Impostor Syndrome

It seems you’ve been living…. two lives” – a Smith (The Matrix)

I want  to thank Steve Waldman (for pointing out THIS) and Barry Ritholz for “nudging” me into finally writing this post, one that I have considered and put off numerous times as basically “none of your fucking business” on one hand, and a series of personal and professional risks on the other. Its a personal story, although one I will try to tie in to general reader utility. If I do this right, my sincere hope is that it helps those with similar struggles in the same way other personal stories have helped me. If it turns out personally cathartic, so much the better.

There are a number of ways in which my life peaked at 17. To that point, the details were familiar to any serious Ivy League candidate – second smartest kid in the class (there’s was always, maddeningly, a freak), captain and starting quarterback for the JV football team, scouted to play professional baseball. Psychotically competitive from an early age, extracurriculars three times per week, completely addicted to drama and attention. And, importantly, a complete and utter pain-inflicting asshole.

I won’t bore you with the details of The Decline and Fall. It is sufficient to describe it as equal parts Holden Caulfield (at its best) and Sylvia Plath at its most sordid. Two specific events are relevant to this post. One, dropping out of a good school in third year with really good grades because I could physically not continue – it was taking three milligrams of Ativan to get me on the bus to class. Two, sitting in a clinic at 21 and finding out that the level of cortisol in my head (a marker for stress, depression-related in my case) was six times what it should have been.

Now, this is not a sob story – the vast majority of these wounds were self inflicted. I am, of course, sensitive to those afflicted by clinical depression who note genetic biochemical predispositions. It is also the case, however, that psych-related hormones are highly sensitive to external stimuli. Watching comedy, for instance, creates positive hormonal changes while an obsession with death metal has the reverse effect. Personal responsibility, in other words, is not cut and dried. To the extent that my issues were the result of refusing to accept the validity of anyone or anything that conflicted with an adolescent conviction of my own “specialness” and destiny to rule the world, the fault is mine.

To continue our story, at 22 I reenter society in a kind of debutante ball where no one else shows up. As a dropout the apparent prospects did not include corner offices and the resumption of discussions regarding my “limitless potential”. It appeared, however, that my luck had turned as a series of breaks, combined with market conditions, allowed me to drag my ass from a telemarketing boiler room, to Operations at a major firm, to the trading floor of a global investment bank offering advice to people that should already know better, but didn’t. In fits and starts, career progress continued for a decade after that, culminating in a prominent strategist role. But, the whole time….:

Impostor Syndrome: sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. (Wikipedia)

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, (who if you are not reading you really should – if only to lament that some are blessed with writing talent far beyond our own) , probably doesn’t remember this, but we had an email exchange regarding the “two-headed coin” nature of Imposter Syndrome after he wrote about the phenomenon as a fellow dropout. Our suspicion (then, that is -TNC is big enough now he might be cured) was that it is impossible for the non-afflicted to understand how powerful it is as a motivating force. The anxiety that has you living in fear that some intern in HR will arbitrarily decide to audit CVs to fill downtime peaks every once in a while, but the same tendency to look over your shoulder has you also living in fear of “average”. For Imposters, average isn’t good enough – everything you do, every report, seminar, meeting, has to exceed the acceptable, exemplifying some skill or talent that not only proves you belong, but that no contrary evidence will be sufficient to justify your departure. I summarize this process as reaching for the “objectively good”, implying that even if Warren Buffet read your report, he would be forced to acknowledge its well-argued validity.

It is not difficult to see then that Imposters and biz school grads are inherently at odds. At their worst, biz grads interpret graduation as a kind of club membership or voucher ensuring that they will never have to work hard again. The easiest way to tweak the bizknobs is to ask them whether “Sense of Entitlement”  was a first or second year course in their program. Those that laugh tend to be the ones you want to work with and the ones that get pissed off are the people to avoid like the plague. This tweaking, however, is grounded in the most base kind of jealousy – the Wharton grad has the affirmation the Imposter craves most.

There we have it. I’m not sure what I’ve done here but at the very least those who’ve read this far will realize that the Interloper pseudonym was not lightly chosen. Certainly I’m concerned at this point that some readers, confronting my anonymity, have projected a back history that varies dramatically from what I’ve written here and are somehow disappointed. I can live with that if even one person is heartened by evidence that lives do have “second acts” on occasion.

25 thoughts on “Impostor Syndrome

  1. D says:

    What’s that syndrome when anytime somebody else talks about a syndrome, you think you have it? Cause I have that.

    Welcome back Interloper!

  2. Bob says:

    My wife has this. It is a powerful retardant on one’s propensity to take career risk. Perhaps it makes one unable to properly assess career risk. Don’t know, but it is definitely not helpful.

  3. Rohit says:

    All immigrants (me included) have some pieces of this syndrome. In my experience i’ve noticed that it makes me really humble, which always works out well

  4. Rohit says:

    and welcome back. We missed you :)

  5. anonymous says:

    Thanks for this post. All true comments. As a black immigrant who happened to do well in both academics and athletics as a youth, I always got the sense that I never really fit into any defined group or category. Looking back on my youth – as recognized by you and TNC – I realize that this sense was the most significant motivating factor for me. It was simply that I had to do better and be better than others or that somehow, someway someone would find out that I did not belong and pull my card.

  6. tm says:

    I’ve noticed that several female bosses that I’ve had suffered from this. Although I think one or two really were imposters, lol. They were solely motivated by fear, but this put them in a perpetually defense posture / worldview. Is there a difference between just being insecure, and having imposter syndrome?

    • Interloper says:

      I think so. Imposter Syndrome is intensely internal, IMO, so it’s hard to guess if someone else is affected by it. Certainly there’s a lot of other sources of workplace anxiety besides feeling like an Imposter, partic for women.

  7. tw says:

    I am hoping that this represents one of many future “meals for a lifetime”.


  8. kris says:

    What you did is called confession. I’ve done few of these; it is really cathartic. Your decision to be and remain anonymous is wise. That’s the whole point of a confession. But…but, I’ve never ever done a public one. I am still at awe. You have a lot of force.
    However, from the very beginning I understood what your unidentified uncertainty is. It’s called “peak”. Sir, there is no such a thing as “life peak”. It does not exist. The true reality is “every day is better than the previous day” if you choose so. Even misery is a choice for those who want it.
    The past is gone, the future hasn’t happened yet. I strongly recommend you live the present, but ultimately it’s your choice. The future is a sequential built up of presents. Life is so, so, so, so, so beautiful.
    Enjoy your day, and the day after, and the one after …….

  9. hutrade says:

    great stuff Interloper. Speaks volumes and GREAT to see how responsive others are here….good to my soul indeed….b/c I can totally relate.

    As a matter of fact, I’ve been dealing with this very consciousness as of late and if it’s any value, I have found that confronting my unknown, getting my back, and internalizing greater self-worth have helped me tremendously in this regard. I also have to give credit to good friends being there for me, to sharing (like this confession….it truly is good for the Soul), and prayer as all great support systems too. But enough of me!! Great post and thank you for caring enough to share this with us all.

    You truly rock!!! Really the best of us live outside the box….and that’s WHY we end up where we do. God is great and life is crazy!!! LOL ;D Cheers!

    • Interloper says:

      Thx for comment. It’s a complicated thing. For instance, I dont ever, at this point, worry about my ability – its the judgment of me by others that freaks me out. Now, in a psych sense this doesn’t matter but in a career sense in finance it is key.

      • hutrade says:

        Indeed. What you are talking about is where the “rubber hits the road” in many cases. Money and “survival” definitely complicate the spiritual life. Enter the REAL Trust and Faith factor to be sure. To be who you are and stand in the face of the unknown AND to be abundant, rich, and wealthy…truly the way is straight and narrow my friend. ;0

        Personally I reference to the patriarchs of old from the book of Genesis all the way up to the culmination of their works as seen in King Solomon’s life and times as a fascinating reference point of how to live in this “material” world AND also in a state of the buddhist “logic tree” as you put it. Also one of the most poetic and touching lines by Jesus refers to the “lilies of the field” and “the fowls of the air” regarding this very topic as well. (see Matthew 6:25 – Matthew 6:34 ; I fancy the King James Version myself).

        Cheers mate and good on you!!! :D

  10. ToNYC says:

    Paradigm shift: Read “Self-Remembering” by Robert Earl Burton who developed Ouspensky’s extension of Gurdjieff’s quest. Find your teachers on the fly; they will not advertise. The point is getting over your Self and see the Divine beauty that exists without you and separate from the meanings they threw at you before you had a chance.

    • Interloper says:

      Agree, but again it’s complicated in the sense that mental health has to be fitted into your work life. I have done a lot of reading on Buddhism and find total validity in the “all pain comes from desire” logic tree. But this is unhelpful when you have a mortgage.

  11. Chip says:

    Just a detail, but the link you attribute to Ritholtz is actually a guest poster on Barry’s blog, Bob Lefsetz.

  12. Fellow Imposter says:

    THANK YOU for this post. It’s been awhile since I’ve related so well to a blog post. As a woman and biz school grad (who laughed out loud at the ‘sense of entitlement’ line) who grew up on a farm w/ no connections to wall street; and who has now worked on both the buy and sell sides you have seriously relayed how I feel EVERY DAY. You are very brave to say it out loud, and you have a lot of people who move along in silence with you.

  13. Danks18 says:

    I have seen this phenomenon as well. I think people with this affliction also tend to (subconsciously) look for bosses who are never happy with their work and who are tyrannical. It seems as the abuse the boss heaps on them, “confirms” their subconscious feelings of imposterdom. Also, when the abusive boss throws them a bone, only then can they feel momentary relief. A reasonable boss would not fulfill that subconscious need.

    The psyche of the abusive boss is another matter but it seems like a fitting feedback loop for what goes on Wall Street.

  14. […] A look at “imposter syndrome” and how it manifests itself.  (Interloper) […]

  15. Rohit says:

    thought of you when i saw this :

  16. JT says:

    This seems not entirely dissimilar to the feeling of having a parent who’s achieved tremendous success, especially if they came from relatively nothing. It’s more than having a chip on the shoulder; more like constantly battling between knowing you can do as well if not better, and the every day realization that you haven’t yet, no matter how many times you’ve succeeded

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