gender — and, you know, that goes along with the origin story of female patients showing up in the practice of these clinical psychologists feeling insecure and not good enough — interestingly, about as many studies have been published finding a gender difference as not finding a gender difference. In other words, if there is a gender difference, it’s sure as heck hard to find. Doesn’t mean that there isn’t one, but it’s probably not huge, because it would probably have appeared by now.
MAUGHAN: So, it’s commonly thought that women experience impostor syndrome to a higher degree than men. You’re saying that statistically that does not appear to be the case.
DUCKWORTH: I’m saying that there is the absence of evidence. And that is not the same thing as the evidence of absence, but there isn’t striking evidence for a gender difference, and people have been looking for it. So, if there is one, it’s probably quite subtle. I think maybe one reason why we think women may suffer more from impostor syndrome — and here, I just want to be clear, it’s just my own speculation — I think maybe, you know, you talked about vulnerability and Howard Schultz — who’s a man, not a woman — like, talking about how important it was to be willing to be vulnerable as a leader. I think, on average, women are more willing to admit feelings of impostor syndrome, and that’s maybe why we think they have it more, right? When you give these anonymous questionnaires, it turns out you’re not getting a gender difference. And it may be because, you know, women are open about feeling this sense of insecurity and maybe men are hiding it.
MAUGHAN: So, interestingly, in our sibling show, People I (Mostly) Admire, also on the Freakonomics Radio Network, Steven Levitt recently spoke with Obi Felten about impostor syndrome. Obi has a mental health startup and is a former Google X executive. And in response to that episode, they got hundreds of emails. And so Levitt, as Levitt does, went through all of the data. And interestingly, it showed, sort of similar to what you said, both men and women classified themselves as impostors almost exactly two-thirds of the time.
DUCKWORTH: Hmm. So, there was no gender difference.
MAUGHAN: Right. So, we just talked about women and men, then. So, talk to me about — in terms of race, which is the other category you brought up.
DUCKWORTH: So, in this systematic review, they did think that many of these research studies had identified ethnic minorities as, like, a risk factor for scoring higher on these impostor syndrome scales. And that made me think of research that is separate, but I think super related. There’s this phrase, “skin-deep resilience,” that refers to people who are marginalized, typically ethnic groups that are marginalized — that, like, if you take a little girl or boy who’s, like, Black or Latino and you see that they’re really good at self-control, they’re really good at persistence, I might say they’re gritty, and they’re doing well in school, and they actually make it to college. And guess what? They graduate from college, despite the odds. And then, they go to the workplace, and they’re doing well — this phrase, “skin-deep resilience” comes from Edith Chen and Greg Miller. They are a wife and husband team at Northwestern University. And what they’ve done is they’ve done these, um, longitudinal studies, and they say that kind of resilience is skin-deep because there are all these markers of professional and academic success, like the ones I named. And yet, when you take the physiological studies on these resilient now women and men, what you find is that they tend to be overweight, they tend to have chronic and inflammatory diseases, like cardiac issues.
MAUGHAN: Wait, people who were resilient and made it through all these challenging situations — it’s almost like because you persevered through so much, it had a lot of detrimental effects on other areas of your life?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, or that it had a lot of detrimental effects on your physiology. And, um, I am not the person who did this research, but I do know that when the body is in a stress response, like you’re being threatened — and, you know, again, just to, like, tie this back to impostor syndrome and being in a marginalized group — say, for example, you feel like you don’t belong, that you are, in a way, faking something that, you know, people are eventually going to find out, well, that chronic stress can basically put you in your fight or flight mode for really prolonged periods. And the fight or flight response was not designed for that. It’s something called allostatic load, and we won’t maybe get too much into the cascade of hormones and inflammatory responses that basically lead you then to be, you know, obese, at risk for diabetes, at risk for heart disease, and so forth. But that’s basically the story.
MAUGHAN: But the negative ramifications are amazing. If you’re constantly feeling like you’re an impostor, and you’re constantly feeling like maybe you’re going to be found out, then you have these unbelievable physiological responses that lead to very negative health outcomes.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And the tie to ethnic groups is, I think, really interesting, because I think maybe one of the most stressful things a human being can experience is the feeling that I don’t belong here. Like, it can rain on you and you’re wet, it can be cold outside and you shiver. But to feel like you don’t really belong somewhere, you know, may be the most stressful experience of all. And it’s certainly chronic. It doesn’t shut off. I mean, you’re hungry, and then you eat. You know, you’re cold and then you get a blanket. So, I think there is a connection between this feeling of impostor syndrome — “I’m overrated,” this, like, insecurity, and so forth — that is very related to this notion of “skin-deep resilience” and the cost, like, the tax, of doing well without that, like, foundational sense of belonging.
MAUGHAN: Right. And that’s why I think — going back to what my, my friend, this executive at a financial services firm, was talking about — the representation matters in terms of feeling like you belong as well, right? That there’s examples — that that’s a huge element of belonging. I wonder, Angela, if it’s worth going into some ways that one can combat impostor syndrome. So, I want to give a couple of examples. TED-Ed did a little feature on impostor syndrome, and they talked about one researcher who felt like she was just bad at her job and thought she was going to be found out, a bit of a fraud, things were always going wrong. And so she took to documenting all the times that something went wrong in her lab, and finally realized that the issues were almost always with equipment failure, not her. But it took the level of data and her willingness to —.
DUCKWORTH: She needed to, like, audit her failures and trace them back to not her.
MAUGHAN: Right, and once she realized it’s about equipment failure, not her, that kind of changed everything for her. So, that’s one example. Here’s the second. There’s an H.B.R. article called “You’re Not An Impostor, You’re Actually Pretty Amazing,” written by this woman Kess Eruteya. She writes that impostor syndrome is basically just temporary memory loss. It’s where you’ve forgotten the amazing things about yourself and you can mitigate impostor syndrome by reflecting on and reminding yourself of your strengths on a regular basis.
DUCKWORTH: I think both of these ideas, the failure audit, and then also what I would call “solution focus” — there’s an approach to coaching and therapy called “solution focus” where you draw attention to the things that you’ve done well and the things that have gone right — both of these are attentional strategies. Like, your eye is drawn to your deficiencies and where people may be overrating you, and these approaches both draw your eye, draw your attention to — well, when things didn’t go well, how was it not my fault, you know, due to circumstances. And when can I remember when things went great and I was the person responsible for it. And a lot of therapy is about bringing our little pinhole camera of attention to the things that we have been neglecting. That’s why I like both of these. I want to say something about the three boxes of human behavior. One is your objective situation, that’s box number one. Two is what sense you’re making of it, your thoughts — how you’re interpreting your situation. That’s box number two. And box number three is your response — your response emotionally, your response behaviorally. Those are the three boxes. And you can understand impostor syndrome, depression, happiness, ordering a cheeseburger — like, you can understand anything anybody does or feels with these three boxes. So, when I was thinking about this email, I was thinking about the three boxes and I was like, “Okay, box number one for impostor syndrome is praise.” Like, you only have impostor syndrome when people think you’re great, right?
MAUGHAN: Right, it’s almost a negative externality of praise though. It has a negative side effect.
DUCKWORTH: Well, then you’re getting into box number two, right?
MAUGHAN: Which is how I respond to it. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Okay.
DUCKWORTH: The kind of self-talk, right? Like, the thoughts. It’s like, to me, the box number two description of impostor syndrome is, “I’m overrated.” So, praise followed by, “Oh God, I’m overrated. She thinks I’m so much better than I really am.” Right? And box three is now your response, like, your emotional response and your behavior. And what people do when they have impostor syndrome is their emotional response is anxiety, insecurity. And then, their behavior is either one of two things, usually. One is that they just work really hard. They’re like, “Oh my God, I’m going to be found out. I’m going stay up all night and try to meet these expectations.” That doesn’t help you, because what that leads to is achievement and more praise, but then you’re just at the same box number one. Now everyone’s like, “Hey, amazing work,” right? You feel even more overrated. I see this pattern in both female and male students that I have, honestly — that they can get into this, like, treadmill of like, “Oh my God, I’m not good enough.” And then, you know, they’re staying up till four in the morning instead of one in the morning. So, just working harder and succeeding does not cure impostor syndrome. The second thing that could happen is that they respond to, “gosh, I’m overrated” with something called self-handicapping, which is, like, you self-sabotage, you avoid challenge. You have a report due on Friday, and then you stay up drinking all night Thursday, and then when the report’s not done, you’re like, “Well, I couldn’t have done it because, you know, I was, like, totally hungover and —.”
MAUGHAN: You give yourself some excuse.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, so that’s, of course, got its own problems. But essentially what I want to say is, like, this cycle of like, well, you’re in some circumstance where you start off with praise and then you feel like you’re overrated — you know, if you don’t break that cycle in some very intentional way, you’re never going to fix box number two. Just working hard and, like, trying to, like, run faster on the treadmill doesn’t get you out of the hole.
MAUGHAN: So, I think what we’re saying, though, is some of the way to fix that is through these attentional focuses on either, you know, these things that keep going wrong are actually equipment failures. They’re not my fault. Or, look at all the past success I’ve had. Maybe I actually have earned my spot here and maybe there’s a, a place for me. You know, at Qualtrics we’ve always talked about this idea of measuring the competent, not the confident, because —.
DUCKWORTH: Because it rhymes.
MAUGHAN: Because it sounds great. But at Qualtrics, obviously we’re all about bringing data to a conversation, right? So, when you’re looking at the employee experience, the customer experience, the product experience, whatever that is, you can bring data to the conversation. And when you measure the competent, not the confident — one, you know, all these studies show that traditionally white men are able to be more confident, or demonstrate more confidence, that can sometimes overshadow competence. But also, if I’m dealing with impostor syndrome and we’re using data to measure competence, then I think not only can the organization fix things, but the individual can also develop a different view of self, which I think is sort of what you’re talking about in box two. I think what’s really important to this conversation is that impostor syndrome, though, is maybe an individual thing in these — looking at the three boxes. But there’s also an organizational, and societal, and systemic approach that also needs to be changed, because we can’t always just say, “Hey, individual, fix yourself.” Because maybe the org needs to just change in such a way with representation or measurement that they don’t reward the confident all the time who just — people who show up and act like they got it all together, but when you really dive in and look at what’s happening, it’s like, wait a minute, you are so good, and charismatic, and you manage up really well, but the data doesn’t align. And maybe that’s where some of these gaps in impostor syndrome come.
DUCKWORTH: You know, what you just described is a box number one solution. You’re like, “Okay. Let’s change the situation that this person is in. Let’s add data. Let’s add a report that actually highlights competence.” It’s an organization-wide solution, but it’s a box number one solution, because you’re changing the facts of someone’s circumstances, and then that has an influence on their thoughts that — you know, box number one leads to box number two.
MAUGHAN: Yeah, because we’ve talked a lot lately about the importance of the situation, right? The circumstances matter, the situation matters. It’s not all on the individual — him or herself — to demonstrate grit per se, but that the situation around them is huge.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I mean, I think a lot of our energy should go to understanding how, if we can change box number one in the right way, then box number two will change. I mentioned this M.I.T. professor, Basima Tewfik, who is one of the very, very few people who is doing academic scholarship on impostor syndrome. What Basima Tewfik finds is that the silver lining of having these impostor thoughts is that you have this compensatory feeling of like, “Wow, if I’m not as good as people think I am, I should do things interpersonally to be really easy to work with.” And so, she fully recognizes and finds in her research that there are costs to impostor syndrome, like self-handicapping and decreases in self-esteem. But at the same time, she finds — and there’s a interview that she did on this research, so I’ll quote her — “It’s a compensation story. If I think other people think I’m smarter than I think I am, I might be worried that I’m not actually that smart. So, I might turn my focus to something else, which is making other people think I’m great socially. People pick up on what I’m doing and they say, ‘Wow, she’s a great person to work with. I really like interacting with her at work.’” And so, in a nutshell, it’s a cloud. It’s probably a cloud that rains on all of us at some point, maybe more on some than others, but at least Tewfik wants to argue that there might be a silver lining as well. And then, I think the other advice that you shared, Mike, is so important — to draw your attention to successes where you can take the credit, and when you do your failure audit to fully recognize failures for which you shouldn’t hoard all the blame. But, Anonymous Struggling Postdoc, smooches, xoxo, you are great. You wouldn’t have gotten to where you are if you weren’t.
MAUGHAN: And to our Anonymous, Struggling Postdoc, even though Angela diagnosed me as not having impostor syndrome —.
DUCKWORTH: Not especially having impostor syndrome.
MAUGHAN: I think we all have it in our own ways and in our own times. Heck, look at me. I’m new co-host of this show, and you better believe that there are really hard shoes to fill if you’re coming in after Stephen Dubner. So, we all feel it. And I’m not going to give you smooches like Angela did, but a quick high five and a side hug.
This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:
In the first half of the show, Mike references a quote about impostor syndrome by former Starbucks C.E.O. and one-time owner of the Seattle Supersonics Howard Schultz. Angela notes that Schultz was the founder of Starbucks, but that’s not entirely correct. Starbucks was started in 1971 by English teacher Jerry Baldwin, history teacher Zev Siegl, and writer Gordon Bowker. They invested $1,350 apiece and took out a $5,000 loan to open the first store. Schultz joined the company years later, in 1982, as director of operations and marketing; he then purchased Starbucks for $3.8 million in 1987 when the chain included only eleven locations, and he turned it into a global brand.
Angela recalls that Schultz’s memoir is called A Cup at a Time. She was partially correct. The former C.E.O. actually fit two coffee references into the title of the 1997 book. The full title is Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time.
That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on the relationship between genetics and weight.
Jonathan O’REAR: Hi, my name is Jon. When I was in college, my roommate was big into fitness and bodybuilding, and he used to complain that it was very difficult for him to put on weight and bulk up. I, on the other hand, have a very casual gym schedule and seem to be able to put on weight fairly easy. Well, as I’ve gotten older, what used to be an advantage has become a hindrance, and I find now it’s very difficult for me to keep the weight off, versus he’s able to eat and drink whatever he wants and can’t seem to put on any weight at all. Similarly, I have a friend who has alcoholism that runs in his family. As a consequence, he decided not to drink at all as an adult. When I asked him about it, he said, Anybody can become an alcoholic given the right amount of exposure to alcohol. It just takes me a lot less to get there. So, while I think that genetics don’t determine your destiny, they definitely determine how much effort is required to get there.
That was listener Jon O’Rear. Thanks to him and to everyone who shared their experiences with us. And remember, we’d love to hear about your relationship with impostor syndrome! Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com, and you might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Is “generation” a meaningful category? Or is it a myth that people who were born in a one decade are different from people born in another?
MAUGHAN: Ugh, such a dinosaur. They don’t understand life anymore.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
MAUGHAN: I’m always afraid of what they’re going to put into some bloopers.
- Edith Chen, professor of psychology at Northwestern University.
- Pauline Rose Clance, professor emerita of psychology at Georgia State University.
- Kess Eruteya, founder of InclusionZ and fellow at the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce.
- Obi Felten, founder and C.E.O. of Flourish Labs.
- Suzanne Ament Imes, clinical psychologist and academic researcher at Georgia State University.
- Erika James, dean of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
- Steven Levitt, professor of economics at the University of Chicago, host of People I (Mostly) Admire, and co-author of the Freakonomics books.
- Gregory Miller, professor of psychology at Northwestern University.
- Michelle Obama, attorney, author, and former first lady of the United States.
- Howard Schultz, former C.E.O. and chairman emeritus of Starbucks.
- Basima Tewfik, professor of work and organization studies at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management.
- Eric Weiner, professor of educational foundations at Montclair State University.
- “Why Everyone Feels Like They’re Faking It,” by Leslie Jamison (The New Yorker, 2023).
- “The Impostor Phenomenon Revisited: Examining the Relationship between Workplace Impostor Thoughts and Interpersonal Effectiveness at Work,” by Basima Tewfik (Academy of Management Journal, 2022).
- “You’re Not an Imposter. You’re Actually Pretty Amazing,” by Kess Eruteya (Harvard Business Review, 2022).
- “Workplace ‘Impostor Thoughts’ May Have a Genuine Upside,” by Meredith Somers (Ideas Made to Matter, 2022).
- The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times, by Michelle Obama (2022).
- “Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review,” by Dena M. Bravata, Sharon A. Watts, Autumn L. Keefer, Divya K. Madhusudhan, Katie T. Taylor, Dani M. Clark, Ross S. Nelson, Kevin O. Cokley, and Heather K. Hagg (Journal of General Internal Medicine, 2020).
- “What Is Imposter Syndrome and How Can You Combat It?” by Elizabeth Cox (TED-Ed, 2018).
- “Is Resilience Only Skin Deep?: Rural African Americans’ Socioeconomic Status-Related Risk and Competence in Preadolescence and Psychological Adjustment and Allostatic Load at Age 19,” by Gene H. Brody, Tianyi Yu, Edith Chen, Gregory Miller, Steven M. Kogan, and Steven R. H. Beach (Psychological Science, 2013).
- “Emotion Generation and Emotion Regulation: One or Two Depends on Your Point of View,” by James Gross and Lisa Feldman Barrett (Emotion Review, 2011).
- “Good C.E.O.’s Are Insecure (and Know It),” by Adam Bryant (The New York Times, 2010).
- Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time, by Howard Schultz (1997).