Nurture More Confident Humility By Embracing Impostor Syndrome

In Think Again, Adam Grant highlights latest research into confident humility and impostor syndrome. It suggests that impostor feelings are more important in the recipe for success, than we previously thought. I’ve wondered this for a while.

When we explored ‘confidence’ in The Haven last year, I pondered this question. “What if doubt, uncertainty, and impostor feelings were not things to eradicate, but an important part of our journey?”

Grant points to research by Basima Tewfik, who suggests there might be some truth to this. She found, “pattern with investment professionals: the more often they felt like impostors, the higher their performance reviews from their supervisors four months later.”

We might explain this by saying that these are people who have succeeded in spite of their doubts. But, “what if success is actually driven in part by those doubts?”

This led researchers to wonder if there are in fact great benefits of doubt. And that we would do better to embrace impostor syndrome, uncertainty, and doubt, rather than trying to ‘overcome’ or ‘eradicate’ it.

The Benefits of Impostor Feelings

Researchers Found That:

  1. Feeling like an impostor can motivate us to work harder
  2. Impostor thoughts can motivate us to work smarter
  3. Feeling like an impostor can make us better learners

There is a forth upside of feeling like an impostor, which I would add from my own experience. Talking about impostor feelings, can foster a sense of connection with others. When we are open about our own thoughts, we often discover that we’re not alone. It gives permission to others, allowing them to reframe their relationship with any imposter feelings they experience.

They can find the confident humility to then let go of the belief that they should deny, overcome, or eradicate them,

Impostor Syndrome Is A Pathway To Confident Humility

We often confuse confidence and arrogance. Seeing them as part of the same continuum. But Grant quotes Tim Urban, who posits:

“Arrogance = Ignorance + Conviction”

Confident humility (the ever experimenting and curious scientist), “through clear eyes, sees a foggy, complicated world”. And arrogance (the armchair expert) “through foggy eyes, sees a clear, simple world”.

Humility is often painted as a lack of self-confidence. But from its Latin roots, meaning “from the earth”, it is a place of grounding in the awareness of our own fallibility. It is a recognition and acceptance of the fact that we can never be anything other than flawed and imperfect. And uses that as a positive foundation to build life upon, rather than an undesirable fear to extinguish.

Confident Humility is a belief in one’s self, alongside an awareness of what is missing. The ‘sweet spot of confidence’ is found when we have faith in our capability to find solutions, grow, and discover the things we will need along the way. It’s not the conviction or certainty that we are right about how to solve the problem…confident humility is an appreciation that we “may not even be addressing the right problem”.

Embracing Uncertainty and Doubt

Impostor feelings lie at the heart of this. But what if we didn’t need to replace uncertainty and doubt with certainty and conviction? What if, instead, we could embrace impostor syndrome as a catalyst for positive growth and connection?

Grant says that “uncertainty primes us to ask questions and absorb new ideas”. And it protects us against the Dunning-Kruger effect. He points out that people with impostor feelings “rarely say, ‘this is how we do things around here.’ They don’t say, ‘This is the right way.’ And as such are eager to learn and grow. They’re open to collect information on how they might do things differently. Their confidence is in themselves as a learner. Not in themselves as the fount of knowledge and expertise.

In this respect it is important to ponder the notion that “great thinkers don’t harbour doubts because they’re impostors. They maintain doubts because they know we’re all partially blind and they’re committed to improving their sight.” And the rather attractive gentleness of such people who “don’t boast about how much they know”, marvelling instead at “how little they understand.”

The Enemies of Confident Humility

A bit of knowledge becomes a dangerous thing. The Dunning-Kruger effect tells us we are more likely to exude overconfidence when we lack competence. But it often occurs when we progress from a beginner mindset to the next level up.

“We often feel more confident about a skill or topic than we really should. But at the same time, we’re often unaware of our overconfidence.” 

We’ve all experienced ‘Armchair Experts’. We’ve probably slipped into it once or twice (or more…), ourselves. When we know a bit we think we know a lot.

As we gain experience, we cling to certainties as we start to understand the core concepts. This might lead us away from humility, and into a false sense of mastery. It’s where “simplistic lays this side of complexity”.

It happens during the rapid progress we might make early on when learning something new. But the perception of mastery we create in our minds is false. And it can lead us towards arrogance (ignorance and conviction), where we close our minds to rethinking.

Experience Does Not Equal Expertise

This also happens when we do something for a long time. We settle into grooves of doing that we confuse for expertise.

Just because you’ve been driving for a long time, it doesn’t make you an expert driver. And just because you have seen a lot of elections, it doesn’t make you an expert on politics.

A belief in our own expertise can stifle growth. It can create huge blind spots in our lives. And sabotages our creativity and ability to think in the ways that helped us succeed in the past.

So rather than trying to eliminate our impostor feelings, and sense of uncertainty and doubt. Maybe it’s time to embrace it all. Not only because they are part of life. But because they might actually be part of a successful, enjoyable, and authentic life of creativity and adventure.

Grant points out that confidence is “just as often the result of progress as the cause of it”.  So we don’t need to wait for it to arrive before we start. We need to start in order to nurture its arrival.

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